An urgent need for power around the world is seeing more and more power facilities running on fast-track, flexible diesel and gas gensets. Tildy Bayar spoke with several companies working in this sector to find out how they are responding to the changes in the market, and how they imagine the future of the genset

An 8 MW fast-track power installation in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Credit: Aggreko

An urgent need for power around the world is seeing more and more power facilities running on fast-track, flexible diesel- and gas-fired gensets. In developing countries, these installations can provide a boost to grid power or bring off-grid power to people who have none. In developed nations they can enhance energy security and support the transition to a renewables-based power mix.

Dan Ibbetson, Aggreko’s Managing Director for Northern Europe, notes that “some countries need support for their national grid infrastructure, which can be for planned maintenance or upgrade, where the grid is struggling to meet increased capacity or where it is compromised due to fault or disaster. These tend to be large power projects, such as those we currently have in a number of African countries, but they could also be utilities, and anywhere in the world.

“We also support particular industry sectors around the world, where their remote location makes connection to the grid unavailable, too complicated or too costly, such as mines and the oil and gas industry, but it could also be for construction projects and again, these could be anywhere.”

Ibbetson notes that “power reliability and sustainability are crucial in all areas of the world”. However, he also notes that while it is sometimes assumed that power shortages only affect developing countries, this is not actually correct. The cost of maintaining and upgrading existing power infrastructure in developed countries is a growing concern, he says, with the US and other developed nations experiencing more instances of power failure due to aging plants coming under increasing demand.

There is a range of operating conditions, available fuels and compliance needs for gensets in different global markets. Thus – in addition to the bottom-line attribute of reliability – flexibility, the need to use alternative fuels, fuel efficiency, performance in harsh environments, increased emissions control and an expanded power range all feature in the list of important technology developments for diesel and gas gensets. However, different issues will come to the fore in different regions.

Different strokes, different projects

Even a short list of current projects reflects the diverse uses and conditions for diesel- and gas-fired gensets around the world today.

In Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert, where temperatures can climb to 38oC, a camp for rail and mine workers is powered by three 275 kVA 6T1600 DS300 diesel generator sets from MTU Onsite Energy, commissioned in 2013. The gensets supply constant power for air conditioning, lighting systems, cooking and cooling at the facility.

Arid desert conditions including heat, fine dust and floodwater mean the gensets must be fitted with special air filters and protective enclosures, which insulate them from the weather conditions as well as minimizing noise output.

In Germany in late 2015, MTU Onsite Energy’s diesel gensets in the 600 kWe to 3200 kWe power range were certified by the BDEW energy and water trade association as meeting the requirements for operation with the nation’s grid code.

According to Jürgen Winterholler, head of systems development in Power Generation at Rolls-Royce Power Systems, “wide-ranging adjustments had to be made to our genset configuration, our protection and control systems, and our measurements and simulations” in order to achieve this accreditation.

One of the first BDEW-certified gensets, based on an 18-cylinder Series 2000 diesel engine, delivers 1000 kW for an industrial bakery in Germany. It is used as backup to safeguard the production of frozen baked goods, switching to grid-parallel operation when power demand peaks at midday. The genset provides power for lighting, conveyors, refrigerators, the frost plant, and regulation and control of the baking lines.

In Mozambique, Aggreko’s Gigawatt Park at Ressano Garcia features gas-fired gensets providing 232 MW, with the latest expansion of 122 MW commissioned in 2013. The plant is an interim cross-border independent power producer (IPP) project supplying power to the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP), with off-takers such as Electricidade de Moçambique (EDM) and South African utility Eskom.

The 100 MW Ressano Garcia gas-fired plant in Mozambique

Credit: Rolls-Royce Power Systems

In Los Angeles, US, Aggreko developed a distribution system to transfer power from a solar array to the red carpet area for the Emmy Awards, while in Stockholm, Sweden, 10 of Aggreko’s gensets running on biofuel made from vegetable oil delivered 4.6 MVA of continuous power for the Eurovision song contest at the Globe Arena.

Meanwhile, Cummins Power Generation is working with the Kenya Power & Lighting Company on a pilot on-site power test project at Marigat in Baringo County, Kenya. The project produces up to 12 MWe and is fuelled on biomass waste. A follow-up project elsewhere in Kenya will also use a combination of agricultural residues to generate power, and a 1.2 MW plant project has already begun in Zambia.

Technology focus

Given the range of operating conditions and an ever-expanding project scope, which are the most important issues for companies developing, installing and operating gensets?

Ibbetson says his company’s work in R&D centres on fuel usage, further efficiency gains, cost savings and reducing carbon footprints – “or address[ing] whatever priority individual customers or industry sectors demand”.

“For example, for our customers in the oil and gas sector, this could mean using available fuels that might otherwise be wasted, such as flare, shale and stranded gas,” he says, noting that in addition to biofuels, Aggreko’s gensets can run on associated petroleum gas (APG) and natural gas.

