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“We’re going to keep developing this technology until we get to the point where small generators can be just as reliable and even lower-cost than big power grids.” —Joe Landon, CEO and President
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Global power needs are growing faster than reliable power grids can be built.
Distribute off-grid, hybrid power systems.
Prior to joining Planetary Power as its CEO and President, Joe Landon led spaceflight program development at Space Adventures Ltd., the first company to send a tourist into space. “We saw space exploration as one of the grand challenges of humanity,” says Landon.
Today, Landon considers himself a recovering aerospace engineer who has turned his focus to a more worldly—but equally fascinating—challenge. “At Planetary Power, one of our key goals is helping humanity make the most efficient use of its existing energy resources here on Earth,” says Landon. Their belief in the potential of solar energy stems from the team’s earlier work and interest in space.
Much of the world’s power—especially in areas without a reliable centralized power grid—is supplied by inefficient and environmentally harmful diesel generators. Conventional wisdom holds that the intermittent nature of solar and wind power makes them unreliable to supply on-demand power. The lack of integrated storage capability combined with backup power to overcome this risk, perceived or otherwise, has been an obstacle to the spread of renewables to micro-grids.
Planetary Power saw the challenge of scaling renewables in remote or underdeveloped regions as an opportunity. At the request of the U.S. Navy, which is eager to reduce its dependence on fuel, Planetary Power began a fast-track design exploration of HyGen, a hybrid generator that combines a conventional diesel energy generator with the ability to run on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, and an integrated energy control and storage system.
“We’re starting small, where people are not yet connected to the grid; but what we’re driving towards is a distributed renewable energy infrastructure that no longer requires big power plants and a power grid.”
—Joe Landon, CEO and President, Planetary Power
From a design perspective, creating a working prototype of the HyGen in six to eight months posed interesting challenges. The ultimate goals were to create a distributed generation system that could reliably and cost-effectively create and store relatively small amounts of power where it was needed—often in remote areas far from the power grid—and replace conventional diesel generators as the primary source of power.
Conventional diesel generators are highly inefficient, consuming almost as much fuel—and producing almost as many emissions—under low loads as under high ones. So under normal operations HyGen’s control system only engages its diesel engine when the batteries are depleted to a certain level. When necessary, the diesel engine can also be used to supplement power from the batteries.
When wind or solar energy are added to the mix, HyGen becomes even more efficient, using as many renewable resources as possible to top off the batteries and resorting to the diesel engine for charging only at night or when the wind is not blowing. By balancing energy production with energy storage, HyGen provides a reliable and less-polluting, off-grid solution.
Many of the components within HyGen—such as the engine, alternator, and fuel tank—are off the shelf parts purchased from vendors. “What makes HyGen unique is how we put them all together,” says Landon.
The design team had to determine the optimum way to fit all of the conventional diesel generator components plus the control system and batteries into the shape of a conventional diesel generator. In addition, Planetary Power had to isolate the hot engine from the batteries, which require a relatively cool environment.
The design team used a variety of 3D design and finite element analysis tools to visualize the product and understand how to fit all of the required components together. At regular intervals, the team would print 3D prototypes to perform a fit-check. “You can understand a lot from a 3D model,” says Landon. “But at a certain point there is no substitute for a physical prototype.”
Being able to print the assembly onsite and on demand for under $2,000—instead of the tens of thousands charged by a third-party prototype manufacturer—helped the design team discover design flaws in a matter of days instead of months. “We just upload our file to the 3D printer and the parts show up in a couple of days,” says Landon. “It’s very easy.”
The hybrid generator can cost two to three times as much as a conventional diesel generator, but with a payback time of only one and a half to two years, it is actually a money-saver. “That’s based both upon the money saved through reduced fuel consumption and the longer lifecycle of the HyGen,” says Landon. “Durability testing has shown that HyGen can last as long as five to ten years.”
When fully commercialized, the HyGen has the potential to make generating electricity less resource-intensive and to replace many of the millions of diesels generators in use, such as those powering remote cell phone towers. “Companies all over the world are putting in cell towers in remote areas that lack electrical grids,” says Landon. Some estimates put the number of cell towers powered 24/7 by diesel at over 600,000, with more than 300,000 more scheduled for installation by 2019.
Replacing all of the diesel generators powering those towers with the HyGen “would reduce cell tower diesel consumption by about 80 percent, and lower the environmental impact of these towers,” says Landon.
Applying hybrid technology to diesel generators is not as revolutionary as what it enables. We’re going to keep developing this technology until we get to the point where small hybrid generation systems can be just as reliable and even lower-cost than big power grids. That is what’s revolutionary. We’re starting small, where people are not yet connected to the grid; but what we’re driving towards is a distributed renewable energy infrastructure that no longer requires big power plants and a power grid.
Our solution enables people and companies that currently use diesel fuel to power their generators to make the same amount of fuel last much longer and to expand their existing infrastructure faster. So whether it’s for telecommunications or for homes or factories, if you can’t get power, you can’t do anything. Even just to be healthy you need refrigeration. All these basic needs of moving from poverty to the middle class require a lot of energy. Our solution helps make that possible faster, because it requires fewer resources to generate comparable amounts of power.
The typical design process for a new product proceeds serially from engineering through design, analysis, and drawings to manufacturing. To produce a working prototype for the U.S. Navy, however, Planetary Power had to follow an aggressive schedule that required its engineering team to design and prototype concurrently. “We built the prototype from a 3D model and used a 3D printer to iteratively fabricate the prototype directly from that without ever generating 2D drawings,” says Landon. This rapid, iterative process reduced development time and cost. “By going through the process of modeling, printing plastic prototypes, and then immediately assessing our progress and making any necessary changes, we were able to cut months off of our development time and save hundreds of thousands of dollars.”