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Low Load Diesel Perceptions and Practices within

Remote Area Power Systems


J. Hamilton, M. Negnevitsky, X. Wang
School of Engineering & ICT, University of Tasmania
Centre for Renewable Energy and Power Systems
Hobart, Tasmania
AbstractDiesel generators account for the majority of
generation into remote and off-grid power systems. However,
complementary generation alternatives are increasingly
becoming both available and cost competitive, specifically via the
introduction of renewable technologies. Achieving optimal
integration requires the diesel generators to be able to operate
sustainably at low load levels. A key roadblock to greater
renewable utilisation remains the inability of diesel infrastructure
to run at low loads. The University of Tasmania has surveyed
extensively across remote area power system stakeholders to
define current perceptions and practices surrounding this issue.
The survey finds a market frustrated by a lack of information,
supporting large cultural bias to long held operational practices
and beliefs. Barriers to implementation of low load specific
technologies are thus both technical and cultural in nature. With
regard to both, improved access to information would address
market disinformation and displace myths currently responsible
for inaction within the sector.
Keywordsdistributed generation; hybrid power systems;
micro grids; low load diesel; renewable energy sources.

I. INTRODUCTION
Diesel accounts for the majority of energy generation
within remote area power systems (RAPS) [1], yet renewables
offer cost competitive supply alternatives [2]. A key roadblock
to greater renewable penetration remains the performance of
the diesel generators and their inability to run at low loads. The
lower a low load operating capability, typically within the
range of 30% to 40% rated capacity, the greater the share of
renewable penetration that can be achieved. Consequently low
load capabilities for diesel generators are increasingly of
interest to stakeholders looking to lower the cost and
environmental impact of electricity generation within remote
applications.
Prior to researching low load diesel technologies and
applications, an understanding of the current perceptions and
practices surrounding low load diesel generation is beneficial.
Such an understanding affords the audience an opportunity to
identify and remove any duplication of effort, to target
subsequent research optimally to meet the market need and
importantly to define the field of research. The University of
Tasmanias Centre for Renewable Energy and Power Systems
has prioritised low load diesel application as an energy research
initiative having surveyed stakeholders to explore existing
perceptions and practices ahead of pioneering research within
the sector. This paper compiles and publishes the results of the

stakeholder survey, and informs the future research initiatives


identified.
II. BACKGROUND
The Significant prior awareness and experience was found
to exist with regard to the low load capabilities of diesel
generators. Of note, Australian companies have been
responsible for developing a significant percentage of this prior
experience. Unfortunately, much of this knowledge is
inaccessible to consumers, remaining siloed and underutilised
within private companies. This body of prior research was used
to frame both the identification of relevant stakeholders and to
inform the survey content and methodologies, as outlined
within this paper.
A. Stakeholder Survey
Prior to identification of relevant stakeholders the survey
content, aims and deliverables were drafted. The survey intent
was to improve the shared understanding of low load diesel
technology, while responses identified possible future research
priorities, providing insight for all remote area power systems
considering improved efficiency.
The limitations of survey campaigns to gather data are well
documented, with prior surveys within the field acknowledging
poor observed participation rates [3], often as low as 5%. To
address these attitudes the survey was offered both
electronically and in hardcopy. Respondents were also able to
submit extracts of data in any suitable electronic form,
specifically intended to address barriers for respondents
reporting multiple systems. The online survey further assisted
to ensure respondents anonymity, with the survey url provided
as both a text string and a machine-readable quick response
code. To incentivise participation all respondents were offered
a copy of the survey summary report, should they nominate
contact details to receive follow up correspondence.
A survey participant information sheet provided
participants with detail on the survey scope and duration, why
they had been invited, what was required to participate,
benefits of participation, options should they change their mind
about participation, data storage and handling practices, data
confidentiality assurances, and provided contact details for the
executive officer of the social sciences human research ethics
committee (HREC). The survey was reviewed and approved by
the University of Tasmanias social sciences HREC prior to
external distribution.
The survey consisted of 74 multiple choice questions
divided into sections comprising of respondent details, system

details, diesel specific, and low load diesel specific questions.


