Innovation and integration key to keeping Europe’s power flowing

3. May 2013. / SEE Energy News

With plans well underway for POWER-GEN Europe 2013, conference director Nigel Blackaby examines some of the key themes that will drive the debate in Vienna, with system flexibility and integration critical to meeting Europe’s long-term generation challenge.

Rapid growth in renewable infrastructure is placing considerable pressure on Europe’s power system. Renewables predominately generate power intermittently, meaning their increasing prominence in the energy mix poses new challenges in respect of security of supply. System flexibility, back-up and storage are therefore pressing priorities.

In particular, the intermittency of supply means backup generation is critical to filling-in the gaps where needed and ensuring consistent stability in load at all times. Power generation technology development has focused heavily in the area of flexible gas-fired solutions, with manufacturers designing gas turbines to be fast ramping in order to achieve maximum load as quickly as possible and with the capability to operate efficiently in part-load conditions.

Similarly, manufacturers of gas engines are looking to improve the efficiency in which their engines can be operated. For example, power plants are now being constructed with a dozen fast-starting gas engines, which provide the plant operator with the capability to use a small number where necessary and quickly fire-up additional ones if demand for power increases.

More in store

There have also been significant advances in storage technologies to the extent some can now offer a commercially viable option for meeting demand for providing flexible sources of power in order to smooth out the load where there is intermittency of supply.

Hydro power pump storage in particular is gaining traction in countries such as Austria and Switzerland, where the mountainous terrain provides a favourable environment. Here, the electricity generated by renewables can be used to pump water from a lake at the bottom of a mountain to another lake or storage facility at the top. When needed, the water is then released back down the hill and passes through a hydro turbine in order to generate power that is fed back into the grid.

But the integration of renewables into the energy mix can also mean a marrying of the technologies themselves, with designs being developed that allow the construction of hybrid power plants. Hybrid concentrating solar power (H-CSP) for example is a generation type, whereby a solar add-on is fitted in a conventional power plant in order to save fuel, by taking over a part of its steam supply otherwise supplied by fossil fuel. As a result, H-CSP can make significant savings in terms of fuel consumption, cut the level of CO2 emissions, and increase both the power plant’s peak load capability and efficiency.

Similarly, the integration of power grids is gaining momentum, with a number of practical steps and investment decisions having already been taken in the areas of interconnection, large reinforcement and offshore transmission. Greater integration of the national energy markets in the European Union is reliant on new, large-scale transmission infrastructure to support the trading of electricity between countries and to connect renewable generation plant to centres of consumption.

Finding smarter ways

Of course, current developments mean that balancing demand and supply on the grid becomes more complex. The need to solve the challenge of intermittency is therefore one of the major factors driving interest in the smart grid concept, although it has yet to see widespread adoption. Financing generally remains a major challenge for the renewable sector and other clean energy projects, while continued regulatory reform and uncertainty, as well as consumer concerns over privacy and security, have proved barriers to further smart grid evolution.

Nevertheless, incorporating more intelligence into the power grid and distribution networks means operators and utilities will be able to react more quickly to changes in demand. If the grid has in-built intelligence and communications capability, then it can react more quickly to peaks and troughs in demand, and send messages to the parts of the system necessary to reduce or ramp up the power load as required. This makes smart grid very much an ‘integration’ technology.

The greatest barrier to achieving these goals however, is the power industry’s huge upfront capital requirement. The fact investors need to know they will make a return over the majority of the typical 25-30-year lifetime of a plant has put the brakes on development in what continues to be an uncertain economic climate. And while GDP remains flat and in recession, the hiatus in demand for power will continue. But as economies return to growth, demand will rise significantly.

Enhancing the old to support the new

From an operations and maintenance perspective, technological innovation is therefore key to keeping Europe’s power flowing. Moreover, the energy industry is constantly striving for and achieving greater efficiency, with marginal gains being found through programmes of plant refurbishment and modernisation. This is just as important to developing Europe’s power system as promoting greater flexibility and grid intelligence.

It is often the case that a relatively modest retro-fit and modernisation programme at an existing power plant can deliver an increase in efficiency of several percentage points. And if an extra 10 per cent efficiency in terms of power generation is achieved at a large power plant, this can almost equate to what can be achieved by building a small power plant – but at significantly lower cost.

In many ways, the power industry continues to successfully solve its most pressing challenges. It is much more efficient than it was and that process is continuing as our engineers, manufacturers and operators continue to innovate to achieve their goals. The main challenge of course, is continued business uncertainty and the risk that companies might be inclined to cut back on R&D.

Fortunately, the power industry has been to a certain extent sheltered from the downturn as it continues to drive forward in its own efforts to meet targets on decarbonisation, energy efficiency and green energy.

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