Project tests combined use of natural gas generator and solar system

Lou Villaire
Lou Villaire

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Lou Villaire believes natural gas and solar power could constitute a powerful combination in providing a clean, inexpensive and reliable source of electricity.

That’s why the co-owner of the Atlasta Solar Center is experimenting with the use of both a natural gas generator and photovoltaic system to produce electricity at the Grand Junction company.

The research could have broad implications for ultimately powering businesses and homes in a more distributive way that could make the conventional electric grid a backup, rather than primary, power source, Villaire said.

The effort is funded in part by a $6,900 grant from the Colorado Mesa University Unconventional Energy Center. A mechanical engineering student at CMU has worked on the project as an intern at Atlasta.

“This applied research project is not only a great means for furthering our community’s economic development goals, it also provides a great hands-on learning opportunity for our students,” said CMU President Tim Foster.

In the first phase of research, Atlasta Solar purchased and installed a 14-kilowatt Kohler natural gas generator at its location on South Seventh Street. The location also includes a 15-kilowatt photovoltaic system.

In the second phase of the project, the operations of the generator and solar systems have been automated so they switch back and forth to continuously generate electricity under various conditions, Villaire said. The generator and solar systems also have been tied to the electric grid.

If everything goes as planned, the third phase of the project will further test the concept in spec homes planned for construction as part of a residential subdivision, he added.

Either the natural gas generator or solar system is sufficient on its own to generate enough electricity to meet most of the needs of Atlasta Solar or a typical home, Villaire said. But the combination of the two provides a continuous source of electricity when the solar system alone doesn’t generate sufficient power — at night or early in the morning, for example, or during cloudy conditions.

The two systems replicate on a small scale the trend on the utility scale to use more natural gas-fired plants and photovoltaic systems to generate electricity, Villaire said.

If the project demonstrates a natural gas generator and solar system work efficiently and economically together, they could be used to produce all the electricity in a business or home. That would relegate the electric grid to backup status, Villaire said.

Assuming natural gas prices remain low and utility rates continue to increase, the savings associated with producing electricity with a natural gas generator and solar system could be sufficient to return an investment in the equipment within five to 10 years, he said.