Thursday, May 24, 2018
Publication Date: 08/1/2007
Archive >  August 2007 Issue >  Tech-Op-Ed > 

Thinking Outside the Box
Walter Salm, Editor
I stopped the other day to peer through a temporary chain-link fence surrounding part of a hospital expansion construction site. Workers were still having a problem with a 50,000-gallon Diesel oil tank they had buried there months before. The tank was to serve the new Diesel powered emergency generators for the soon-to-be-expanded hospital. I couldn't help thinking "What a waste."

With a little bit of research and some thinking outside the box. hospital engineers could have set up a fuel cell generating plant that would provide numerous advantages over a Diesel generator. For one thing, Diesels generators are notorious for being difficult to start. Several years ago, a major Midwest bank credit card clearing house had a power outage; they couldn't get the Diesel generator started and many thousands of credit card transactions were dropped that day. The bank learned a lesson and installed 4 of UTC's 250kW fuel cell systems. They haven't had a problem since then.

With a fuel cell system installed and on line, the power source can run continuously, not just during emergencies. The power it generates using natural gas from the local utility company is significantly lower than the cost of a similar amount of power purchased from the grid. This, coupled with the Department of Energy's generous subsidy for fuel cell power plants means that the user can see a payoff date of only 5 or 6 years from the installation date.

Ecologically, the fuel cells also make a lot of sense. True, they do have three waste products: excess heat, water, and carbon dioxide. The CO2 can be largely mitigated by planting a cluster of trees around the fuel cells, since trees absorb and use CO2. The water vapor can be condensed and sent to the hospital's fresh water supply system. This is, after all, distilled water. And the excess heat can be piped into the building's HVAC system or used for co-generation of more electric power. True, the fuel cells will use up a valuable natural resource in the form of natural gas, but it's a much cleaner alternative than Diesel fuel or just using all that more power from the grid, which may be contributing to air pollution at the power plant site.

There is no free lunch here. Fuel cell systems of this type cost millions of dollars, but the U.S. DoE provides excellent subsidies that can reduce the purchase price by as much as 50 percent, making the system affordable even to public institutions like school systems, and certainly to hospitals.

So why aren't more people doing it? Stationary inertia and lack of information are probably the biggest stumbling blocks. "We've always used Diesel emergency generators, and they've worked just fine" is the general consensus. That, plus an overreaching distrust of new technology — even technology that has been proven for dozens of years under the harsh and unforgiving conditions of space travel. And we see this very same kind of short-sightedness in our industry — an almost perverse attitude of "doing it the way we've always done it" — a state of mind that is not only bad for business, it's bad for our economy in general. Tim Davis alludes to this attitude in his "Management" article that appears on page 16 of this issue of U.S. Tech. He cites the absolute necessity of using high levels of automation to return much-needed manufacturing to the U.S. One of the things that we still have here, in addition to our high level of technology is lots of energy; it may be costly, but we still have plenty to run our industry.

A lot of this capacity must of necessity come from thinking outside the box. Vast fields of solar panels have spring up on industrial rooftops and open areas to feed some very welcome "free" energy to commercial facilities. While it's still not a total solution, and a connection to the power grid is still essential, it takes some of the strain off the grid in a wonderful case of giveback — much of this energy is actually sold to the utility.

Next time you have an expansion project, or are looking for ways to improve your bottom line, think outside the box where energy is concerned. You might be surprised at just how much you can save with a little canny planning. Most important of all, make sure you are well informed about what's new and exciting out there; there's just no future in doing it the way you always have.  

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