In his 20 years of service in the combined heat and power (CHP) sector, Trevor Atkins has acquired a wealth of experience across control engineering, EPS systems and CHP engines for a breadth of applications, and a deep knowledge of their operation and maintenance. During his long career Trevor has worked with almost every aspect of CHP. He spoke with COSPP as he was winding up his work at UK packaged CHP firm Cogenco.
After leaving school at 16, Trevor joined the Royal Navy where he served for 24 years as a controls electrical artificer, maintaining weapons systems – missiles, gunnery systems, sonar systems and ship electrics – as well as working for 10 years in mine warfare. On his discharge he was awarded a British Empire Medal by the Queen for services to the Navy.
Newly discharged in 1988, he joined power solutions firm Holec, now called Hitec Power Protection Ltd, where he carried out service and commissioning on CHP and rotary UPS systems. When Holec split, forming a new company between Eastern Elecricity and newly-created Nedalo, Trevor moved across to Nedalo where he worked as project manager for five years. He recalls installing CHP systems for hotels, leisure centres and industrial and agricultural sites, and in the late 1990s he worked on the UK’s first combined heat and power system for greenhouses.
This was Nedalo’s first big project, at Tangmere Nurseries in Chichester. It was a £6.5 million ($9.9 million) contract, which Trevor project managed and helped design. It featured nine Cat 3516 engines with heat recovery and CO2 scrubbing systems, feeding exhaust gases back into the greenhouses to enhance crop growth. The firm went on to install similar systems at another 13 sites.
Around 2000, Trevor became an embedded manager with Nedalo. He managed 14 embedded generation sites, from 1 MW to 10 MW, plus a fleet of maintenance engineers, and was financially responsible for the sites and their maintenance.
Both Eastern Electricity, now known as TXU Europe, and Nedalo were owned by US firm Texas Utilities. Around the time that energy and commodities firm Enron declared bankruptcy, the power market price collapsed and Texas Utilities in Europe entered administration. In 2003 part of the business was acquired by npower, and some 12 months post-administration Nedalo was bought by its management team, making Trevor a minority shareholder in the business.
The four majority and six minority shareholders renamed the firm Cogenco and proceeded to rebuild it to manufacture and produce its own CHP systems. The company grew quickly and further funding was required, so it was sold to Dalkia in 2007. It is now owned by Veolia.
At the time of the TXU Europe administration, Nedalo sold off all but one of its embedded generation sites. Trevor took over as Operations Manager for the whole of Cogenco, which involved managing some 35 service engineers, seven to eight commissioning engineers/product specialists, and a budget of £10–11 million per year. This was his job until May of last year, when he was slated to retire. However, he was asked to stay on to wind up the firm’s 1999 contract with Tangmere Nurseries. Then, set to retire again, he was asked to stay on as a general advisor to management until Christmas, when he was asked to set up training programmes on new technology, control systems, air-to-fuel ratio controllers on engines, software system controls and a bespoke remote monitoring and control system.
Change and challenge
When asked about the biggest change he’s seen in the industry, Trevor said: ‘The biggest change is in engine technology, with the contrast between the very lean burn, very high efficiency engines which we have today and the old stoichiometric engines which weren’t too clean for the environment.
‘The biggest change engine-wise is efficiency and increased demand for lean burn/clean burn engines to come under the new emissions standards,’ he added. As to the biggest overall technology change, he cites how engine controls and electronics have shifted to digital controls. ‘Now it’s impossible to set the engine up without use of a laptop! A huge V20 engine is controlled from a laptop; all emissions, controls, closed-loop air-fuel ratio controllers are software-based.
‘Before, you had a gas supply, you put the gas supply in the engine, there was a butterfly valve and a mixer, and you just set the engine up like a car throttle, turned a few screws, got the mixture right and the engine would run,’ he explains. ‘It’s like the difference between running an old Morris 8 car and a new high-tech car on the road today. It’s a constant battle adapting to new software – one of the training programmes I’m setting up now is about this. We’re trying to broaden the experience of our service engineers in the field to give them, for example, a better understanding of remapping engine fuel maps.’
From a business perspective, Trevor said his biggest challenge has been that consultants are increasingly aware of CHP and its capabilities, so tender specifications today are much tighter than they used to be. Additionally, the level of efficiency sought by today’s industry ‘wasn’t even dreamed of 15 years ago,’ he said. ‘It’s not unusual now to be asked for 94% availability on projects, which is very high. In reality this is too high an expectation, particularly when you consider that service and overhauls have to be accounted for within the 6% allowed for downtime.’
