02 March 2001
Alternative energy: Not ready for prime time
Wind, solar, and hydro power are renewable and clean but susceptible to interruptionsa high-pressure system might park overhead, clouds might move in for several days, the stream might dry upthat make them poor candidates as standby power for facilities that need to stay in business even if the local power company is having a bad day.
For the near term, and perhaps for a good while to come, oil-derivative or natural gas-fueled generators are going to be the backup of choice for facilities that can't go down and send their people home until the lights come back on.
The Honeywell Parallon 75 is typical of generators aimed at the industrial market. Weighing in at nearly 3,000 pounds and filling a space 92 inches long by 85 inches high by 48 inches wide, the generator consumes 1,000 cubic feet per hour of natural gas to produce 75 kilowatts; up to 14 of the units can produce on the order of
1 megawatt of power. Optional batteries are available to maintain power automatically in the event of a blackout.
The cost of the Honeywell unit is approximately $60,000, said Michael Timmerman, a Honeywell spokesman. Honeywell and its primary generator competitor, Capstone, each shipped 20-25 megawatts of generating capacity last year.
A few companies are trying to stay off the grid altogether. SolarHost, a Warrenton, Va.-based Internet service provider (www.solarhost.com), relies on solar power exclusively to keep its servers up and running. Its system uses 24 Siemens solar panels and 4,000 pounds of batteries at a cost of $100,000 and has been offline fewer than
15 minutes since December 1999.
Some other companies are buying all their power from alternative energy producers. Outdoor clothing maker Patagonia, for instance, purchases all its power from a wind farm. Patagonia is still connected to the traditional power grid, though, and is susceptible to blackouts. But a will to use clean energy, which Patagonia has, and widespread hostility toward new power plants are combining to make alternative energy commercially feasible.
PacifiCorp is building a 450-turbine wind farm near Walla Walla, Wash., that should generate on the order of 300 megawattswhen the wind is blowing, that is.