Spokane Journal of Business

Interest in generators rises here

Sacred Heart reaches out to rural hospitals; WSU program seeks enrollment increase

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In what could be an omen of things to come based on rising energy concerns, the Spokane Cummins engine dealer has sold diesel-powered generating equipment worth more than $10 million to a Central Washington public utility district to help cover a projected electricity-supply shortfall.

The sale is one of the more noteworthy recent examples of how the looming energy crisis has begun to affect Inland Northwest businesses and utilities. Meanwhile, at least one dealer here that markets smaller, standby generators says its also selling more of those types of units for small-business emergency backup use.

The Spokane branch of Renton, Wash.-based Cummins Northwest Inc. made its big sale last month to the Okanogan County Public Utility District, which serves about 20,000 business and residential customers.

The district bought 16 large Cummins Onan generator setspackaged units including diesel engines, alternators, generators, and integrated controlsthat collectively are expected to provide it with about 26 megawatts of additional, continuous power, says Don Brantner, the districts chief engineer. Thats equivalent to roughly one-third of the districts annual average power demand, and buying the units will keep the district from having to purchase expensive power on the open market, he says.

When we looked at the cost of going to market, it just made sense to buy those generators, Brantner says. The district is projecting a $13 million deficit this year with the new generators, but it was looking at a $30 million deficit without them.

Tony Thomas, Cummins Northwests branch manager here, says the company expects to install half of the generators by the end of May and the rest by the end of June.

The generators will sit next to each other on a rural piece of land that the public utility district owns between Malott and Brewster, Wash., southwest of Omak, and will tie into a nearby electrical substation operated by the district.

Powerful engines

David Pomeroy, the industrial power-generation salesman for Cummins here who handled the sale, says the 16-cylinder, 2,400-horsepower generators sold to the district are the largest that Cummins makes in that product line. Each is capable of generating up to about 2 megawatts of power, but theyll be running at a less strenuous rate of about 1.6 megawatts in the Okanogan County system because theyll be operating continuously, he says. One megawatt is enough power to meet the needs of about 1,000 typical homes.

These units are all going to be equipped with state-of-the-art emission scrubbers, which work like a catalytic converter does on your automobile to reduce carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, he says.

The generators measure about 10 feet wide by 16 feet long and 12 feet high and weigh about 35,000 pounds.

The Okanogan County PUD typically gets one-quarter to one-third of its power from the Wells Hydroelectric Project, located on the Columbia River just south of Brewster and in which it is part owner, and buys the rest from the Bonneville Power Administration, Brantner says. Low water levels this year and the prospect of having to buy at least a portion of its power on the volatile open market led the districts commissioners to declare an emergency so the district could buy the generators without going through normal bidding procedures, he says.

To augment its power needs on an interim basis, the district had been renting six smaller generators from Cummins Northwest and has been operating them in Malott, Brewster, and other towns in the county.

To cover some of its increased costs, the district implemented a 30 percent across-the-board rate increase on April 1, and it expects to follow that with a 40 percent increase in October, Brantner says.

Okanogan County isnt the only public utility district in the state thats turning to diesel-powered generators to supplement their energy supplies. Districts in Grant, Chelan, Grays Harbor, Clark, and Cowlitz counties, among others, either also are doing so or are said to be considering it, Brantner says.

Pomeroy says Cummins Northwests Spokane branch hasnt seen an increase in generator salesthe Okanogan County deal asidebut has noticed rising demand for generator-related parts and service from current generator owners.

We do have a lot of (sale) potentials out there still active, he says, adding, I think its going to be steady. I figure for the next couple of years here in the West were going to be busy selling not only to utilities, but to businesses that will be looking at putting them in to sell power.

Jay Keating, Boise-based engine sales manager for Western States Equipment Co., which operates a branch here and sells Caterpillar brand generators, says that companys industrial generator sales havent risen, but its rentals have increased markedly in the last year, particularly in Idaho.

A lot of businesses bought standby generators five years ago after the ice storm rolled through the region, and others did so in connection with the Year 2000 computer scare, which together may have left the market saturated to a degree, he says.

Until threats of rolling blackouts become a reality, I dont think were going to see a big increase (in sales). The general downturn in the economy is making people hold off on those decisions, Keating says.

For at least one local retailer, though, the demand for smaller portable generators is definitely on the rise, with some small-business and home-based business owners buying them for limited backup use.

That retailer, Spokane Power Tools, at 801 E. Trent, has been selling a lot of generators of less than 10,000 watts capacity recently and the buyers seem to be an even mix of small-business and residential customers, says Larry Reiner, a Spokane Power Tools sales representative. Many of the buyers have been Californians, disgruntled by perceived price gouging at stores near them, who have learned about the Spokane company through its Web site, he says.

We thought it was going to let up, but it hasnt. Weve got units presold that we havent even got in yet, Reiner says.

The Honda EU line of gasoline-power generators that Spokane Power Tools carries has been particularly popular because it has a reputation for producing the high-quality type of electricity thats desired for powering computers, he says.

Everybody wants to keep their computer up and running, he adds. They dont care about their refrigerator or stove or whatever.

Kim Crompton
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