Cost is also a growing issue, he added: ‘People are much more aware of the bottom line now. In the past our customers may have gone for, say, a Rolls Royce CHP unit, while now they and consultants are looking at price more than anything else, and the market is very competitive price-wise.’
Trevor believes this trend will continue into the future. He says: ‘Looking at any major project now, any developer now has got to put, within his remit, some sort of energy-saving technology, and CHP fits quite nicely with that. We’re finding now that a lot more CHP units are being fitted to blocks of flats, district heating schemes, and things like that.’
And requirements are changing. Like engine manufacturers, Trevor says his firm is now increasingly looking into alternative fuels. Cogenco deals primarily with natural gas, biogas from anaerobic digestion or sewage gas, as well as red diesel and biodiesel.
‘It’s an up-and-down market,’ Trevor says. ‘When I first came into the industry it wasn’t unusual to see a spark gap of 6–1 or even 7–1, while over recent years we’re lucky to get 3–1 or 4–1 because of the difference between gas and electricity prices. This makes savings not quite as good, but there are still savings to be had for the end customer.
An evolving industry
The basic principle behind CHP systems is ‘the same as it’s always been,’ Trevor says, although today’s margins are tighter and demands on suppliers are higher.
‘When I first joined Nedalo,’ he says, ‘I helped project-manage and install 30 CHP units in Hilton hotels. Those engines have now run their course, many with over 120,000 operating hours on them.’ Cogenco is currently in the process of decommissioning old plant at Hilton and Marriot sites as well as at a Land Rover manufacturing facility, and installing new plant, including two new MTU CHP units. ‘We’ve now run through a complete cycle with those engines,’ Trevor says. ‘Those contracts have run their course and the customer is renewing.
‘We tend to find that hospitals and universities are now required by European law to have open tenders,’ he adds. ‘In the majority of cases we do tend to win our old contracts back. The deciding factor is either price or a bad experience with the previous supplier – we win others’ contracts too. But taking on other people’s kit can be a challenge. We prefer to fit our own bespoke monitoring and control systems.’
Asked about his most challenging project, Trevor cites the Tangmere Nurseries installation – Nedalo’s first contract, ‘so it was all new to us. We had a sister company in Holland so I spent a fair amount of time there looking at how other projects were done and best practices,’ he says. ‘Then I had to put a package together in the UK along with a horticultural engineer from Holland. We had to build, from scratch, three big engine rooms with three 3516 Cats in each engine room, and incorporate the mechanical, electrical and HV connections which we had to sort out, although we had consultants for the HV.
‘Then we had to go to the Continent and look at COdi NOx’s huge catalytic converters which scrub exhaust gases, as well as interface water systems, exhaust sytems and HV systems, and then deal with the grid connections with Southern Electric – so that project, over the course of 18 months, involved £6.5 million worth of kit.’
On a previous project with Holec, undertaken right after his retirement from the Navy, Trevor was service and commissioning engineer on a data centre installation in the UK. ‘We were dealing with putting in a 500 kVA rotary UPS system,’ he recalls. ‘It was going to be a combined booking centre for several airlines. We put it all in, and 18 months later the Americans bought it and moved the whole database back to the US. The rotary UPS system was very interesting because we couldn’t afford to make mistakes. The UPS systems supported all their computer networks: one mistake and you put the whole place down!
‘Systems today are very similar, they just use much larger engines now,’ he adds. ‘They were moving from 500 kVA MTU engines to 2 MW Cummins engines when I left: from single-unit supply to multiple-unit supply.’
When asked what advice he would give to new industry entrants, Trevor says: ‘To be a CHP engineer these days you’ve got to be an electrician, a mechanical engineer, a plumber and a gas engineer! You have to have a gas qualification to work on CHPs, you have to know the ins and outs of engines, you have to be competent and safe working with electricity, and you have to be open to training because very few people who come into the business are competent in all of those aspects.
‘That then applies to project managers as well,’ he adds. ‘You need a good all-round general grounding in the basic principles of engineering and electricity. You need to also be able to be financially responsible.’
Trevor is uncertain about how well retirement will suit him – as we can perhaps tell from the fact that he’s still working! But whatever he does in future, we wish him all the best.