Flexibility and gas take centre stage at POWER-GEN Europe

This year’s POWER-GEN Europe took place in the vibrant Italian city of Milan, where an international audience of power professionals met to discuss and debate the important issues facing the electric power industry today. For me, however, two key messages emerged from this year’s event.

The first is the need for “flexible power” ” if I had a penny for every time I heard that phrase in the conference or on the exhibition floor I would be a very rich woman ” and the second is gas’s role in Europe’s generation mix over the near future. But what do they mean by flexible power and why do we need it? In essence it relates to a power plant ” gas turbine or gas engine-based ” that can be operated to respond to the demands of the grid quickly and efficiency.

And the growing need for operationally flexible power plants is primarily being driven by renewable energy’s growing contribution to our grids ” a trend that is unlikely to change, especially with the legally binding 2020 renewables target on the horizon. The United Nations expects renewable energy to provide 80 per cent of global energy needs by 2050. Last year, the offshore wind market grew by over 50 per cent in the European Union.

Several leading OEMs have been working on this concept of flexible power for some time and their efforts now appear to be bearing fruit. Early last month, Siemens announced the results of the rigorous testing programme of its long-awaited SGT5-8000H gas turbine, which clocked an impressive 60.75 per cent efficiency in combined-cycle and can provide up to a 200 MW load change in seven minutes.

No sooner had the dust settled than GE Energy introduced its new combined-cycle plant concept, the FlexEfficiency 50, which promises a fuel efficiency of 61 per cent and a ramp-rate of more than 50 MW a minute, which has been seen as a new industry benchmark. Beginning on p.16 is an update on the latest advances in gas turbine combined-cycle technology.

GE then used POWER-GEN Europe as the forum to name its first FlexEfficiency 50 customer. MetCap Energy Investments, a Turkish project developer, is to integrate GE’s new combined-cycle technology into an innovative plant concept called an Integrated Renewables Combined-Cycle (IRCC) power plant. Once completed in 2015, GE says the IRCC plant will boast an efficiency of approximately 70 per cent.

If you couple the growing importance of renewable energy with nuclear power’s uncertain future, especially in Europe, then the future for gas looks very bright. However, before we get carried away and begin to believe that gas is the answer to securing supply and meeting our environmental obligations, we should take heed of what Gianfilippo Mancini, director of Enel’s Generation and Energy Management Division and its Market Division, said in his keynote address at POWER-GEN Europe.

He warned that “fuel prices are once again rising” and that the trend would continue for the foreseeable future. Although natural gas prices have remained relatively low, that is now changing ” so far this year the price of wholesale gas has risen by a third ” and if demand for gas skyrockets over the coming years, so will its price.

Many look to the ‘shale gas revolution’ to guarantee a bountiful supply of gas, minus geopolitical challenges, and for the US it has worked ” transforming it from the world’s biggest gas importer into a self-sufficient producer. In Europe, things are less straightforward and the exploitation of shale gas is being hampered by opposition on environmental grounds.

Without doubt, gas will play a very pivotal role in the power generation mix over the next decade or so. The bank Credit Suisse expects gas fired power plants to make up about 25 per cent of global generation capacity additions in the next five years. However, it is far from being the silver bullet we would like it to be. Anyway, who said that nuclear power was dead and buried? See our analysis on p.4.

Kind regards,
Dr Heather Johnstone,
Chief Editor

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