A major aim of this particular conference is to bring together utilities and other organisations directly involved in power production with a range of technology providers and developers. It provides an effective forum for plant operators to meet and discuss operational and other issues with manufacturers and vendors. It also allows them to share information on new developments and of successes achieved. This is achieved through a series of formal presentations, but also via a number of workshops targeting the relevant areas. As in previous years, the geographical spread of delegates at this year’s summit was wide, with representatives from many European countries, North America, Russia, Asia, and North Africa.
The presentations covered a range of topics that included the future of the European energy industry, emission control, new power plant developments, and emerging energy markets. There were also a number that addressed issues associated with the day-to-day running of thermal power plants in different parts of the world. A recurring theme, particularly with European operators, was the current difficulty of running thermal (coal and natural gas) power plants in parts of Europe. This encompasses both economic and technical issues, many of which have resulted from the growing level of electricity being generated by intermittent renewable sources, predominantly wind power. Clearly, output from such sources is weather-dependent and the amount of electricity generated can change significantly and quickly. This means that any thermal plants forming part of the same grid or system are now expected to react quickly in order to make up any shortfall. Most no longer work on base load but are now frequently turned on and off or quickly ramped up and down. This can have serious consequences – the impacts on coal-fired plants was reported on by the Clean Coal Centre in 2011 (report CCC/189). My keynote presentation at the Summit was based partly on the work covered in this, but focused mainly on my recent project that looked at possible options for combining coal powered generation with intermittents such as wind power. Gratifyingly, it created quite a lot of interest and discussion that extended well beyond the formal session.
Most of the impacts on coal-fired plants resulting from a switch from base load to more flexible modes of operation are now fairly well known. However, what was particularly interesting was just how many problems the operators of gas-fired plants are also experiencing, particularly with older units. These are often portrayed as an easy and effective option for providing fast backup power when output from intermittents drops off. The rapid ramp rates often required (for which operators are paid accordingly) is increasing the wear and tear on major plant components. So, for instance, both rotating and static parts of some types of gas and steam turbines are increasingly suffering damage and a greatly reduced lifespan. There was a general feeling that operating in this manner is building up a major problem for the future. Newer plants based on aero-derivative gas turbines can better handle this type of flexible operation, although even here, many European plants are facing economic difficulties as their output is being increasingly displaced by that from wind farms. This has resulted in shorter running hours, which clearly impacts on plant income and profitability. Recently, there have been a number of well-reported cases where virtually new gas power plants have been mothballed. In order to produce adequate income from their assets, some companies are now in the process of relocating gas turbines to more lucrative overseas locations.
Overall, it was an interesting conference, during which a considerable amount of useful information was exchanged between presenters, delegates, and industrial suppliers.