Subject to the respondents answers, the online survey would
adjust in length, only presenting relevant questions, with not all
74 questions displayed to all respondents. Although all
questions consisted of multiple choice answers an allowance
for essay style answers was provided in a number of instances,
should respondents wish to provide additional details.
The survey concluded with an invitation for respondents to
share a link to the survey via the associated URL.
B. Stakeholder Identification
A number of stakeholder categories were established to
classify and delineate the survey stakeholders. In discussing the
survey aims with stakeholders a number of new sub-categories
were established. The final classifications consisted of
Association, Community, Consultant, Developer, Government,
Non-Government Organizations (NGO), Supplier and Utility
stakeholders. Classifications were further delineated into subclassification by region. Regions represented within the survey
sample included Alaska, Australia and the Pacific Islands.
Identification of Alaskan stakeholders was facilitated by the
University of Alaska Fairbanks Center for Energy and Power
and the Alaska Energy Authority. Identification of Australian
stakeholders was facilitated by the Australian Energy Market
Operator, the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics, the
Centre for Appropriate Technology, the Clean Energy
Regulator, the South Australian Department of State
Development and the Northern Territory Department of
Resources. Identification of Pacific Island stakeholders was
facilitated by the International Finance Corporation, the
International Renewable Energy Agency and the World Bank.
C. Participants
Over 300 stakeholders were shortlisted, with each
approached, either in person, or with a personalised email
invitation to participate in the survey campaign. A priority was
afforded to owner operators of remote area power systems,
given their direct exposure to the operational environment. In
regard to this stakeholder category, where no response was
received, follow up correspondence would be issued ahead of
identifying alternate contacts within the same organisation to
approach. In this manner the survey was progressively issued
out across a database of identified stakeholders. The survey
was also promoted via a number of academic, conference and
diesel engine online technology forums.
Of the approached stakeholders approximately one third of
individuals logged onto the online survey interface, from which
a total of 42 responses were received. While the response rate
was low, approximately 14%, it was within expectations, and
importantly the majority of priority stakeholders identified,
participated within the survey. It is impossible to accurately
account for participation rates on an individual basis, as many
respondents opted not to leave identifying details, however, in
contrast, approximately two thirds of invited priority
stakeholders did provided follow up contact details. Of note
particularly poor participation rates are suspected of the mining
industry stakeholders approached, representing a possible
improvement to future survey campaigns.

D. Prior Research
Stakeholder responses conveyed a general awareness of
prior low load diesel initiatives, specifically the high renewable
penetration wind/solar diesel hybrid systems installed across
Western Australia between 2008-2012 [4]. Knowledge of such
programs extended to recognition of an achieved low load
operational capability and the identification of cylinder
temperature as a key operational parameter in determining
success of any low load operational trial. However little market
insight was available beyond this high level knowledge, a
possible consequence of both the proponent and the technology
supplier having since been merged into larger corporate
structures, with a subsequent restructure of business priorities
away from low load diesel research.
An important future outcome of the survey will be to demystify knowledge of these legacy trials via both broad
industry survey and broad distribution of survey results.
Additionally, low load capabilities of diesel generators have
significantly improved since 2008, facilitated in part by the
rapid development of efficient automotive diesel engine
technologies. As such, the timing of the survey was also
appropriate to re-engage with industry, to explore current
perceptions and practices surrounding low load diesel
operation, given improvements in diesel low load capabilities.
Outside of these prior research initiatives, a general
acceptance that low load capabilities were feasible and the
apparent opportunity to improve the knowledge sharing
outcomes of previous investigation, little publication of low
load diesel research was identified. The exception to this has
been the applied research into low load diesel capabilities
undertaken by the Alaska Energy Authority [5] and the
Norwegian University of Science and Technology [6].
III. SURVEY RESPONSE
All survey responses were received electronically, with the
exception of a hard copy survey posted by the author to
investigate the reliability of the mailing address provided. The
response rate of 14% allowed for an informed sample size
including most of the relevant Australian utilities and
independent power producers (IPP).
A number of respondents were uneasy about providing
personal contact details, despite reassurances of confidentiality,
their personal contact details already being known, as used to
invite their participation, and their future interest in receiving
summary results from the survey campaign (as indicated via a
prior question). Such reluctance illustrates a distrust in the
survey medium, with the majority of participants appearing to
decide to participate within the survey after only a few
questions had been completed (dropout rates were significant
within the first few questions and then fairly negligible). In a
number of instances the requested information was deemed by
the respondent to be confidential in nature, and was thus not
provided. These observations suggest that a survey may not
have been the optimal form of data capture from a trust and
participation perspective.
Professional experience of respondents was satisfactory,
with over three quarters of respondents reporting greater than 5
years RAPS experience and greater than two thirds reporting
owner operator accountabilities. System capacity varied
significantly across respondents with a need to normalise some

