As POWER-GEN Europe celebrates its 20th anniversary, we’ve invited members of its advisory board to consider the trends that shaped the industry and how current developments could influence its evolution over the next two decades.
In this post, Dr. Jacob Klimstra, Senior Energy and Engine Specialist, Jacob Klimstra Consultancy, looks at the challenges that renewables have brought to the power grid and the increasingly important role of gas-based power plants.
At a time when customers are demanding ever-higher levels of reliability, the fact renewables bring more intermittency into the grid means greater complexity. In unbundled markets, companies are unwilling to invest because every plant has a technical life of between 40 and 50 years, meaning there is always the danger of a competitor coming along with a better technology.
Effectively, we need system flexibility in terms of both fuels and outputs. Specifically, modern gas-fuelled equipment such as fast responding fuel-efficient gas engines, together with combined cycle gas turbine plants for steadier loads.
Ensuring plant flexibility is the only way forward for the power industry. Renewables introduce variations in output into the grid, yet nuclear, brown coal and coal-fired power plants do not integrate easily with renewables because they have to be heated slowly to avoid wear. This means gas-based power plants will be essential in meeting demand for power by delivering the necessary level of system flexibility and the ability to respond rapidly to changes in demand.
The carbon-free challenge
In a fully sustainable world, gas, natural gas and biogas will offer the most economical solution for peaking power, covering contingency demand and for bridging seasonal differences. For the time being, there is sufficient supply of natural gas and shale gas to act as a buffer. Moving forward, a carbon-free power industry is possible for countries with wind, solar and hydro energy. But for others, such as the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, it will be close to impossible.
However, that doesn’t mean we cannot reduce the use of fossil fuel to a large extent. Natural gas will be required as a buffer for times when there is not a lot of wind or solar energy available, so I would argue that reducing our carbon emissions to about 30 per cent of current levels would be a much more realistic and practical goal.
Similarly, it would be wrong to assume that energy management technologies such as smart metering and smart grids can solve the whole energy issue. Smart appliances might help a little to reduce peaks in electricity demand and to smooth peaks in renewable electricity production. However, smart power generation is needed to solve the variability in electricity production from wind, solar, wave and tidal sources.