The theme of the recent POWER-GEN Europe conference in Cologne was ‘Navigating the Power Transition’.
Some four years ago, the attitude of the power sector’s big players was still ‘business as usual’, although an occasional CEO had the courage to say that change was in the air. Currently, however, sector stakeholders are fully aware that, at least in Europe, a substantial transition is taking place. A poll taken during POWER-GEN Europe revealed that half of the delegates present expected that the European market for large power plants will never return. Some 23% believed a special long-term policy framework might still create some opportunities for large power plants, and 20% thought remuneration for capacity would restore markets for large power plants. A major role was predicted for local generators, with much growth expected in that segment in the coming 10 years.
It may be that the majority of conference participants belonged to the group of the already-converted. Nevertheless, the Strategy track, as well as the panel discussions, also revealed that Europe’s power transition is a reality. Disappearance of traditional baseload for power plants, rapid ramping, and renewable sources’ variability mean not only that generators need to be more flexible, but also that backup power plants need to be very agile.
The conference also made it clear that affordable technologies for medium- and long-term energy storage are not available on the market. It is not even clear whether such technologies will ever be economic. Therefore, using natural gas as a backup energy source is considered the best solution. Local electricity generators, in combination with cogeneration, can fulfil all the tasks required to keep the power grid stable at low cost, high fuel efficiency and minimal environmental impact.
As long as Europe’s gas price stays relatively high compared to the price of coal, existing coal-fired power plants might still be used to back up renewables – but this will end with the end of these plants’ operational lives. New-built coal plants are not economic for the projected low utilisation factors. Furthermore, if the price of CO2 emissions rises to levels above €40/tonne, it will be even more difficult for coal-fired power plants to make a profit.
Whether, and how, Europe’s policymakers will act is a big question. Most power supply systems can relatively easily accept an average of 20% intermittent renewable energy. However, assuming that a step from 20% to 40% renewable electricity is just a matter of linearly extrapolating earlier actions is a big mistake. The severity of the issues that arise will grow exponentially. Getting 40% of electricity from renewable resources with a capacity factor of 20% means that electricity production peaks of 200% of average demand will occur. Just imagine what will happen when 90% of electricity is provided by renewables.
In Europe, the best solution for accepting more renewable electricity is the integration of electricity and heat demand. Local generators, especially cogeneration installations, can play a major role in facilitating this. POWER-GEN Asia in Kuala Lumpur is rapidly approaching and its theme is ‘Connecting Asia’s Power Professionals’. I wonder what these Asian professionals will say, and what will happen in the rest of the world. We will soon know more.
|Dr Jacob Klimstra
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