Navigant Research Blog

As Coal Declines, Low-Emissions Engine Plants Spread

— December 22, 2014

In September, the world’s largest reciprocating engine power plant was completed in Jordan.  IPP3, as it’s called, has 38 Wärtsilä 50DF engines, with a total capacity of 573 MW in the extreme desert conditions of Jordan.    The plant uses tri-fuel engines that can run on natural gas, heavy fuel oil, and light fuel oil.  They can start and ramp up to full capacity in less than 10 minutes, and they can do this multiple times a day without any maintenance cost impact.

The modular nature of the plant also allows it to operate at peak efficiency (45%-50%) across its entire output range by shutting down individual engines as needed and leaving others at high load.  In addition, the plant will enable Jordan’s existing turbine plants to operate more efficiently, as they will be used for baseload while IPP3 fills in the gaps where there is fluctuation in demand.

Reliable, Flexible, and (Relatively) Clean

IPP3 is fitted with a nitrate (NOx) control system for reducing emissions and meeting strict environmental health and safety guidelines set by the International Finance Corporation.  The plant follows international requirements for sulfides and particulates as well, and it is expected to produce 35% fewer carbon emissions than an existing steam turbine plant would if both used heavy fuel oil.  IPP3 will also have a close to zero usage of water once gas is employed as fuel, minimizing its environmental footprint.

So what makes this plant important?  It’s important because before IPP3, Jordan’s utility professionals had never contemplated the installation of a reciprocating engine plant, preferring to generate baseload power through combined-cycle gas turbine (CCGT) facilities, which have peak efficiencies of 55% to 60%.  It’s also important because many utility professionals around the world, not just in Jordan, are looking for a solution that is reliable, offers fuel and operational flexibility, is quick-starting and efficient across a wide range of loads, and consumes less water and produces fewer emissions.

Reciprocal Benefits

And, as in Jordan, many other utility professionals are choosing reciprocating engines.  Wärtsilä alone has been installing an impressive number of large gensets recently.  For example, a 175 MW gas engine plant was completed by Wärtsilä in South Africa for Sasol, one of the country’s largest industrial companies, in December 2012.  The company is also in the process of building the 200 MW Pesanggaran Bali power plant, which will be the largest engine-based power plant in Indonesia when it is completed in 2015.

In the United States, Wärtsilä has been contracted to supply a 56 MW Smart Power Generation power plant in Oklahoma, and the company is expected to install a 50 MW plant in Hawaii on the island of Oahu, pending approval of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission.  There is also a 225 MW plant being proposed in Texas and, reportedly, another 225 MW plant already under construction in Oregon.  All of the plants in the United States will be used to balance wind and solar generation on the grid.  With cheap natural gas, emissions standards, and the grids around the world becoming increasingly unstable, it appears that reciprocating engines’ stock is on the rise.

For more detail on the future of reciprocating engines, please see Navigant Research’s report, Natural Gas Generator Sets.

 

Severe Drought Hastens Hydropower’s Slow Decline

— November 4, 2014

Coal retirements, the shale gas bonanza, post-Fukushima Daiichi nuclear curtailments, the rising adoption of distributed generation, and emerging price parity for solar PV and wind – the dynamic changes affecting electricity grids worldwide are many.  Now, with prolonged droughts affecting leading global economies, like Brazil and California (the world’s seventh and eighth largest economies by gross domestic product [GDP], respectively), a slow decline in the prominence of hydropower is in the mix.

Historically, hydropower has been the primary source of clean and renewable energy in both economies.  Its decline has had a more severe impact on Brazil’s grid, but in both places, this development is expected to continue to coincide with a further rise in gas-fired generation and renewables.  Due to the current cost of renewables, the consequences of this shift may be a rise in greenhouse gas emissions in each country’s electric power sector.

California Copes

With a fleet of 300 dams, California is among the nation’s leaders in hydropower generation.  However, hydro in the state has declined from peaks in the 1950s, when it was responsible for more than half of the state’s generation mix, to just 9% in 2013.  Having prepared for hydro’s decline by broadening its generation mix over the last several decades, the California grid remains mostly insulated from the worst effects of nearly a half decade of severe drought.

California generates around 55% to 60% of its power from natural gas and has seen a 30% increase in gas-fired generation since 2002.  Meanwhile, California’s leading investor-owned utilities across the state – Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) – are on track to meet or exceed their 33% renewable procurement obligations by 2020 under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) policy.

Brazil Gasps

Facing its worst drought in 40 years, meanwhile, Brazil has been more severely affected by reduced hydropower generation than California.  Currently, the second leading producer of hydroelectric power in the world, trailing only China, Brazil relies on hydro for more than three-fourths of its generation.  According to data published by BP earlier this year, hydropower consumption fell 7% in 2013.

This rapid decline has prompted severe rationing in 19 cities, undermined hydropower generation, and resulted in blackouts across the country.  In the run up to the 2014 World Cup, the Brazilian government provided more than $5 billion to subsidize electric utilities, replacing lost hydroelectric generation with fossil fuel-fired generation, including large amounts of liquefied natural gas.  While this helped stabilize the grid during the event, it has nearly doubled greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.

