The thermal power market in Europe feels as if it’s circling the wagons against a twin onslaught from the renewable energy sector and policymakers intent on ever more stringent clean energy directives.
I was in Brussels recently where the future direction of the industry was debated by the European Power Plant Suppliers Association (EPPSA). Its president, Emmanouil Kakaras, said that “thermal power is vilified in the current push for renewables. We are considered to be dirty – we are the bad guys.”
Yet he added that “thermal is a fundamental part of the energy mix. We deliver electricity at the most competitive prices without subsidies and we respect market conditions. But nobody believes us – we are not taken seriously.
“So new plants are cancelled and old plants are kept in operation. Politicians do not appreciate our contribution to security of supply. Wholesale prices collapse, utilities suffer losses and new investments are frozen. We need a wake-up call.”
He said there was an industry-wide understanding that thermal plants need to be as flexible as possible, yet he wondered where, in the current climate, the investment was going to come from to pay for this flexibility.
“Even if everybody agrees that thermal power is indispensable to the future of power generation, who is going to build new plants in the current scenario?”
Klaus Dieter Borchardt, director of internal energy market at the European Commission’s Energy Directorate, stressed the EC’s desire for renewables to be the cornerstone of Europe’s push for decarbonization, adding that this was a “no-regret option”.
He also admitted that the decision to back renewables was a political one, not an economic decision: “If it was an economic decision we would never have done it. This is a deliberate political decision and this path comes with costs.”
He also conceded that “100 per cent renewables is not do-able” because of the unanswered problems of intermittency and the lack of any commercial-scale storage.
He said there had been “very timid attempts to store electricity” but they were not “economically viable or sufficient” and concluded that “we cannot do without non-renewables – we cannot do without thermal”.
He then outlined the challenge facing coal. “It is abundantly available, the plants are becoming more flexible and efficient, but… it’s dirty and that is a major problem that will not go away. If we want to use coal we have to deliver on CCS.”
However, speaking on the day when it was announced that four major utilities have pulled out of the Zero Emissions Platform, he said: “The reality is that CCS is not a success – it’s on its way to complete failure. If we are not able to turn this around we will still have all the criticisms against coal.”
Borchardt said that the thermal power industry had to “develop a masterplan for yourselves. You have to deliver – you have to show the world that you are also doing the transition from the past to the future – from old plants to new, retrofitted plants.
“When you do that you are a partner in this difficult path to a decarbonized economy.”
Well, I imagine those words stung with OEMs. It’s hard to develop a winning ‘masterplan’ if policymakers are moving the goalposts, yet I would argue that most of them are already delivering and making “the transition from the past to the future”.
On that topic, in this issue of PEI we examine what is being done to retrofit and upgrade power plants so that they can continue to exist in the 21st century energy landscape (p4). Leone Tessarini of Alstom says that the European power plant sector has found itself in the middle of “a perfect storm”, one that means that it is “of particular importance that we keep our plants as competitive as possible in the difficult market we are in today”.
And in our article on the future of large frame gas turbines (p24), Rainer Hauenschild, head of energy solutions at Siemens, says the energy market is “a rapidly changing arena. This drastic transformation requires a new way of thinking”.
“The more complex the systems become, the greater the need for flexibility in power generation. Flexible technical solutions in all areas assure the constant availability of power as well as grid stability.”
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