Given the escalating costs of energy and increasing corporate focus on sustainability, building owners and occupiers are increasingly seeking ways to produce and use energy more efficiently.
Trigeneration is a potential solution to these problems, offering multiple economic and environmental benefits. However, owners contemplating using Trigeneration need to be aware of some of the significant potential issues in both installing and effectively using a Trigeneration system.
In this article, we will explore:
What is Trigeneration?
what Trigeneration is and how does a Trigeneration system work;
the benefits of using a Trigeneration system; and
potential traps when installing and using a Trigeneration system and how to avoid them.
Trigeneration is the production of electricity, heating and cooling in the one process.
A Trigeneration system uses natural or renewable gas to power an engine to drive a generator. The generator produces electricity. Heat, a by-product of the generation process, is captured and used to heat and cool (using an absorption chiller) the building.
Trigeneration systems are sometimes referred to as a combined heat, cooling and power (CHCP) unit.
A typical Trigeneration System
A Trigeneration system is a form of 'decentralised' production of energy; the energy is produced at the site where it is to be used. In contrast, traditional forms of energy production, such as coal-fired power stations, are a form of 'centralised' production of energy; the energy is produced in a central location and exported to distant end users.
Currently, approximately 5 percent of Australia's total energy production comes from decentralised sources (including solar sources), compared to 40 percent in the Netherlands and 55 percent in Denmark.
What are the reported benefits of using a Trigeneration system?
Efficiency ? savings on energy costs
A Trigeneration system is claimed to capture 80 percent to 90 percent of the energy the system produces. In contrast, coal-fired power stations, convert only 35 percent of the energy used into electricity.
A Trigeneration system's efficiency is achieved by:
capturing the heat (a by-product) for use in heating and cooling the building. In a coal-fired power station, this heat is normally lost by venting the heat to the atmosphere through cooling towers; and
avoiding energy distribution losses (as the energy produced is used on site and therefore does not have to be transported to the end user). Such distribution losses can amount to approximately 10 percent to 20 percent of energy produced in a coal-fired power station.
This efficiency offers cost savings for owners as:
owners pay less for fuel (as less fuel is needed to produce the same amount of energy); and
owners are not required to contribute to infrastructure costs of transporting electricity to site (which transportation or distribution costs are said to make up approximately 50 percent of the cost of electricity generated by coal-fired power stations).
Some owners using Trigeneration systems have reported a 30 percent saving of their energy costs.
Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
Proponents also claim Trigeneration systems offer a 40 percent to 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (compared to coal-fired power stations). This reduction is achieved by the use of cleaner burning gas rather than coal used for centralised electricity production.
This offers benefits to owners in enhancing their corporate image and by assisting in achieving 'Green' rating benchmarks (see comments immediately below).
Lettability and reputation
Use of a Trigeneration system in a building also assists that building in achieving a higher NABERS (National Australian Built Environment Rating System) and Green Star rating. Studies have shown that buildings with higher NABERS ratings are more attractive to quality clients (e.g government entities) and achieve consequently higher leasing and sale valuations.
As the electricity produced by a Trigeneration system is not sourced from the grid, owners are insulated from the consequences of power outages. This benefit is highly significant for owners and tenants with business operations that are particularly sensitive to the consequences of a power outage, for example, hospitals and data processing centres.
What issues need to be considered regarding Trigeneration?
Owners must, however, consider a range of potential problems in tandem with the potential benefits of Trigeneration. These potential problems are discussed below.
High capital costs
Installing a Trigeneration system requires a significant capital investment from owners, with some commentators estimating that the cost of installing a Trigeneration system at 5 percent of the total cost of the building. For example, the Trigeneration system installed by the National Australia Bank in its data centre in Melbourne was reported to cost A$6.5 million, the system in the Toyota headquarters in Melbourne A$1.5 million and the system in the Rooty Hill RSL Club A$4.2 million.
Owners report, however, that such systems generally pay for themselves within about 5 to 7 years.
The capital investment may be offset by leasing (or selling) the installed Trigeneration system to an energy provider. The lease payments (or the proceeds of the sale) can be used to offset the capital outlay.
For optimum efficiency Trigeneration systems need to run at near maximum capacity. It is therefore essential to install an appropriately sized system to meet the energy demands of the building. Complex calculations are required in selecting the appropriate sized system given the many variables involved. Such variables include the different business activities and energy demands of tenants and the cyclical nature of energy use driven by seasonal and tenant and business activity fluctuations.