“Flexibility has always been a watchword for us,” he notes. “We can configure a tailored solution that can be brought on- and offline as demand dictates, thus reducing fuel costs, wastage and carbon footprint. Industries are constantly pushing their boundaries and we aim to innovate to ensure we can provide the solutions that are needed when, where and how they are needed. Flexibility and a broad fleet of gensets, both in terms of size and fuel, enable us to offer a range of options to meet these challenges.”

Flexibility is “one of the key issues” for Cummins Generator Technologies, says the firm’s Chief Technical Officer Kevan Simon. “We have to make sure our product is infinitely flexible based on the changes our customers are seeing in their own use conditions.” For example, if a customer selects a product based on a certain use case, what happens if the fuel price changes suddenly and greater efficiency is required? “We have to keep evolving the way we support and deliver these flexible solutions,” Simon says, “but we have to help the customer evolve as well, so they can change with the market as it moves.”

Ibbetson also places efficiency high on the list. “The efficiency of our engines, fuel usage and environmental issues are key for our R&D department and we don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future,” he says.

“Renewables, APG and biofuels will all continue to play a significant role in the energy mix in the future. We have our own manufacturing base in Scotland working on technologies for a sustainable energy mix that meets the needs of customers across industry sectors.

“Continuing to enhance our remote monitoring technologies and capabilities is another big focus for us,” he continues. Remote monitoring “enables us to analyze real-time data on our engines, often to proactively anticipate and fix problems remotely before they happen, or respond quickly with a well-prepared service technician.”

Simon also believes enhancing remote monitoring is key, and will become more so as more devices are connected. “The Internet of Things is becoming more important in the power space,” he says, “and it is going to continue to evolve and grow. So the ability for us to monitor, track and check discrete components from afar, or even for the customer to monitor and check his plant and think about predictive service and maintenance, is another important factor that’s going to be coming more and more to the front in the next few years.”

Function determines form

For Simon, product development includes all of these concerns under the umbrella of his customers’ use cases.

“It’s all very well and good looking at how to develop a product from a manufacturing point of view,” he says. “We can meet the statutory requirements, the codes and compliance, the country-specific legislations – but the most important thing is understanding how and where our customer is going to use our product, and all the conditions they’ll find themselves in.”

Cummins Generator Technologies has responded to this need by building what Simon calls a market- and attribute-based book of knowledge, which assembles specific customer use cases for different world regions. These then become key requirements for region-specific product development.

Each case will be “subtly different”, he notes, with variations in everything from operating conditions to environmental factors to grid stability. Some cases can be cross-referenced, but Simon says that “if you take one use case and move it around the world, every condition, every location, every end customer use has different factors and elements that you need to consider in your machine and system design.”

He offers the example of a customer running a prime ISO8528 application in India vrs Europe vrs Saudi Arabia. Between each market there are subtle differences in the way the end customer understands the concept of prime power.

“In India their definition of ‘prime’ is something that looks like almost continuous running, so they’re expecting the machine to run quite a lot of hours, and there is some variable load, but also lot of constant load,” he explains. “Temperatures and environmental factors in India can run from quite cold to really quite hot conditions. Then you have to deal with dust ingress and water ingress, and then you need to also consider, if it’s a grid-connected machine, the network contribution, how many disruptions on the network, how many outages in that particular location.

“If you then took that case to Europe,” he continues, “in exactly same the same conditions – a prime-based scenario with a variable load – the utility would be less of an issue. It would be fairly constant with no outages and not much disruption. You won’t get large voltage or frequency excursions and the customer will typically run a 70 per cent load profile, and the amount of time they run generally follows ISO conditions, not generally high hours.”

In Saudi Arabia, he says, “again the applications are different. You will see variable load, and the hours are a lot more similar to the hours run in India, so higher than normal. The environmental conditions are a lot higher, the temperature effects on the machine will be an extreme consideration, then voltage/frequency excursions from the utility are not as bad as in India but not as good as a stable, fixed European grid system.”

The company began its use case analysis process around three years ago, Simon says, and it is now “gathering momentum” as the changes in the power sector accelerate. The company has focused its study across the power generation spectrum from prime to continuous to standby. “All of those vary around the world, and depend on how the customer uses the product,”

According to Simon, this kind of case-based analysis leading to micro-configuration of products constitutes the future of technology development across the power sector.

“What’s driving the technology is how you’re integrating your system”

“Think about emissions, which has been a favourite subject of everybody in the industry up to a few years ago,” he says. “Now these are normalizing around the world, but even here there are subtle differences. Once emissions flatten out and all products are delivering a certain emissions level, then what’s driving the technology is how you’re efficiently integrating your system, how you’re making the system work to its utmost performance in the end customer’s use case conditions.

