Keeping the Power On

Posted: July 1, 2021

By Sheena Marrs

CLIMATE CHANGE—one of the hottest topics of the last few decades—has triggered rules and regulations that impact business operations and specify the type of products manufacturers can produce. But even
the most well-intended federal regulations crafted to protect the masses can have negative implications for some of the most vulnerable populations.

In 1996, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted rules to reduce emissions from stationary diesel generators. The regulation established tiers of standards to be implemented over 20 years. It required utilities such as Alaska Village Electric Cooperative— which operates these types of generator systems—to install Tier 4 replacement engines after 2014.

Generator manufacturers found they could meet Tier 1 to 3 standards with improved mechanical designs and computer-assisted timing to limit emissions. To meet Tier 4 requirements, manufacturers added particulate filters and urea injection to exhaust gases. Unfortunately, these add-ons are costly and difficult to maintain off the road system—and most Tier 3 and 4 engines provide poorer fuel economy than similar-sized earlier models.

For remote Alaskan communities that depend on diesel generators as their primary power supply, this results in higher energy costs and could result in times of extended power loss for entire communities during the winter months.

Understanding the harsh realities of remote Alaskan communities—a high cost of living, extremely cold and harsh weather, and logistical challenges—Alaska’s lawmakers set out to represent the more than 200 communities impacted by the compression ignition new source performance standard to ensure stable power remains viable.

Their efforts were recognized in revisions to the EPA regulations. Exceptions were added for small remote communities in Alaska, allowing pre-2006 engines to be remanufactured and reused.
The Alaska Remote Generator Reliability and Protection Act rolled back the requirement for remote Alaskan villages that do not receive federal road system funding and are not connected to the state grid, allowing installation of new Tier 3 marine engines instead of requiring Tier 4.

AVEC has a long history of using technology and resources to maximize fuel efficiency and further its ability to offer reliable and affordable power to its members. The new tier regulation threatens operations.
The Tier 2 CAT 3456 and Detroit Diesel Series 60 six-cylinder engines have become AVEC’s engines of choice in the ranges of 300 to 500 kilowatts and 150 to 350 kW. They are operationally dependable for AVEC power plants, offering fuel economy, reliability and a long life cycle. Notably, they allow for a marine manifold to be installed, which distinguishes them from others in their class. The marine manifold helps with heat recovery, allowing for a reduction of fuel used for heating water and building spaces.

While the EPA amendments played out well for AVEC and its members, it has changed how the cooperative buys generators for its facilities— centered on cost-effective production while remaining compliant with applicable regulations. As part of the original ruling, manufacturers of compression ignition engines were required to stop production of Tier 2 engines beginning in 2006, which means the engines AVEC buys are always used.

AVEC Operations Manager Dan Allis has become familiar with the unique resale market.

Many utilities supported by the Rural Utilities Service, including AVEC, operate on long lead times, buying engines years in advance of installation.
Because inventory is sporadic, AVEC buys the engines as they become available.

The engine purchasing criteria is limited by several factors: a manufacture date before 2006, low engine runtime, condition and cost. Used standby generators from telecommunications companies and hospitals
make ideal purchases. These industries generally perform generator upgrades every 10 to 15 years, and the engines tend to have low run times because they are used only during power outages or emergencies.
Before buying, the engines undergo a four- hour load bank test. Data sheets are reviewed to verify the condition. Once the purchase is final, the generators are hauled to Seattle and barged to Alaska. Occasionally, local inventory becomes available, offering significant savings in shipping costs.

Generators are often rebuilt or modified to meet the requirements of AVEC’s facilities. NC Machinery has performed many of the rebuilds, which costs as much as $300,000 for larger 12- and 16-cylinder engines.
Dan compares the process as going to the salvage yard looking for a spare part for your vehicle, noting, “When you find what you’re looking for, you buy it.”
Because there are always constraints in time, cost and availability, Dan sets his eyes on the future, with a goal to always have a supply of generators ready for use. ■