Get off the grid this Earth Day

April 17, 2014

Phoenix Contact will generate its own electricity and reduce waste with new 1 MW combined cooling, heating, and power system

How will you be celebrating Earth Day on April 22? Planting a tree? Going to a movie theatre to watch Disneynature’s “Bears”? Disconnecting from the grid? Next week, Phoenix Contact USA in Middletown, Pennsylvania, will be doing just that. No, it hasn’t rented out the Elks Theatre for a private viewing of “Bears.” To celebrate Earth Day, Phoenix Contact ( will unveil its new combined cooling, heating, and power (CCHP) system, and its president, Jack Nehlig, will ceremonially disconnect from the electric grid. The CCHP system is a natural gas, fixed microturbine system that will generate enough electricity to power the company’s Americas headquarters about 65% of the time. It will also heat and cool the facility independent of external sources.

The CCHP system is a clean alternative-energy source and is driven by the thermal dynamics of the facility. As the turbines generate energy, they vent the heat-exhaust byproduct through either the building’s natural gas chiller or the heat exchange to regulate chilled water and hot water supplies. That demand will determine how much electricity the system will generate, while reducing the amount of waste Phoenix Contact produces. “We installed a 1 MW CCHP system,” says Doug Ferguson, vice president, America Services Operations, at Phoenix Contact. “And we’re generating enough electricity to be self-sustaining, depending on the time of the year and the day. There are times when the demand is greater than 1 MW.”

The 370,000-sq-ft facility sits on a 57-acre campus. More than 650 employees work in production, engineering, sales, marketing, and distribution; and they’re no strangers to Earth Day celebrations. “We’ve turned Earth Day into an event where we try to top the previous year,” notes Ferguson. “We have a recycling drive for employees to bring in electronics, batteries, light bulbs, and similar things during the week before Earth Day. The morning of Earth Day, in our lobby, we set up booths with some of our product mangers in environmentally friendly markets. It’s an internal trade show, so our employees can see our environmentally friendly products. Jennifer Graham, our environmental compliance quality specialist, has a booth to talk about some of the things we’re doing. At noon, we have an Earth Day lunch-and-learn. This year, Jennifer has brought in a speaker to talk about the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Attendees at the lunch also get organic gardening seeds. In years past, we’ve done tree plantings, and one year our engineers developed a solar-car charging station.”

The CCHP system is part of Phoenix Contact’s energy-management plan. From concept to full operation, it was about a year and a half in the works, with the system coming online this past March. “We were evaluating energy strategies for the future,” explains Ferguson. “We considered geothermal and solar, too. It became apparent that microturbines gave us the biggest bang for the buck. We made the decision, and we engaged an engineering consulting firm to help us with the design. We sent out an RFP and evaluated a few different systems and then made the decision to hook up with Capstone Turbine, the system manufacturer, and E-Finity, the system integrator, along with GE for some of the electrical switchgear.” Once construction began, it took only five months to get the system installed and operational, and a significant amount of that time comprised attention to the utility regulations and signoffs. “To be able to lock out from the utility, they had to install some equipment in our substation, and we needed some signoffs,” says Ferguson.

The package is a Capstone C1000 with five 200-kW turbines packaged together to reach the full 1 MW. E-Finity and Siemens Building Automation Systems helped to tie the CCHP system into the building automation system.

“Our business is industrial automation, so the products we make are used in many applications in the energy sector,” explains Ferguson. “This is kind of a dual win for us. It keeps us operationally competitive because this is a cost savings for us. And it also showcases our products. We have our products in the controls of the microturbines. Those are connected to our heating and cooling system via a 300-ton, gas-fired absorption chiller and a 5,000-Btu heat exchanger. We have the ability to modulate the heat-exhaust gas from the microturbines to support the needs of the chilled water or the heated water for the facility. It controls the heat-exhaust gas through the mechanical systems.”

As a manufacturing and production site in central Pennsylvania, the Phoenix Contact facility needs to remain competitive on a global basis. “The CCHP system is a big piece of our plan,” explains Ferguson. “With the abundance of natural gas, especially in the area here, we anticipate a savings of better than $300,000 a year with the CCHP system. The system also gives us a nice redundant backup for our operations to be supported. If we lose the electric utility for any period of time, we shut down our production and distribution and we’re dead in the water. With 1 MW, we can run in island mode and not have any downtime.”

If the facility’s electric utility, Pennsylvania Power and Light (, goes down, some controls have to manage a shutdown and lockout, explains Ferguson. “Then we restart in island mode, where we’re truly off the grid,” he explains. “There are federal and utility regulations that must be met to restart in the event of a power outage.”

To ensure the CCHP system remains reliable, Phoenix Contact has employed a three-pronged approach, which includes internal staff, external support, and the comfort of knowing its own automation products are controlling the system.

“We have a facility maintenance staff here, and we have a factory protection plan with E-Finity,” explains Ferguson. “E-Finity will provide annual maintenance, and then our facility staff will do the regular weekly and monthly maintenance tasks internally. The turbines are very low-maintenance.” To ensure reliable and efficient operation, Phoenix Contact USA used many of its own products in the control and communication system for the CCHP, including Valueline industrial PCs, Ethernet switches, Visu+ software, I/O modules, relays, power supplies, and surge protection. “I do make a conscious effort to try to utilize our own products throughout the facility wherever we can,” says Ferguson. “We produce a variety of products at this facility. It’s a mixed-technology facility of highly automated machines making terminal block connectors, printed circuit boards, software, and firmware, and doing final configuration of industrial computers.”

Phoenix Contact develops and manufactures industrial electrical and electronic technology products that power, protect, connect and automate systems and equipment for a wide range of industries. Phoenix Contact is headquartered in Blomberg, Germany, operates 50 international subsidiaries.

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