Demand for mobile power plants has surged in recent years. Ben Van Hove explains why

Demand for mobile power plants has surged in the past few years

Credti: Atlas Copco

In a growing number of industrial, construction and mining applications with temporary power needs, large stand-alone generators are being replaced with groups of smaller generators that are programmed to work in parallel with each other.

Known as mobile IPPs (independent power plants) or simply mobile power plants, these solutions are flexible enough to be used in a wide range of configurations. Typically, applications vary between 3 MW and 14 MW, but larger mobile power plants can be comprised of up to 40 side-by-side generators working together.

Co-ordinated by a network of controllers, these plug-and-play generators can power up and down according to the on-site power requirements at a given time. For example, only one or two may be operational during periods of low load, thereby boosting fuel efficiency. Equally, all units can become active in periods of high demand.

Additionally, reliability is enhanced when the failure of a single unit is mitigated by other units increasing their output to maintain the same power. By contrast, the failure of a large single generator could cause critical downtime.

Another significant benefit to customers using a mobile power plant is that maintenance and servicing are completely outsourced to a third-party supplier. Rental of a mobile power plant does not only mean rental of the machine itself but the support as well.

One company that specializes in the rental of mobile power plants and stand-alone generator solutions is Belgium-based Power Solutions. This year, Power Solutions is celebrating its tenth anniversary. In the past decade, the company has grown to accommodate a fleet of over 600 machines. Having invested over €8 million ($9 million) in 2015 alone, Power Solutions is geared up for further growth and demand for mobile power plants is a significant factor.

The logic of mobile power plants is difficult to deny, but why has demand surged so starkly in the past few years? There are a number of factors to consider.

Firstly, the expansion of industrial, construction and mining activity across many parts of the word, particularly in Africa, has created new requirements. In many areas, the permanent power network has not developed to a point where it can support commercial activity. This is difficult to accept in areas where a power failure could have such serious consequences for production or standard of living.

Secondly, the need for flexibility is rising. A mobile power plant provides a company with a much more flexible and cost-effective option than if it was to build its own solution. All over the world, and even where highly established power grids exist, there are facilities that need larger levels of power for a temporary period.

Furthermore, even though the requirement for mobile power plants tends to be temporary, they often stay in place for years, giving peace of mind and flexibility.

A third undeniable influence upon recent growth has been the evolution of the technology associated with generators.

Let’s start with fuel efficiency. It’s a simple fact of life that mobile generators, like most machines, are consuming less fuel than they did five years ago, thanks to a number of design factors and efficiency improvements. The fact that newer machines can run for longer and more economically is a big driver behind the growth.

For example, the deployment of a 1 MVA generator as a prime power source, taking the demand patterns of a typical industrial application as a guide, could mean up to 1677 litres of fuel being consumed each day.

It is no longer necessary to buy larger generators than needed

Credit: Atlas Copco

 

In many areas the power network has not developed enough to support commercial activity

Credit: Atlas Copco

That compares with approximately 1558 litres of fuel if three 325 kVA generators were doing the same job. In this case, an estimated annual fuel saving of €30,000 makes for a compelling case, not to mention 85 tonnes of CO2 saved over the course of a year.

Developments in power management systems have also been influential in enabling efficiency gains. The power management system enables the optimization of fuel consumption and expands the lifetime of generators at the same time.

It manages the quantity of generators running in parallel with load demand, starting and stopping units in line with increases or decreases in load. In this way, the load level on each generator remains as close as possible to a level that optimizes fuel consumption. It also eliminates the need for generators to run with low load levels, which can cause engine damage and shorten the life expectancy of the equipment.

The growing sophistication of controllers has also enhanced the effectiveness of mobile power plants.

The controllers available in Atlas Copco’s generators are equipped with power management systems and their plug-and-play design enables simple and fast configuration for rental jobs.

They also offer a variety of other features, such as the ability to remotely start and program the machine. Additionally, controllers provide analysis data that not only helps users to optimize the efficiency of the power plant, but can also give them fantastic insights into their production process too.

Additionally, Digital AVR has boosted the credentials of mobile power plants. This is a new type of voltage controller that allows customers to downsize the required generator in specific applications, because you can manage the transient behaviour of the power.

As a result, it is no longer necessary to buy larger generators than necessary just to cope with the initial electrical surge upon starting. With smart control of the generator’s voltage, it’s possible to achieve lower fuel consumption, reduced maintenance cost and longer lifetimes.

Ben Van Hove is Vice-President of Portable Air & Power at Atlas Copco.