Going off the grid: New power sources, efficiencies looking good

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Entire neighborhood will bask in cheap energy

SILVERTHORNE, Colo. - Here at BigHorn Ace Hardware, down the aisle from the wing nuts and behind the coils of rope and chain, Don Sather thinks he has a fix for the nation's looming power crisis.

Sather's solution isn't some gizmo buried deep in his store's inventory of 25,000 tools and parts.

It's the store itself. BigHorn Hardware is a cathedral to energy efficiency and conservation.

Mountain sunlight from an azure sky streams through slit windows that soar 35 feet overhead. Natural light bathes rows of sledgehammers, cleaning supplies and wheelbarrows like pews in the nave. Fans swirl a cool breeze through the hushed space. No Muzak, no neon, no talking displays.

The home-improvement center, which stretches nearly the length of a city block, is 9,000 feet high in the Rocky Mountains, pinned between the Continental Divide and the Eagles Nest Wilderness. Despite its unforgiving location, the store uses one-third less energy than a conventional building of similar size - even in winter.

Energy experts say the BigHorn method blends many efficient products already on the market. No NASA prototypes or Rube Goldberg contraptions allowed. They say the store's performance could be reproduced almost any place where energy costs and demand are rising.

"Photovoltaics, extra insulation, efficiency windows, radiant heating in the floor." Sather recites the store's design features.

"If we're not using all of our power, the meter runs backward and we sell it to the power grid," he said. "With a little tweaking, we should reduce consumption by 62 percent."

Distributed generation

A year ago, America's SUV culture would have dismissed Sather as an eccentric befuddled by thin mountain air. Renewable and alternative energy systems could never pay for themselves in a world glowing with cheap fossil fuels, right?

Today, Sather is an emerging hero. California's first planned blackouts since World War II and spiraling utility bills nationwide have alarmed Americans about something that previous generations took for granted - affordable, reliable power.

The cornerstone of the nation's power supply remains the power grid. It gathers electricity from more than 3,000 generating stations and hurls it like thunderbolts along some 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines spreading like a spider web from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

Conventional power sources - oil, gas, coal and nuclear - are supplemented by some renewable sources such as huge hydropower dams and a growing number of wind-powered propeller "farms."

But increasingly, customers both large and small are turning to a variety of alternative technologies that use less power, or that generate their own electricity away from the grid: "distributed generation."

Cost once discouraged such talk. Grid power might be dirty and inefficient, but it was four to five times cheaper than, say, solar.

Today, everybody's talking about reliability and security. According to some estimates, 20 percent of new power sources by 2010 will be distributed, not centralized.

Turning to microturbines

New York City got the message. Fearing a summer power shortage, it is shoehorning 10 smaller generators into neighborhoods, bypassing aging transmission lines. They should yield 400 megawatts, or enough electricity to power 400,000 homes.

Smaller still are microturbines, which produce up to a megawatt apiece with very low emissions. At about $35,000 per unit, as many as 20 units can be clustered to power individual businesses.

In Chicago, the Goose Island Beer Co. has purchased a "six-pack" of microturbines from Capstone Turbine Corp. The devices are based on the same technology as a jet engine and are powered by natural gas, diesel or a variety of other gaseous or liquid fuels.

Capstone shipped 242 microturbine systems in the fourth quarter of 2000 alone.

Why? Since mid-December, the brewery and the rest of the nation's food industry watched aghast as rolling blackouts forced California dairies to hastily dump tons of milk in wastewater ponds.

"California has caused people to get off the fence and make decisions about their power future," said Capstone Vice President Mark Kuntz.

Banking on fuel cells

Another alternative power unit, the fuel cell, has been powering NASA spacecraft since the 1960s. On the ground, fuel cells have been difficult to mass-produce but have recently enjoyed some major technological advancements.

A fuel cell makes electricity in a chemical reaction of oxygen and hydrogen. Its only "exhaust" is water and heat.

Since 1999, the First National Bank of Omaha has relied on a quartet of fuel cells to power its electronic banking center, including ATMs and $6 million in credit-card purchases per hour.

The system generates twice as much power as needed. In the winter, the bank uses its hot water to melt snow and heat the tunnels leading to parking lots.

Dennis Hughes, the bank's property-management director, fields fuel-cell inquiries every day, especially from Silicon Valley.

"Telecommunications, financial services, data-center operators," Hughes said. "They all want to come to Omaha for the tour."

But for most people, installing their own off-grid power source - be it fuel cell, microturbine, windmill or solar panel - remains impractical and too expensive. As the cost of electricity from the grid goes up, however, that perception may change.

A Btu saved is a Btu earned

Many experts say the nation would save more energy faster if local users - schools, office parks, subdivisions - would add high-tech supplementary systems that produce enough juice to avoid a grid crisis during demand peaks.

Better still, they recommend adopting simple, more efficient ways to use energy already being produced, such as BigHorn Ace Hardware has done.

That means building new stores and homes to stricter standards and installing improved systems and appliances. In 1999, the nation saved 29 million Btu of energy this way, according to the Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy.

(A Btu, or British thermal unit, measures the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of a pound of water one degree Fahrenheit.)

"A Btu is a Btu, whether it comes from a coal-fired generating station or reducing energy use," said David Hamilton, the alliance's policy director.

"It has been hard for people to think of efficiency as a supply option," Hamilton said. "Traditionally supply is something you burn, like a lump of coal or a barrel of oil. Few people recognize that if you displace a Btu and put it back into supply, it has the same energy."

In Northern California, San Mateo County plans to close its five-story government center one day per week. Savings: $80,000 annually.

The efficiency option

Better still, experts say, is to plan efficiencies into a building's design so it remains open and productive.

That was Sather's approach at the BigHorn store, with help from engineers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

BigHorn's metal roof has integrated photovoltaic panels on the south side to directly convert intense mountain sunlight into electricity, much like a solar-powered handheld calculator. It yields 9 kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to cover 25 percent of the center's power demand.

Windows reduce the use of compact fluorescent lamps to a few hours per day.

The energy lab's computer models predicted the building's performance and energy savings.

"Reduced lighting eliminated the need for air conditioning," said the lab's Paul Torcellini. "You can start downsizing all the equipment."

Perhaps the most innovative feature is BigHorn's 22,000-square-foot warehouse. Its south wall is made of brown metal to soak up the sun's rays and heat a high-tech insulating film behind it.

Inside, fans collect the heat and blow 70-degree air through long fabric ducts. Workers stay warm even with the doors open and trucks driving in and out.

Efficiency, not sacrifice

Sather remembers that his store is unique only when he writes a noticeably smaller check to Xcel, the region's gas and electricity provider. Otherwise it's the hardware business - cut a pane of glass, shake a can of paint.

"I've never had a complaint about the store being uncomfortable," Sather said.

Retail consultants preach that a store's environment must be exceptionally controlled so the public will concentrate on spending, not shivering. Brighter and warmer equals profit.

Ace Hardware even has nationwide rules about minimum light on the showroom floor - enough candlepower, say, to read the fine print on a box of rose food.

Yet nothing at BigHorn is hindering the pastime of shopping.

"You don't have to live and work in the dark to be energy efficient," Torcellini said. "You just have to plan."