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Performance is key on the path to net-zero

December 13, 2021
Performance is key on the path to net-zero

The critical role of gas turbines during the Energy Evolution

Editorial by Jeff Schleis, Gas Turbine Product Manager for EthosEnergy

(As published in Combined Cycle Journal Issue 68)

Unless you’ve been living on an island alone and completely disconnected from society, the topic on many people’s mind is the push for a cleaner world.  It’s in the news, on social media, and on the front page of every corporation’s website.  In particular, a number of high profile (and high energy) users have pledged to attain net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in coming years.  While several big utilities across the country  have made the pledge to get to net-zero by 2050, there are significant energy consumers in data storage and petrochemical who are also making a commitment.  Schlumberger, BP, Shell, Suncor, and others pledged for a 2050 goal.  Some of the big data companies (Google, Vantage, and Microsoft) have set their target to 2030.

As we all know, it’s one thing for business to make these pledges to satisfy public demands, but are they really taking action?  According to the 2020 Black & Veatch (B&V) Strategic Directions Electric Report, the answer is “yes”.  A poll from over 800 utility stakeholders, the large majority of those surveyed said investment is increasing for renewable generation (solar and wind).  Alternately, 61% of participants expected a stagnant or decrease in investment for natural gas-fired generation.

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting to electrify anything that is related to fossil fuel use.  California has already pledged to have all new vehicle sales as electric vehicles (EV) by 2035.  The Biden administration has a similar goal of zero internal combustion engines (ICE) sales by 2030.  Several big cities are pledging the elimination of natural gas for household use.  These include Berkeley, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Denver, and New York City to name a few that have set somewhere between 2030 and 2040 as the goal.

Where is all of this taking us?  If we electrify everything, a conservative estimate would be more than double our load requirements by 2035, adding another 1,300 of GW to the grid!

But is this even possible?  There have been numerous studies on this topic, with some of the more detailed ones considering the various pledges and determining where new power plants would need to be located and the necessary infrastructure to do so.  While results differ somewhat, there are some interesting conclusions that they confirm:

  • Coal-fired power plants are gone from the US grid by 2035
  • Demand on the grid is at least double by 2050
  • Renewable power generation exceeds fossil fuel power generation before 2035

That last point is the startling one.  Currently, renewable power generation is about 20% of our total power consumption according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).  We need almost triple that amount in less than 15 years to achieve net-zero goals.  This combined effort is leading us down a path where the increase in power needs will exceed the rate at which we can add renewable power generation.  That begs the question, how do we build a grid in thirty years that is twice the size of the current capacity and entirely on renewables?

The power generation industry knows all too well that the switch to renewables has already led to a significant impact on gas turbine generators that have switched from baseload to peaking service:

  • Increased maintenance due to cycling
  • Greater need to turndown further and ramp up quickly
  • Power market prices becoming increasingly unstable; smaller stressors generate bigger events

As the use of variable renewable power generation hits that majority tipping point, there is a significant need to stabilize the grid with spinning inertia.  Frequency stability will become a bigger factor.  Energy storage has technology to help, but won’t completely solve problems like riding through significant faults on the grid.  With all this turmoil, it is likely that industrial power generation will become even more critical to isolate themselves from this chaos and keep their processes running.

Looking back to that B&V study, some utilities do see the need for increased spending in natural gas fired assets in this environment.  The remaining 38% of those surveyed see this increase.  Whether this is for increased maintenance spending, or additional assets we don’t know, but it is fair to say that these units are not going away immediately.

Natural gas fired units are not going away in the short term, but how do we find the investment needed to keep these necessary units running?  EthosEnergy’s Plant Health & Diagnostics (PHD) products can find the latent or hidden issues costing the plant every day.  PHD can also reduce maintenance costs by converting reactive work to targeted/predictive work.

Figure 1 – Examples of Latent Issues Found by PHD Advance
Figure 1 – Examples of Latent Issues Found by PHD Advance

For plants with limited engineering resources or a lack of experienced operators, PHD Advance’s artificial intelligence engine is working 24x7 for the plant.  By utilizing the plant data that already exists, PHD is trained on what normal behavior is, and the AI engine finds issues before they create forced downtime.  Maintenance can spend less when issues aren’t as time-sensitive and before major failures occur.

The issues alerted by PHD are not always simple to solve.  That is why the program is backed by EthosEnergy’s depth of knowledge and engineering.  Whether it is related to the steam turbine, gas turbine, generator, control systems, or balance of plant, the engineering resources are just a button away.  All the troubleshooting is logged through our web interface.  In addition to making collaboration with EthosEnergy easy, it keeps track of all issues from diagnosis through resolution.

A key step before monitoring live data is a Thermal Performance Audit (TPA).  This engineering report benchmarks each of the plant’s assets and systems against industry performance targets to find latent issues.  While this is included with the PHD program, a TPA can be performed annually to look for underperforming systems.  Included with the TPA is a gap analysis at the end of the report.  It provides the data to understand the impact each underperforming system has on plant output and heat rate.  From this information, the owner can decide if the expense to correct the issue is worth the gain to the plant.  Many times, the impact of degraded systems are much greater than expected.

Interestingly, a side benefit to the TPA is the ability to evaluate the impact of upgrades or changes to the plant in terms of overall plant performance.  For example, scenarios like expanding the cooling water system that will improve the steam turbine condenser can be modeled.  The return on investment can be an easier decision when the impact on the plant performance is accurately modeled using current plant conditions and data.

Whatever your situation is with investment in your plant, EthosEnergy is there to assist with the journey and help keep your assets running longer and improving performance.  Rest assured that gas-fired assets are needed for us to make the transition to net-zero.  Don’t let the uncertainty of the future stop your plant from improving and retaining importance, that is of course, unless you are alone on your very own island.



Jeff Schleis is an experienced product manager with a career founded in turbine controls. Following a start as an engineer in the nuclear power industry, he has spent 25 years managing products for OEMs and independent suppliers including Woodward, GE, Siemens-Westinghouse, and currently EthosEnergy. Jeff has been with EthosEnergy since the inception of the turbine control group in 2002.

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