December 14, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
Businesses depend on certainty. And if there’s one thing that’s certain, the impacts of climate change, coupled with other persistent challenges like supply chain disruptions and cyberattacks, are imposing unprecedented uncertainty on business leaders.
New England will experience regular rolling blackouts each winter in as soon as three years — and sky-high bills as quickly as this winter. Wildfires and soaring summer temperatures have already left Californians expecting seasonal blackouts as a fact of life.
For the business leaders, city managers and energy executives responsible for ensuring that their operations continue no matter the weather or the temperature, the time to secure safe, reliable, affordable onsite electricity is yesterday.
New, cost-effective forms of onsite electricity generation are wholly reshaping how businesses — and policymakers — think about the grid, reliability and even core business models. Operational continuity now means having an energy solution that’s not only resilient and affordable, but also fuel-flexible and clean.
What does that look like? Ultimately it looks like replacing dirty diesel backup generators with technologies that can run 100 percent clean fuels, such as biofuel and green hydrogen, any time to track varying building demands and ensure maximum benefits from onsite resources like rooftop solar, as well as serve as backup whenever needed.
And all this must be accomplished at relatively low cost in order to be truly sustainable over the long term. The benefit of adding these assets to the grid, either as customer-owned onsite generators or utility-owned and locally sited generation, is that they will provide clean, firm power that will allow us to add even more renewables to the grid overall.
Not all the pieces are in place today to run 100 percent clean fuels broadly and affordably. However, we’re already seeing this business evolution: In August, Pacific Gas & Electric Company announced a pilot project in Napa County with a linear generator running directed biogas to displace a diesel generator in fire season public safety power shutoff events. Other companies are looking at new options in fuel-flexible generators that integrate well with renewables and dynamically switch among fuels, to start their journey with natural gas today and transition over time to 100 percent clean fuels as they become more widely available.
New sources of onsite electricity generation unlock myriad benefits for forward-thinking business leaders — continuity being chief among them, along with increased price certainty and new sources of revenue. Unlike traditional diesel backup, which sits idle, cleaner onsite generation can be used for both backup power and everyday power, providing businesses with significant savings since it is often cheaper than the grid. When generating electricity in parallel with the electric grid, business owners can both ensure greater cost predictability and, when using renewable fuels, sell surplus power back to the electric utility — adding revenue while also providing a service to the broader community.
There are further benefits, as well. As businesses grow and need more power — be they manufacturers, warehouses, data centers or simply local offices adding EV chargers to the company parking lot — onsite generation provides critical “speed to power,” freeing companies from having to depend on costly utility upgrades that can take years to complete.
As businesses, utilities and local governments seek to assert greater control over their futures and their balance sheets, while also becoming more sustainable, onsite generation becomes the critical piece of electrifying any number of assets, from fleet vehicle chargers to cost-effective heat pumps. No matter whether there’s a grid outage, onsite power ensures that those clean assets remain operational.
For businesses to thrive in the 21st century — or avoid costly outages during crises — it’s not enough to simply pay the electric bill. Nor is it acceptable to manage the risk with polluting diesel generators that contribute to the source of the problem. As rising temperatures, extreme weather, cyberattacks, and surging sea levels pose an existential threat to an aging and outdated power grid ill-equipped to handle the new normal, more blackouts are inevitable.
Whether you’re running a hospital, a data center or simply a local office or store on Main Street, the new class of onsite generation is providing the security and the insurance that business leaders need to succeed even amid the unpredictable.
Adam Simpson is chief product officer and founder of Mainspring Energy, previously serving as a research assistant at Sandia National Laboratories and with the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University.
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Correction: Due to contributor error, a previous version of this op-ed mistakenly suggested that battery storage is a form of onsite generation.