responses to allow for meaningful comparison. System size by


distribution network length showed much less variation with
two thirds of respondents networks, under 10km in length.
Irrespective of size 78% of respondents had greater than 4
diesel generators within their system.
The average age of generation equipment spanned a
considerable demographic, with an average age of between 5 to
20 years for three quarters of respondents. Interestingly most
respondents had purchased a diesel generator within the last 5
years, yet a third also had a generator greater than 20 years of
age. These responses suggest diesel generators are purchased
on a per unit, as needed basis.
The vast majority of respondents, 89% reported residential
demand as the primary use of electricity within their remote
area power system, with industry and government facilities
also represented, Fig 1. Of note the lack of mining industry
participation evident across the survey suggests these
stakeholders either saw less benefit in low load diesel
approaches or held greater intellectual property concerns than
other respondents, resulting in poor sector representation.
All consumers could be classified across 4 generic demand
profiles, with 44% of respondents nominating a twin peak
profile as representative of their daily demand. As a caveat
100% of respondents reported a seasonal variation in demand,
with two thirds of these respondents classifying their seasonal
variation as between 10% and 50% by magnitude. System
owners generally sized their largest generator in respect to the
maximum system demand plus a contingency. For the majority
of respondents, their largest generator was within the range of
200kW to 800kW, suggesting this to be the optimal product
sizing for any low load specific technology.

Figure 1. Main use of electricity reported within remote area power


systems. Residential load forms the majority of demand in such communities
with air conditioning and heating major contributors. Other uses identified
included government buildings and services

From a renewable perspective, 78% of respondents had


considered adding renewable and/or storage technologies. Most
respondents, 67%, also reported a feasible mean annual wind
resource of greater than 6 m/s at 30m hub height (the
remaining 33% were unsure as to wind speed at site). Not
surprisingly 67% of respondents also had wind turbines
installed to exploit this resource, with 44% having more than 4
wind turbines installed. Across this portfolio of wind assets one
third of respondents reported a wind turbine reliability of
greater than 95%.

Fewer respondents had solar technologies installed, with


under half indicating a system inclusive of solar generation.
However, the vast majority of systems considering additional
renewables prioritised solar photovoltaic (PV) for this
application. Presumable this scenario is reflective of the
significant cost reductions observed for solar PV panels in
recent years. Of the systems with solar installed, half of the
systems adopted distributed models, while half preferred
centralised deployment, indicating no strong preference for
either approach. Given the size of these systems, it is an
appropriate conclusion that distributed models adopt existing
dwellings to deploy their panels. Where solar was installed the
total capacity fell under 100kW for three quarters of
respondents, possibly illustrative of the superior scalability of
solar PV, as compared to wind, which can become noncommercial for small scale application (as both the
infrastructure costs and turbine sizing are relatively fixed).
Energy storage was only exploited by one third of systems,
indicative of the cost barriers currently associated with these
technologies. Of the storage systems in use the majority
adopted battery technologies, with thermal storage also
reported.
Reliability of the remote area power systems was high, with
78% of systems reported as having fewer than 50 faults per
year. Average fault duration was also reported as between 1
minute and 1 hour by the same number of respondents.
Importantly the operation of the diesel generators was listed as
the single largest problem by the majority of respondents, Fig.
2.

Figure 2. Main problems reported within remote area power systems. The
majority of respondents identified diesel operation as their single largest
problem. Other problems identified included birds, bats and vandalism.

Diesel supply costs into remote area power systems vary


significantly subject to timing, supply, volume, security,
location and commercial considerations, Fig 3. Regardless of
these pricing pressures diesel supply remains the largest
operational costs for remote diesel power generation, with
diesel generation expensive in comparison to renewable
generation alternatives. Cost recovery was achieved in most
instances via a combination of consumer billing and
government subsidy, Fig 4.

despite lack of agreed definition surrounding low load, and


prior acknowledgment by respondents of limited experience
with regard to low load operation. Upon further analysis the
cultural belief that low load diesel operation implies significant
additional maintenance expenditure was identified as a key
cultural barrier to technology adoption by respondents.

Figure 3. Diesel fuel costs $AUD per litre, reported within remote area
power systems. The large cost variation is attributed to the significant
transportation costs faced by some remote communities.

