The Autogas Research & Technology Center is a reminder that the systems that power our buildings and businesses are in a never-ending cycle of reinvention. That innovation is what drove Blossman Services to install a propane-fueled combined heat and power (CHP) unit and roof-mounted photovoltaics (PV) in its new 12,000-square-foot facility in Asheville, North Carolina. The company expects the combined systems to produce all of the center’s power — 40 percent from solar and 60 percent from the CHP unit — and reduce emissions by 68 percent compared with using power from the grid.
The building will house offices, an appliance showroom, and a training facility focused on alternative fuels. Blossman is part of Ocean Springs, Mississippi–based Alliance Autogas, a consortium of companies that helps businesses convert their vehicle fleets from gasoline to clean propane autogas. The distributor also sells, installs, and services appliances that use propane or natural gas.
Blossman Services president and CEO Stuart Weidie expects the cogeneration unit to reshape the way people think about their power source. “We’re calling it the building of the future because we believe on-site power generation is a much more efficient and environmentally friendly way to produce electricity for homes and businesses,” he says. “When power comes from off-site, you’re only getting about 30 percent of the generated electricity at your plug. More than 30 percent of the energy is lost in production, and another 30 percent is lost in transmission over power lines.” Adoption of these mini-power-plant systems has been slow, as manufacturers work to reduce the technology cost and increase awareness.
While CHP units are costly upfront, incentives are available to improve the return on investment. The Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), for instance, offers incentives of up to $10,000 through the Propane Heat & Power Incentive Program to homeowners and businesses that install CHP systems and agree to share their product usage experiences with PERC. That incentive will help Blossman Services reduce the payback period for its installation of a 10-kW CHP model. The CHP technology, from Yanmar, uses the waste heat made during the production of electricity from propane to fulfill all of the building’s hot water needs, enhancing payback efficiencies. (To calculate the payback for a CHP installation on your next project, download our CHP Opportunity Calculator.)
“We don’t have a tremendous hot water load here, but CHP is a great product for restaurants, hotels, and nursing homes that have large hot water demands,” Weidie says. It works with existing water pipes like a boiler and can be used with a forced-air ducted system by running hot-water coils through an air handler. Another bonus: “You can’t hear it operating,” Weidie adds. “The decibel level is as quiet as driving down the road.”
Asheville-based Haynes Energy Solutions installed the supplemental solar panels and set up the dual CHP/PV system for net metering. With net metering, any power not used will go back to the local utility, offsetting usage when demand is higher. The setup allows the business to be connected to the grid while avoiding the retail cost of electricity. “We tied the solar system into a new subpanel that goes into their main breaker panel,” says project manager Russell Blevens. “It’s a reversible meter so that if they’re sending power to the grid from either source, it will be measured as a credit to reduce costs.” Using CHP and solar together was no more complicated to set up than a typical net metering system, he adds.
“We’re calling it the building of the future because we believe on-site power generation is a much more efficient and environmentally friendly way to produce electricity.”
With electricity costs increasing, the roughly 88 percent efficient CHP units may offer significant savings. “As long as the electricity price in a region is at or above $0.14 per kW, the CHP system makes very good sense,” says Chris Dockery, application engineer at Yanmar. “When hot water can be used, the electricity produced is free, allowing for the most cost-effective use of the CHP.”
Weidie also is pleased that the CHP/PV combo is projected to offset 4.7 tons of CO2emissions annually. “To me it’s the equivalent of a main frame computer evolving into a PC,” Weidie says. “We think it’s directly where things could and should go.”