Impact on construction and operation agreements
A Trigeneration system that is over sized (and therefore produces electricity in excess of the building's needs) may need to be turned off where the export of excess electricity to the grid is not feasible. Additionally, a Trigeneration system that is over sized for the needs of the building may also create a perverse incentive for owners to stimulate higher energy demand in an effort to use all the electricity produced by the system.
In the absence of the ability to form a Trigeneration precinct (see section below), owners need to consider carefully the form and content of the contract under which a Trigeneration system is to be installed. For example, use of a design and install contract will ensure the supplier of the Trigeneration system remains liable for selecting the appropriate sized system. If using a design and install contract, a fitness for purpose obligation should be included clearly expressing the owner's requirements.
One solution is for owners to co-operate in forming a 'precinct' of power generation and user sites. In CBD developments, this may mean tapping into the City of Sydney's proposed CBD trigeneration precinct. Under a precinct arrangement, the owner of a building with a Trigeneration system enters into an agreement with an energy provider under which excess electricity produced by the Trigeneration system is exported to the grid and used by other buildings. At this stage, it is more difficult and expensive to export the heat produced by a Trigeneration system to other buildings and, as a result, currently only electricity is usually exported.
A Trigeneration system is generally fuelled by natural gas. Commentators predict a shortfall in natural gas supplies by 2014, potentially resulting in a doubling of natural gas prices and consequently reducing the cost advantage of using a Trigeneration system over traditional centralised coal powered generation.
Given this potential volatility in gas prices, owners contemplating installing a Trigeneration system should consider entering into long term gas supply agreements which either lock in a gas price or limit the potential for gas prices to increase.
NABERS and Trigeneration precincts
The NABERS Energy rating system does not currently reward the recipient buildings to which electricity is exported as part of a Trigeneration precinct.
For example (when assessing the rating), the building in which the Trigeneration system is located (Building A in the diagram below) is given the energy efficiency benefit of using natural gas to produce its energy, whereas the building importing the 'clean' electricity produced by the Trigeneration system (Building B in the diagram below) is treated in the same way as if the electricity was provided from a coal-fired power station.
Submissions have been made by different groups to the Office of Environment and Heritage to address this apparent disincentive to establish a Trigeneration precinct arrangement.
Owners contemplating installing a Trigeneration system face a complex and difficult connection process and regulatory barriers.
In order to sell electricity to end users (e.g. tenants), owners need to either hold an 'electricity retailer authorisation' or obtain an exemption from the requirement to hold such an authorisation. Owners of Trigeneration systems should be eligible for an exemption in most cases. However, the class of exemption, and whether an individual application to the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) is required to obtain such an exemption, will depend on a number of factors including the identity, number and electricity usage requirements of the relevant customers.
ClimateWorks Australia produced a report in 2011 titled 'Unlocking Barriers to Cogeneration' which proposed a number of initiatives to facilitate the process of enabling owners to connect to the grid, as follows:
Change the National Electricity Rules (NER) to streamline and standardise the process for the owners of Trigeneration systems seeking connections to the grid;
Extend the NER existing concept of automatic access standards as currently exists for household solar panels to certain sizes of Trigeneration systems; and
Put in place processes which encourage greater engagement and information exchange between distribution network service providers and Trigeneration system owners.
Given the current regulatory difficulties, presently, owners are effectively compelled to sell any electricity exported from the building to the local retailer for their area (e.g. in Sydney, EnergyAustralia).
Ownership structures - sale/purchase and leasing
Where the building is owned through a trust structure, it is important to ensure that the ownership or leasing of the Trigeneration system (and the sale of electricity produced by that facility) does not result in the trust being taxed at corporate income tax rates. It is however possible to ensure that it is not the building owner that sells the electricity produced by the Trigeneration system. The building owner can achieve this by leasing the Trigeneration system to an operator who then generates and sells the electricity.
The sale/purchase and leasing of a building containing a Trigeneration system will require consideration of:
the novation of any Environmental Upgrade Agreements or Energy Performance Agreements to the purchaser;
the occupational health and safety issues in respect of any known damage to the Trigeneration system as in most jurisdictions equipment cannot be sold without disclosing to the purchaser any damage that may present a risk of harm to people;
a due diligence review of maintenance, servicing and commissioning reports and processes for the Trigeneration system;
whether the Trigeneration system is' plant and equipment' for the purpose of the Personal Property Securities Act 2009, and if so, whether there are any security interests held over the facility; and
in respect of leasing:
- who has the obligation for repair and maintenance, including capital repairs and upgrades; and
- the treatment of outgoings in multi -tenanted buildings.
Trigeneration offers significant benefits to property developers, owners and investors. However, before installing a trigeneration system, owners and investors should carefully consider the technical and legal issues involved with installing and using such a system before incorporating it into their new or existing buildings.