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Big Power Sometimes Comes in Small Packages

Key Points
  • Natural gas-fueled microturbines generate heat and power for a wide range of facilities.
  • Advantages include lower energy costs and emissions, as well as a small footprint.
  • When an absorption chiller is combined with a microturbine system, cooling is provided.

Sometimes smaller is better. Facilities around the country are finding that out after they install natural gas-fueled microturbines for backup or onsite power. Typically ranging in size from 30 kW to 250 kW, demand for global microturbine installations are expected to surpass $1 billion annually (more than 4.0 GW) by 2020, according to Navigant Research.

MicroturbineIn addition to lower energy costs, potential benefits include:

  • Fewer emissions without requiring exhaust after-treatment
  • Few moving parts, reducing maintenance
  • Long service interval — around 8,000 hours
  • Fuel flexibility, including biogas and flare gas
  • Durability and reliability
  • Long life — between 15 and 20 years
  • Group operation for increased capacity and redundancy
  • Low noise and near-zero vibration for sensitive installations
  • Smaller footprint for installations in multiple locations or on the roof

Microturbine installations: big success stories 

Applications include educational facilities, healthcare institutions, hotels, manufacturing plants, data centers and multi-family apartment buildings.

Six 60-kW microturbines provide power security to a data center at a Houston engineering and construction company. At an administration building of the Boeing company nearby, a microturbine is the prime power source for its data/telecom systems.

Healthcare facilities like Syracuse VA Medical Center are installing microturbine systems to provide backup power in case of a power outage. The center installed eight natural gas-fueled 65-kW turbines on its roof to make the best use of space. The system produces 520 kW of electricity, as well as hot water for the 398-bed hospital.

In 2004, the Toledo Museum of Art became the site of Ohio’s first microturbine installation. Two more units were added in 2012. Today, the system supplies 260 kW of electricity and 1.6 million Btu of heat, allowing the museum to generate 15 percent of its own power. 

After Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia installed three microturbines on the roof, the hotel reduced its energy cost by more than $80,000 within the first two months. The system generates nearly 200 kW of electric power, while providing all of the building's domestic hot water and 15 percent of its heating demand. 

Manufacturing companies are also getting into the act. Owens Corning’s Delmar, NY insulation plant installed three 65-kW microturbines to generate heat and hot water for the bathroom and kitchen areas. Central Ohio's Pearl Valley Cheese Inc. installed a 65-kW microturbine that runs on methane gas produced from recycled wastewater, saving the company more than $40,000 per year in electricity costs.

When you combine a microturbine system with an absorption chiller, you also get cooling. This is known as 'trigeneration.' Such as system at Washtenaw Community College generates 130 kW of electricity, 800,000 Btu per hour of hot water and 50 tons of chilled water, saving $60,000 in utility costs. 

Installation of microturbines at solid waste treatment facilities is also increasing as the industry takes advantage of landfill biogas. Lopez Canyon Landfill's microturbine facility in California is one of the largest in the world.

Organizations investing in microturbines realize that for every dollar saved on energy, a dollar can be invested in other projects, whether these be equipment upgrades, educational programming or improving patient care.

Image: U.S. Department of Energy

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