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Distributed Generation: Doomed by Deployment Details?

The industry makes strides, but messy issues like air quality and building codes could be showstoppers.
Fortnightly Magazine - February 1 2001

are moving forward with."

Clearly, air quality regulations for distributed generation are an issue regardless of California's dire need for additional capacity.

"One of the interesting things we found out in the process of being short of generation in California is that air quality management districts still have their basic mission, and being forgiving of air quality management district rules is not on their radar screen," observes Mike Pretto, division manager-market analysis and pricing for Silicon Valley Power, the city utility for Santa Clara.

Silicon Valley Power, in fact, is working on a distributed generation pilot program, and one of the primary goals of the project is to learn about air quality regulatory issues for DG. The utility is in the process of finding a customer site for installation, and then once it chooses a technology, it will go to the local air quality district for a permit. Pretto says that the program will allow it to "see how … the Bay Area Air Quality Management District really works."

Building Codes: Race Through a Patchwork System

Building codes represent another critical piece of the DG regulatory pie receiving increased attention and concern. Never mind that California has over 30 air quality districts with different regulations. There are some 44,000 local building code jurisdictions throughout the country, an astounding number when you consider that whenever a new technology comes out, new regulations must be promulgated in every jurisdiction before the product can proliferate.

That "makes it really hard to come up with a single solution," says Anne Marie Borbely, program manager at the U.S. Department of Energy. Borbely is five years into developing a framework of national codes and standards for fuel cell DG, and just began work on a framework for natural gas microturbines. "That's the crux of the problem."

Unlike site permitting, building codes tend to focus on such issues as safety. When you have a machine onsite that, as in the case of a Capstone generator, rotates at 96,000 rpm, safety advocates naturally will come calling.

But developing codes takes time, and many stakeholders are realizing that efforts in development and even education need to be stepped up. The formation of national codes and their subsequent trickling down to the local site inspector is an arduous 10-year process, Borbely says. Once a technology emerges, standards and a testing protocol must be developed by an organization such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Then, after the standards are accepted by the four national building code bodies, they must be adopted by the states. Finally, when the standards reach one of the 44,000 jurisdictions, "the guy on the street" must be educated about them.

A workshop sponsored by the city of Austin/Austin Energy, the Distributed Power Coalition of America, and the DOE recently delivered the message that a lack of national codes and standards ultimately may prevent widespread implementation of DG. According to the DOE, the National Electric Code, Mechanical Code, and International Fuel Gas Code all must be modified to reference onsite power generation to ensure its deployment