A key roadblock to high (> 50% annual average) renewable


penetration within remote area power systems remains the
performance of the diesel generators, and their inability to run
at low loads. Engine specifications typically advise operation
within a range of 60% - 85% of their maximum rated load.
Among the survey participants, no common agreed definition
of low load threshold was observed, with manufacturers
typically defining this limit as operation below 30% name plate
rated capacity. Regardless of definition the ability to run diesel
generators at low load levels was seen as valuable by the
majority of survey respondents. Short periods of low load
running are permissible providing that the engine is purged
(brought and held at full load state) on a regular basis, yet again
no common agreed definition of a short period was observed.
Respondents were aware that low load operation can result in
incomplete fuel combustion, and without such a purge routine
will lead to permanent engine damage, primarily via cylinder
glazing.

Figure 4. Cost recovery mechanisms. As no single party pays the full costs
associated with generation, any case for delivering lower power prices may
present only partial value to individual stakeholders.

Incomplete low load fuel combustion was primarily


attributed to low cylinder temperatures and low cylinder
pressures. Poor combustion leads to soot formation and fuel
residue seepage, further compounding efficiency problems.
Glazing occurs when hot combustion gases blow past the
piston rings, causing the lubricating oil on the cylinder walls to
flash burn, creating an enamel-like carbon glaze which
glazes the bore and removes crucial cylinder honing
treatment. Assuming that poor low load capabilities can be
attributed to low cylinder temperatures and pressures,
controlling cylinder temperature and pressure was identified as
a pathway to improve low load capabilities, Fig. 5.
Additional maintenance obligations were seen as a barrier
to low load technology adoption by 62% of respondents, this is

Asked if specific suppliers offered superior low load


technologies, a number of respondents agreed, however no two
respondents nominated the same manufacturer. Such responses
suggest that perceived low load capabilities have much more to
do with good salesmanship than actual technical capability
(that is the market generally isnt able to discern a technology
difference across suppliers, despite a belief that one exists).
Such a response speaks volumes as to the lack of clear,
unbiased and relevant information on low load diesel
capabilities and comparisons. To conclude the survey
respondents were asked what area of low load diesel
application they would like to see researched, with 55%
nominating a focus on the operational and maintenance
implication of low load diesel application.
The collated industry opinion is useful to inform and direct
future low load diesel research priorities. In particular the lack
of knowledge surrounding low load diesel capabilities presents
a critical road block to adoption and further exploration of the
technologies within industry. As such, UTAS are currently
preparing to conduct a low load diesel pilot program.

Figure 5. Operational parameters reported as critical to low load operation


by survey respondents. Temperature and pressure clearly identified as primary
parameters. Other responses identified oil and coolant temperatures.

IV. MODELLED LOW LOAD DIESEL INTEGRATION


Implementation of a reduced low load diesel operating
threshold was modelled for one of the survey respondents
remote area power stations. Historical network load (~12GWh
per annum) and renewable resource data was provided by the
station owner for a continuous 12 month period, at a 10 minute
resolution. Homer energy (hybrid optimisation of multiple
energy resources) software was used to model the systems
diesel generation and its interaction with the range of
renewable generators onsite. The provided consumer load
profile was formatted into hourly diurnal profiles for each
month, while the site renewable resource was formatted into
monthly average solar global horizontal irradiance and
monthly 60m mean wind speed values, for the site solar and
wind resources respectively. Monthly average mean station
temperatures were also entered to define the site environment.

Details of the diesel, solar and wind technologies deployed at


the site were entered from manufacturer specifications to frame
the resultant sensitivity analysis. Of these specifications the
diesel engines fuel efficiency is shown below in Fig. 6. The
modelling assumed a $1 per litre diesel fuel cost. All
consumable and service cost assumptions were left unchanged
throughout the modelling, while the minimum load ratio
modelled considered a 30%, 20% and 10% low load threshold.
The modelling assumed dispatch priority for the available
renewable resources (solar and wind), with the available diesel
generation used to contribute any deficit between the
demanded load and the available renewable generation. For
instances when the required diesel generation was below the
units minimum operational threshold, the diesel generator was
set to maintain its minimum load level, displacing a portion of
the available renewable resource. No consideration for power
quality or network stability was undertaken as part of this
modelling exercise, and as such no comment can be made as to
impact of the increasing renewable content on the electrical
characteristics of the grid.

