• Combustion Industry News

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      Patrick Lavery

      Combustion Industry News Editor

South Australian blackout triggers debate about role of renewables

A blackout across the entire Australian state of South Australia, leaving 1.7 million people without electricity, has raised debate about the rate at which wind power is integrated into power networks. The outage occurred in two phases, the first in the area local to where power lines were blown down by the high winds of a 1-in-50-year storm, and the second in which the outage triggered a shutdown of transmission across the state (an area roughly equivalent to the size of France and Germany combined). While there is no doubt that the storm was the cause of the first phase, the cause of the second phase of the blackout has at the time of writing been unresolved, with some speculation that the state’s high proportion of wind power may have been partly responsible. Of South Australia’s total installed generation capacity, wind accounts for around 40% (a very high proportion in contrast to the rest of Australia, which averages something around 5%), and it is the asynchronous nature of the electricity generated from wind which may be problematic. A report released jointly by the Australian Energy Market Operator and Electranet (the owner of South Australia’s transmission services) in February this year stated that the state’s wind power could be integrated into the grid without problem as long as the connection along the main interconnector with the neighbouring state of Victoria (which produces much of its energy from lignite) was maintained, and as long as South Australia itself generated enough electricity from synchronous sources (coal, gas, solar thermal, hydropower). The report saw the event of both of these failing to be in place as “non-credible”, but this is just what appears to have happened, the interconnector being shut off after huge surge in demand from it after the fallen transmission lines led to 300 MW of wind generation being shut down to control grid parameters. During the storm, South Australia was generating 70% of its electricity from the high winds; to restart the state’s energy system, a gas-fired plant had to be brought online (the state shut its last coal-fired plant in May of this year). The role of intermittent, asynchronous generation quickly became a political issue in Australia following the outage, but besides the politics raises interesting technical questions as the world increases its shares of renewable power generation.

US Clean Power Plan court case begins as plan remains on hold

The lawsuit brought by 27 states and some industry groups that challenges the legality of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan has begun. At heart is the question of whether the administration is legally able to set new rules for carbon emissions from power plants under the existing Clean Air Act, or whether such impactful changes have to be made under new legislation and debate in Congress. Defending the case is the EPA, supported by 18 other states and some power companies. In general, the Republican Party is critical of the Plan, while the Democrats support it; the fact that of the 10 judges on the panel, six are appointees of Democratic presidents suggests that the challengers face an uphill battle. However, it is far from certain. In February of this year, the US Supreme Court made a surprise decision to put the rules on hold while the challenge proceeds, in a blow which cast doubt on the US’s ability to meet its commitments under the Paris Climate Accord. The outcome of the case will be highly important, but tempered by the fact that many power producers are shifting to lower carbon generation anyway.

EU medium plant air pollution directive being passed into national laws

The European Union directive on CO, NOx, SOx and dust from medium combustion plants, passed in November 2015, is gradually being introduced into the national laws of member states, as the European Turbine Network has reported. Directive 2015/2193 generally applies to plants with a rated thermal input of between 1 and 50 MWth (not inclusive), of which there are estimated to be around 143,000 in the EU. The limits vary with the type of plant and input fuel, as well as between new and existing plants, with the limits for NOx for existing plants varying between 150 and 200 mg/Nm3, while for liquids fuels other than gas oil, there are limits of 120 mg/Nm3 for SOx and 10 mg/Nm3 for dust, with some exceptions. For new plant, limits are tighter, with NOx for gas turbines varying between 50 and 75 mg/Nm3, while for liquids fuels other than gas oil the limits are similar to those for existing plants.

More German coal-fired plants under economic pressure

German utilities are facing economic pressure to close their coal-fired power plants, as a report from Bloomberg has highlighted. Coal profitability is currently at €2.80 per MWh, around a third of the five-year average for this time of year, with pressure from rising coal prices as well as the expansion of renewable energies, which has seen a 50% increase in total German power generation capacity expansion since 2006, which now stands at around 195 GW (fossil fuel-firing dropping 11% over the same period). Steag GmbH, Germany’s fifth largest power producer, is considering closing five of its 13 coal-fired plants, as it does not appear economic to upgrade old plants in order to keep them operating within emission limits. Analysts predict other generators will follow suit, although there is something of a game of “chicken” taking place, with producers that keep their plants running benefitting from those that choose to close.

Petra Nova CCS retrofit close to completion on time and on budget

ClimateWire has reported on the near completion of the retrofitting of the Petra Nova power station, in Texas, USA, with a carbon capture and storage/utilisation process, due to be operational on time and on budget before the end of the year. The project is a 50-50 joint venture between NRG Energy and JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration Corp, Japan’s largest oil producer, with a total price tag of US$1.04 billion (€928 million) for the output of 240 MW and a capture of 90% of produced CO2. The plant uses Mitsubishi’s amine-based scrubbing technology to capture the carbon dioxide post-combustion, which will afterwards be used for enhanced oil recovery, which improves the financial picture of the retrofit. That the project has been carried out on time and budget will be seen as a major boost to the nascent CCS industry.

Bechtel files patent for technology to capture CO2 from combined cycle gas turbines

Engineering firm Bechtel has announced that it has filed a patent for a technology that it claims reduces the capital cost of carbon capture from firing gas in a combined-cycle gas turbine by up to 35% while reducing the amount of power used to capture it by up to 65%. The technology combines high supplementary firing in a heat recovery steam generator and recirculation of a portion of its exhaust emissions, capturing the carbon dioxide within the gas turbine rather than from the flue gas using a solvent. Bechtel is sure to promote the technology further after gaining a patent.

India’s NTPC slowing coal expansion while pushing solar

Bloomberg has reported that NTPC, India’s largest power generator with around 47 GW of mostly fossil fuel-fired generation capacity, is to expand its push into solar power generation while slowing the development of its coal-fired fleet. While these are the trends, the absolute amounts remain weighted towards coal-firing: 24 GW of additional coal-fired power generation is in various stages of construction (with land set aside for a further 5 GW), while the company is aiming to increase the planned solar expansion to be higher than the current 10 GW. However, NTPC told Bloomberg it does not intend to buy any additional land for coal-fired projects at this stage, citing the possibility that renewable energies will become cheaper than coal-fired generation. The trend is an interesting and important one for thermal power in the developing world.

Deepwater Horizon film premieres to lukewarm reviews and at least one fierce critic

A new film which charts BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 has been released in cinemas worldwide, in a sign of growing social interest in the environmental dangers of the fossil fuel industry. Deepwater Horizon is directed by Peter Berg, and features Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russel, Gina Rodriguez and John Malkovich. Reviews of the film have been lukewarm, citing “a surprising degree of tech speech” and a lack of focus on characters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, BP has been its biggest critic, a spokesman saying that “It is not an accurate portrayal of the events that led to the accident, our people, or the character of our company. It ignores the conclusions reached by every official investigation: that the accident was the result of multiple errors made by a number of companies.” Nevertheless, the film will be another blow to BP in addition the reputational damage already suffered through the spill and the almost US$62 billion (€55 billion) bill in clean-up costs, compensation and fines.