Brazil’s experience provides a harsh lesson for drought-stricken areas with a high dependence on hydropower.  Although natural gas is a low-carbon alternative relative to coal-based generation, it may stall or reverse carbon mitigation efforts when used in place of hydropower.  Renewables can help make up the difference, but even with sharp declines in the price of solar PV and wind, they remain far more expensive than hydropower or natural gas.  While both California and Brazil are in a hole with respect to water supply and hydroelectric generation, persistent drought is unlikely to result in a significant increase in new renewables spending without the introduction of new subsidies.

 

Finally, Germany Makes Progress on Coal

— November 2, 2014

For critics who scoff that Europe’s carbon emission reduction goals are unachievable, Germany has become Exhibit No. 1.  Since Chancellor Angela Merkel decreed in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident that Germany would phase out its nuclear power industry, coal use in Germany has been on the rise, and the country’s carbon emissions have remained stubbornly high.

Now it appears that tide may be turning.  According to AG Energiebilanzen (“Working Group on Energy Balances”), an energy research firm, total energy consumption in Germany is projected to fall by 5% in 2014, compared to 2013, to the lowest level since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Coal consumption for the year is expected to be down more than 9%.

Those declines are due mostly to the mild winter in 2013-2014, but clean energy is expanding as well: Renewable energy use grew by 1.6% over the first 9 months of 2014, compared to the previous year.

The Brown Stuff

Germany’s coal use carries particular importance not only because it is Europe’s biggest economy, but also because Germany burns mostly lignite or “brown coal,” the dirtiest form of coal, and because Germany’s green energy program, known as the Energiewende, is among the most ambitious in the world.  While renewable energy production has expanded rapidly in Germany – accounting, at times, for 100% of the country’s power demand and forcing utilities to pay customers to consume electricity from conventional power plants – the nuclear phase-out has led to a rise in the burning of coal for baseload power supply.

Now, the government is at least considering shutting down coal plants.  German minister Rainer Baake of the Green Party told reporters in late October that the government could come up with a plan as early as December to eliminate coal-fired capacity and boost energy efficiency programs.  Earlier Der Spiegel reported that the government wants to eliminate as much as 10 GW of coal capacity.  A decision will likely not come until next year.

Please Exit

Getting rid of coal is critical if Germany is to reach its target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 40% compared to 1990 levels by 2020.  The environment ministry has said that if current trends continue, the country will fall short of that goal by 5 to 8 percentage points.

Meanwhile Swedish energy giant Vattenfall, one of Europe’s largest operators of power plants, said it will seek to sell off its coal-fired plants in Germany.  Vattenfall’s coal operations in Germany produce some 60 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year – more than Sweden’s total CO2 emissions.

Like a drunk uncle at a wedding, Germany’s coal industry is an embarrassing and unwelcome guest that everyone would like to usher to the exit.  Getting it out the door, though, remains a tough task.

 

As Rail Congestion Crimps Coal Supplies, Calls for Expansion Grow Louder

— October 27, 2014

Even as power plant operators are warning of coal supply shortages come winter, the U.S. government has predicted that congestion on the nation’s railways is likely to get much worse in coming years.

Increased freight traffic traveling by rail – particularly crude oil from the Great Plains and grain from a bumper crop this year – has led to significant bottlenecks across the railway network, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report issued in September.  Rail traffic has reached the levels last seen in 2007, before the global recession, and “recent trends in freight flows, if they continue as expected, may exacerbate congestion issues in communities, particularly along certain corridors,” the GAO concluded.

Sounding a more dire warning, Hunter Harrison, the CEO of Canadian Pacific, said during a recent analyst briefing that the entire North American railway system is headed toward a cliff.  “We’re quickly approaching a time where none of this works,” Harrison said, according to the Financial Times.  “We cannot continue to go down the road that we’re going down and be successful and not have gridlock beyond anything we’ve experienced before.”

On to Chicago, Slowly

Like a slow train spotted in the distance, this fall’s tie-up of train traffic has been anticipated for years.  The domestic oil & gas boom, centered in the Bakken formation in North Dakota, has had ripple effects across the upper Midwest, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific Northwest.  Chicago, where all seven of the Class I railroad companies have major yards, is one of the biggest bottlenecks.  Rail transport is relatively low-cost and emits less CO2 than shipping by plane or truck, but investment in rail infrastructure has been slow.  Producers and consumers of coal, in particular, have traditionally been trapped in exclusive contracts that give them little leverage in negotiations with rail providers.  In September, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia introduced the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act, which would increase the authority of the Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads, to force them to remedy service delays and justify rate hikes.  Lawmakers chided rail executives at a September 10 hearing in Washington for their failure to anticipate and keep up with increased demands on the railway system.

The problem is especially acute for mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin trying to ship coal to customers.  Big coal-burning utilities have already begun running coal plants at below capacity in order to conserve coal stocks.

Ship Gas, Not Coal

Some of this alarm is likely overstated; no one has suggested that coal plants are actually in danger of running out of fuel this winter.  And despite the transport constriction, the price of Powder River Basin coal remains stubbornly low; the price of a ton has dropped 8%, to $10.80, according to Bloomberg.  As a matter of national policy, it makes sense to reduce shipments of dirty coal by diesel-burning trains to supply aging power plants that are quickly becoming uneconomical anyway.  Meanwhile, tight coal supplies will inevitably lead to louder calls for other types of energy transport infrastructure: namely, natural gas pipelines.

There are good reasons to invest in expanding the nation’s railway infrastructure; shipping more coal is probably not one of them.

 

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