Grid instability drives demand for commercial backup power
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California businesses are growing more cautious of relying on the grid, which has been good business for Blue Star Gas.
The Santa Rosa–based propane supplier recently launched a dedicated generator division to help meet growing demand for backup power.
“We saw tremendous growth and interest in the product in California,” says Mark Leitman, director of Blue Star Power Generation. Blue Star Gas has invested in power generation and today profitably sells, installs, and services commercial backup and prime power generators, winning them the Kohler Power Products ‘Dealer of the Year’ Award for the Western Region of the U.S.
The Golden State’s aging infrastructure strains under the impact of prolonged heatwaves, and the seasonal threat of destructive wildfires — powerlines have been a culprit — prompts utility providers to proactively shut off power during extreme weather conditions. Buildings without supplemental power risk spoiled food, data loss, offline emergency medical equipment, inaccessible critical infrastructure, and other costly disruptions.
“When you combine all those things together, we’ve had a lot of opportunity to provide peace of mind that comes with a backup power system,” Leitman says. “They can keep their business operating during periods of utility instability.”
According to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the region’s air pollution control agency, the number of backup generators increased 34 percent since 2018, the year of the deadliest and most destructive wildfire season in the state’s history. Businesses installing standby generators include supermarkets and convenience stores (any operation that requires refrigeration), medical facilities, data centers, first responders, airports, and more.
Cleaner backup power
Blue Star’s generator division comes as manufacturers have made several welcome advancements to the product category, particularly larger-capacity models powered by propane. This has given businesses more options beyond diesel-fueled generators, which have historically dominated the commercial market. Compared with diesel, propane offers several advantages: It’s cheaper, it doesn’t degrade or require costly maintenance, burns cleaner, and poses zero contamination risk in the event of a spill. Plus, propane generators tend to be quieter than diesel-powered units all while still meeting life safety codes that require 72 hours of onsite fuel storage.
To make gaseous generators (those fueled by propane or natural gas) more competitive with their diesel counterparts, Kohler made several performance upgrades: The manufacturer’s line of larger-capacity gaseous generators meets stringent Tier 4 emissions standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That means they exhaust less particulate matter, oxides of nitrogen, and other pollutants. New gaseous standby generators also meet the National Fire Protection Association’s Type 10 requirements, which stipulate that the units provide power within 10 seconds of an outage. That’s crucial for hospitals, data centers, water-treatment facilities, and other critical infrastructure.
“The large gaseous generator market is growing, and because of improved technology, it allows gaseous to compete directly with diesel,” says Amy Haese, who manages Kohler’s line of gas-type generators. “If a customer is looking for an environmentally friendly generator, gaseous may be a better option than diesel.”
What businesses need to know about backup power
Size it up. Commercial generators range from 5 kW to 400 kW capacities. Businesses owners and facility managers should work closely with their trade partners to specify the size of backup generator.
Give it space. A commercial generator can take up a sizable footprint. An 80–150 kW standby generator can measure roughly 12 feet long and 5 feet wide. You’ll need a 500-gallon or larger propane tank, too. Your trade partners will help with site selection and ensure a code-compliant installation.
Factor it into the design. The easiest way to install a standby generator is to work it into the blueprints. “Anyone in the building trades or in the design stage of the project should consider working the backup power needs into the initial design,” Leitman advises. Consider isolating the critical loads for more efficient backup power.