Minimum Load Threshold


30% nameplate
capacity

Renewable
content %
Fuel
Savings %

20% nameplate
capacity

10% nameplate
capacity

+ 8%

+ 15%

+6%

+12%

V. FUTURE RESEARCH PRIORITIES


UTAS have identified low load diesel research as a priority
energy research initiative and in addition to benchmarking
current low load capabilities are intending to explore improved
low load operational thresholds via adoption of improved low
load combustion technologies. A low load diesel pilot program
is currently proposed for King Island, Tasmania, with this
research to facilitate optimised low load engine performance
with consideration given to load variable cooling, improved
exhaust gas conditioning and load variable turbo geometries.
VI. CONCLUSION
Diesel generators are expensive to operate and maintain,
with remote area power system owners increasingly aware of
low load approaches and technologies as one possible solution.
Such awareness extends to support of wider market adoption,
yet implementation of low load approaches remains poor. One
possible reason for the low adoption rate lies within cultural
barriers to change, with many operators reliant on significant
operational experience to inform their perspectives. As low
load technologies emerge, no such operational track record
exists, and thus market acceptance lags technical capability.
Poor publication of technology capability also contributes to a
lack of definition surrounding low load approaches, with
equipment manufacturers failing to prioritise low load diesel
applications within their business activities. Without such a
focus consumers are left stranded between manufacturers
legacy low load thresholds, associated warranty conditions and
conflicting awareness that improved low load capability is
feasible.

Figure 6. Fuel efficiency curve for the diesel generators within the
modelled remote area power system.

The results of the low load scenario modelling are shown


below in Table 1, adopting 30% of nameplate rated capacity as
the operational low load threshold base case. The relative
impacts on both renewable energy penetration and fuel usage
have been assessed for each alternative low load threshold.
A common criticism of low load diesel application returned
during the survey was that of inefficient low load operation,
negating any benefit associated with the resultant increased
renewable energy capture. However, the results of the
modelling detail significant net benefit to any system able to
implement a reduced minimum operational limit. Such benefit
is primarily returned via reduced renewable energy spillage
within the system. Inefficient diesel operation at low loads has
subsequently been disproven as a barrier to future adoption of
low load diesel application.
Table 1. Low load diesel modelled renewable energy capture and fuel
savings, with reference to a 30% base case.

At the same time stakeholders see renewable plus storage


technologies as a future solution to their energy requirements,
but remain unclear as to both the optimal timing and the cost
competitiveness of these future approaches. Importantly low
load diesel approaches promise an immediate cost competitive
measure to reduce both the cost of generation and the
associated environmental emissions. A further cultural barrier
exists in a disconnect between low load diesel and renewable
plus storage approaches. In many respects low load approaches
provide a transitional approach, allowing consumers to move
away from diesel dependence in preparation for storage
solutions, yet the approaches are perceived by many consumers
as contradictory.
Such cultural barriers appear long held and are reinforced
by a lack of clear and accessible information on low load
technologies within the market. In further exploration of low
load technologies it is recommended that researchers consider
measures to address such cultural barriers, in that they possess
as large, if not larger hurdles to the eventual adoption of low
load approaches within the market, as do technical barriers.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT

The authors would like to thank Hydro Tasmania for their


ongoing financial contribution to this research. In addition the
author would also like to thank the following participants for
their involvement and support during the survey campaign:
ABB, AECOM, Alaska Energy Authority, Alaska Center for
Energy and Power, Alaska Village Electric Coop, Australian
Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), Australian Antarctic
Division, Bushlight, British Antarctic Survey, Caterpillar,
Centre for Appropriate Technology, Chininik Wind Group,
Commonwealth
Scientific
and
Industrial
Research
Organisation (CSIRO), Cummins, Energy Development
Limited, Ergon, GDF Suez Cofely, Hydro Tasmania,
International Finance Corporation, Joule Logic, Kodiak
Electric Coop, Kotzebue Electric Coop, Marsh Creek LLC,
MegaWatt Capital, Metamaya, MTU, National Renewable
Energy Agency (NREL), Nome Joint Utility Systems, Ninti
One, RE Plus, Synergy (formerly Verve Energy), TDX Power,
Territory Generation (formerly Power and Water Corporation),
Unalakleet Village Electric Coop, University of Alaska
Fairbanks, Wartsila and the World Bank.

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