An AVK DSG 86 generator

Credit: Cummins Generator Technologies

“Those are the things that then start driving how you differentiate and develop your product, how you think about the options you make available so you can create a baseline product and add different options or modules based on which market or customer use case it’s going to. So it’s driving different thoughts around how we create a modular approach across all of our alternators such that we can up-fit or de-fit based on customer use case and then make sure we’ve got the right product for the right market.”

Temporary to semi-permanent

In another growing trend, some fast-track power installations are effectively becoming semi-permanent or open-ended power sources in some regions. Given this, will technology development now need to focus on longevity?

Ibbetson says that at Aggreko, “we see ourselves as working very much in partnership with utilities and independent power producers, and we advocate early integration and forward planning wherever possible.

“It can take years to build and commission a permanent power plant and so a fast-track, interim solution is often needed to bridge the gap. Reliable power is crucial to maintain and grow GDP, and in some countries, particularly those reliant on a high proportion of renewable energy sources, there is often a need to have a power-bridging solution in place, and this might seem to be a semi-permanent installation in periods of prolonged energy deficit. This would be the case in areas experiencing adverse weather conditions, such as prolonged drought.”

For an installation “running in island mode with only a small load connected, if it grows, does it become connected at some point to a utility?” asks Simon. “Do we need to then start thinking about utility connections, grid code compliance, all those other things for which we can change out discrete components to meet those changes?

“That fast-track installation can evolve based on the way the customer or need makes it evolve. It can either stay static if the load is static, it can get smaller or larger, it can be connected to a utility, it can be operated in island mode, change ability in meeting further emissions levels, it can be more efficient, the fuel source may change…”

“Even the customer, at the time, may not be aware of how long it’s going to go on for,” he notes. “It could go on for a few months or few years, or infinitely longer than that. We’ll be constantly working with them to say, ok, we put in this fast-track power, but is it going to meet your needs in future?”

Offerings such as maintenance and service support keep companies aware of changing conditions on the ground, and a flexible approach and forward-thinking design allow for modifications to an initial installation based on new needs.

“If it has a certain emissions level and stays there long enough that the customer wants to up-fit it, we can work with him to change out the components or up-fit/de-fit products based on a modular approach,” says Simon. “There are ways and means of evolving how the customer uses the product, from fast and efficient installation to something more long-term, sustainable and reliable.”

Environmental concerns

As end users worldwide become more aware of environmental issues, there is growing concern about the long-term viability of diesel-fired gensets, especially as renewables become a cheaper option for more remote regions. Will diesel gensets be pushed out of some markets?

“There has been a shift in the past 10 years towards more environmentally friendly solutions and businesses across all sectors are more conscious than ever of their carbon footprint,” says Ibbetson. “This will be a continuing trend, which is why we are constantly striving to increase the efficiency of our engines and looking for ways to innovate.”

“Environmental issues will always be a consideration,” he adds. “At the moment it is not possible to rely entirely on renewable energy sources, and diesel gensets provide a viable backup.

“We see diesel playing a continued role in the energy mix in the future. We do not rely exclusively on diesel, or any other fuel, and understand that each fuel source has its advantages and disadvantages.”

“One thing that’s becoming apparent around the world is that you can’t just rely on one power source”

Simon picks up on this point: “One thing that’s becoming more apparent around the world is that you can’t just rely on one power source,” he says. “If you think about hybrid systems, and about the way that different forms of power are becoming available – wind, battery power, solar, diesel and gas reciprocating engines, gas turbines – some are connected at the highest level in the network and provide the backbone of our distribution system, and then as you get down to lower levels in the distributed power sectors there’s going to be different power sources working, sometimes in isolation and sometimes together.

“The art is to think about how you can most efficiently combine those systems into a single form of power control that allows you to best use the power that’s available to you against the demand that you have.”

Aggreko gensets at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014

Credit: Aggreko

He adds: “We are very conscious about the environmental impact of everything we do, and we know that in different parts of the world there are different environmental considerations that affect the selection of equipment. In some cases there has to be immediate use, and at some points you have to burn fossil fuels right now, today, because there is nothing else available. In other parts of the world people will push back on that and say ‘I will do it but only as a backup, but there has to be another solution’. So in working with customers wherever they are around the world, it’s back to the use case again.”

Looking to the future

Cummins’ vision of the future includes “adjacent technologies” which are not currently used in the power sector but are used in other industries. The company is “looking at … what’s out there that’s currently being used that we could take and apply and change as needed to make it fit our products,” Simon says.

And, as the book-of-knowledge cases grow, the company has begun to spot gaps in products for various markets, based on observing customers’ use cases. Simon says Cummins is “then thinking about what those gaps are going to be two to three years from now, or five years from now, or even 10 years: is it a trend, is it something we need to start exploring?”

And keeping up with the trends is crucial. “The drive constantly is to think about innovating, differentiating and delivering. It’s all very well and good thinking about new technologies, but unless you can actually get them to customers as quickly as you possibly can, you lose that opportunity. It’s then about speed of execution and not missing the market need.”