Designing a Renewable Energy System for a Main Base Lodge

Although solar energy installations have become quite common for outpost camps, we have seen much slower adoption of renewable energy technologies in main base lodge installations. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that there is a very large installed user base of diesel generators that have been shown to work very reliably for many years. The technology is simple, well understood and has a proven track record. Now, rising fuel costs and environmental concerns are causing many operators to consider alternatives to diesel generators for remote lodges.

Aside from the much greater size and complexity of main base lodge installations, a major complicating factor is the fact the these projects are almost always retro-fits, compared to outposts which are usually new installations. It is generally much easier to design a system completely from the ground up than it is to modify an existing installation. On the other hand, many main base lodge designs have the advantage of having not only existing wiring in place, but also good quality diesel generators, which will still be needed to carry at least part of the load in many cases.

When you design any off-grid electrical system, you need to answer two basic questions - How much electricity am I going to use? and How am I going to generate it? When you design a typical outpost system, you get to work on both of these items at the same time. Since there is usually no pre-existing system, you can decide for yourself what the electrical loads will be. Do I need electricity for refrigerators, or will I stick with propane? Do I want to provide radios or satellite TV? Will I need power for composting toilets? All of these electrical load decisions will determine how much power you need to be able to generate.

In many cases, main base lodges are already generating and using electricity from diesel generators. You know you are generating enough mainly by the fact that the generator hasn’t died from excessive load. Beyond that, you probably know very little about your actual electricity consumption. The generator has been sized to meet the peak load demand, but you have had no need to know how much electricity you need, on average, over a 24-hour period. This is the peak load vs. average load issue we have discussed in previous articles.

You can estimate peak and average loads pretty easily for an outpost, since you have a relatively small number of loads, and you can simply look at them individually and add them up. On the other hand, we can do much better than estimating your loads for an existing installation – we can actually take measurements. This is not at all difficult or expensive to do. Unfortunately, the tools to do the job are not readily available “off the shelf”.

Many of you already have ammeters on the output of your generators that let you see roughly how much electricity is being consumed at any point in time. If you could sit there with your clipboard and write down those readings, say once every minute over a 24 hour period, you could get a pretty good picture of your energy consumption. If you did it for a week, you would have even more useful data.

There is a much easier way to do this. Taking regular measurements of various things and recording them is a very common operation in many industries. As a result, simple electronic recording devices called data loggers are widely available. Various kinds of sensors are made to be connected to data loggers so that all kinds of measurements can be made automatically. You can measure things like temperature or pressure, and there are also sensors available to measure power consumption. A data logger with AC power sensors would be able to take exactly the kind of measurements we need.

Once we have an accurate record of how much power we actually use at various times of the day, we can design a system much more accurately. In fact, there are other tools that will make our job even easier. There are a number of computer programs, such as a program called HOMER, developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the US, which will allow us to take the data we have collected and actually model various possible systems and make comparisons. For example, we can compare a system where we simply use the generator to charge batteries to a system with the generator alone or to one with various numbers of solar panels. The program allows us to plug in values for all of the components, from the cost of the solar panels to the price of diesel fuel.

Of course, the old adage “garbage in, garbage out” applies. The calculations made by a program like HOMER are only as good as our input data. However, if we use actual measurements from a data logger, we should have extremely accurate data to model a system.

NOTO is currently discussing this idea with potential funding partners. We would like to put together a number of kits of data loggers and make them available to tourist lodges. Our idea is that you would hook the data loggers to your system for a period of time, like a week, and then send the units back to us, and we would extract the data and produce a report for you. We could even take the data, along with your ideas on what kind of system you might want to have, and plug it all into HOMER to produce a detailed set of options. With these options, you could shop around for the system that meets your needs.

We would love to hear from you whether you think this approach is a good idea. Of course, we’ll keep you posted on our progress in obtaining funding to carry this forward.

One final note of good news to the industry.

We have just received word that the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Renewable Energy Program will remain in place. The program was originally scheduled to come to an end at the end of 2007. Many businesses have already taken advantage of the 50% funding available from NOHFC for renewable energy installations, so the fact that this excellent program will continue is very good news indeed. 

This article was taken from pages 14 & 15 of NOTO's "The Outfitter" publication, Winter 2007 Issue


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