Reducing facility power costs by turning green, Part I

Ask any engineer how much power it takes to operate the TV station, and you’ll probably get what it costs to operate the transmitter. Dig deeper and ask what it costs to operate the studios, and you’ll probably get a blank stare.

What most engineers don’t realize is that there’s an even larger power hog in the broadcast and content producer space. Today’s video production facilities require huge amounts of power from the nation’s electrical grid. If there’s a positive side to these facts, it’s that such power consumption is continuous. Broadcasters draw the same power from the electrical grid 24 hours per day. The consumption doesn’t drop at 5 p.m. and stay low all night, again peaking at 8 a.m. the next morning.

Electric companies love television stations not just because they use huge amounts of power, but because they are so consistently consuming that power. This consistency makes it easy for the electric company to plan for this profitable service.

Unfortunately for broadcasters, it appears difficult to control power costs. Transmitters have to operate 24 hours a day. The newsroom may have only a skeleton crew on duty overnight, but the servers, editors and tape machines remain powered. About the only two areas that undergo regular cycles of power usage are the studios and office areas. Fortunately, all of these areas can benefit from new technology and alternative operating practices. For now, let’s focus on content production areas — the broadcast studio.

Rising cost of electricity

The cost of electricity continues to increase. The rate paid depends greatly on where the studios are located and how that power is generated. If the electricity comes from a coal-fired plant, the costs are probably relatively low. If the power comes from solar or wind, the cost will be higher because these newer systems have large CAPEX costs that must be recovered from users.

Oil- and natural gas-powered electrical generating plants suffer from peaks and valleys in costs because the production costs for oil and natural gas are tied to the worldwide cost of oil. As the price per barrel of oil goes up, so does the cost of getting oil and natural gas to make electricity.

Today’s facility managers are rightfully concerned about what it costs to "keep the lights on." This series of articles will cover some ways to examine and even lower that expense.

Corporate responsibility

There is a second, and no less, important reason to control a facility’s use of electricity, and that is to be a responsible corporate user of this natural resource. In this era of “green” everything, a company needs to do whatever is reasonable to use less, repurpose and recycle more all in an effort to help the environment. When properly implemented, this will also help the bottom line.

There is another important aspect to being a green corporate citizen — public relations. While this isn’t an area engineers often deal with, being perceived as “green” can benefit a broadcaster. So, while the work may at times seem unimportant, there is the larger issue of public perception.

New regulations

Both federal and state authorities are pressing hard for new rules on power generation and consumption. Broadcasters are about to be squeezed between a rock and a hard place. The rock will be new federal regulations on how power is generated. If your electricity is generated at an oil-fired power plant, you will be highly affected. The hard place will be new limits for power usage. Like brownouts, bet on localities telling you how much power you can consume — and when you can consume it.

Expect there to be penalties for companies (and individuals) who don’t use power responsibly. Those penalties will be primarily financial. In the words of President Obama, “Under my plan of a cap and trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket. Businesses would have to retrofit their operations. That will cost money. They will pass that cost onto consumers.” In other words, the cost to buy power is going to go up.

The EPA predicts the president’s proposed cap and trade policy will raise the per-kilowatt hour of electricity by approximately 7 percent. An important point to consider with the upcoming energy bills is that these costs are location-dependent. For instance, the impact of the cap and trade system will vary by state.

Electricity prices will rise more in states that rely heavily on coal, such as North Dakota, than in states that rely on sources of electricity that produce little carbon dioxide, like dams. According to Veronique Bugnion, a managing director at Point Carbon, prices could increase by 19.2 percent in North Dakota by 2012 but only 2.6 percent in Washington state, which relies heavily on hydroelectric power, over the same period.

In addition, state regulations may add penalties based on time-of-use and exceeding the precalculated average of kilowatt-hours used.

The takeaway point is that until a facility can generate its own power, and do so in a carbon-free manner, the goal should be to use as little of it as possible. Now, let’s review some ways to reduce your facility’s power bills. In the next article, you will learn how to conduct a power-consumption survey designed to uncover exactly where all that power you’re paying for goes.