Turbine Wait Stalls Power Boost

By eweek  |  Posted 2001-02-12

A worldwide shortage of small power plants will make it difficult for companies in California and elsewhere to reduce their reliance on the strained public power grid.

San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales recently announced his city will streamline its permitting process so that small on-site power plants "can be built quickly" and reduce the citys reliance on Californias thin power supplies.

But the shortage of the gas-fired turbines used in distributed generation, along with environmental and infrastructure issues, will keep companies in San Jose and elsewhere harnessed to the grid for many months to come. Thats bad news for California, which desperately needs more generating capacity. Energy analysts predict widespread power shortages this summer because abnormally dry winter weather is reducing the amount of hydroelectric power available to electric utilities.

San Jose International Airport as well as Cisco Systems, Exodus Communications, U.S. Data Port and others in Silicon Valley are looking at using distributed generation. But the hardware they will need is in short supply.

"Demand has been extraordinary," said Jim Parker, director of the electric power group at Caterpillar, one of the biggest suppliers of electric generation equipment. Customers interested in 5-megawatt gas-fired turbines made by Caterpillars subsidiary, Solar Turbines, must wait about six months for delivery. Larger units, including the companys 13-megawatt turbines, take nearly a year. Officials at General Electric, the worlds biggest supplier of gas turbines, gave similar delivery times for its products.

Even if companies in Silicon Valley are able to get the equipment they need immediately, they still need a permit from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which can take 90 days or more to review applications. In addition to the permits, companies with new power plants need to connect with local power lines so they can trade power with the utility. But utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric often dont have the capability to handle bidirectional flows of power, and installing the needed equipment can take weeks or months.

Early last year, U.S. Data Port, which is planning a massive data center campus north of San Jose, began pursuing the permits it needs to install a 49-megawatt power plant. It wont get the permits until mid-March — at the earliest.

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