A Reuters opinion piece has highlighted the reliance of power generation on the availability of water, reflecting on recent US experience, including during drought. Of the 1,552 billion litres of water extracted daily in the US in 2005, 49% was used by cooling systems of coal-, gas- and oil-fired and nuclear power plants. The power sector fraction would be higher if it included irrigation of biofuels of water used in fracking (hydraulic fracturing). Compared with cooling water, crop irrigation accounted for 31% and domestic use 11%. The rise in fracking means that the power sector’s share is the fastest growing, projected to account for 85% of additional use between 2005 and 2030. This has prompted one conservation district in the state of Texas to limit the amount of water that can be withdrawn from aquifers for use in fracking, and other districts are considering similar measures. However, figures of extracted water consumed are somewhat misleading – typically, 97% of water used in cooling towers is returned to source to be reused. In terms of consumption of water (such that water cannot be reused), the power sector, including biofuels and fracking, accounts for 11% of total water consumption, compared to 74% for non-biofuel irrigation.
During droughts in the US from 2007 to 2012, there were numerous incidents of power plants being at risk of not having enough cooling water to operate, or alternatively being able to discharge water to natural water sources at higher temperatures than usually allowed. On the fuel supply side, biofuels are particularly sensitive to drought. According to the opinion piece, reduced reliance on water by the power sector can be achieved through a switch from nuclear and coal-fired generation to gas-fired generation (because of higher generation efficiency, though, the use of water in fracking might also have to be incorporated into the water balance), wind and solar (presumably photovoltaic) power generation (which require minimal water), or through the use of recirculating or dry cooling systems. Using saline or waste water for cooling are also options. However, such process modifications incur efficiency penalties and capital costs if retrofitting.
Though the opinion piece does not reflect on it, increasing water scarcity due to a larger population and more industrial activity, as well as more unpredictable rainfall patterns caused by climate change, are likely to mean that water issues become increasingly debated in the energy future.
E.ON has announced it has made an agreement with federal German regulators and the national grid operator TenneT to keep its Irsching gas-fired power plant in Bavaria operational, despite it presently being unprofitable. Under the deal, units 4 (550 MW) and 5 (846 MW) will continue operation, and E.ON will be paid a double-digit million Euros amount per year per unit for three years. The deal is important because it could set a precedent for gas-fired power plants throughout Germany, which are recognised as providing stability of supply to the grid, but have been unprofitable because of high gas prices. This has led power utilities to call for special deals so that stability of supply can be maintained, and the Irsching deal appears to be the first such arrangement, moving away from a reliance solely on a price per kilowatt-hour.
In related German news, Reuters has carried an article on the increasing use of brown coal in the country. In 2012 in Germany, RWE used lignite to produce 36% of its electricity, Vattenfall 31%, and E.ON 6%, and in total the use of lignite increased 6% over the past year. While the article ties the increase to renewable energy subsidies, this is somewhat misleading. Renewable energy subsidies do help to make a certain portion of German electricity renewable, but it appears that the trend to a greater use of lignite has more to do with market forces. With high gas prices and relatively low coal prices, coal is currently more profitable than gas, especially as the low carbon price does little to shift the balance towards gas.
Legislation and Regulation
In mid-April, the US Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first nation-wide rules covering the release of toxic metals in wastewater from steam-electric power plants, in the process stating that it may classify coal ash as “non-hazardous municipal and solid waste” rather than the stricter “hazardous substance”. A range of options was presented in the document released by the EPA, with some depending on the size of units and the number of waste streams. The scope of the rules is wastewater from “flue gas desulfurization, fly ash, bottom ash, flue gas mercury control, and gasification of fuels such as coal and petroleum coke”. There is a general tendency towards dry ash handling rather than the use of holding ponds, because of the risk of leakage from ponds. Ash-recycling businesses, including the cement industry, welcomed the move, while environmental groups have called for stricter rules, citing the spill of 3.79 billion litres of toxic waste by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 2008. The EPA has not stated when it plans to finalise the rules, but is taking comments on the proposals, and has stated that measures would be phased in between 2017 and 2022. It expects the rules not to force any plant closures.
Keeping with news from the US EPA, the organisation has released data concerning methane release from fracking as part of a wider report on greenhouse gas emissions. Although the new data was not from independent field tests, rather being from expert reviews and other sources, it showed that leakage control devices have been effective in reducing leakage, such that it occurs at a rate about 20% lower than previously thought. Industry groups said the data showed that the fracking industry can adequately manage its environmental impacts; some environmental groups welcomed the data, while others remained firmly opposed to fracking. A prominent critic of fracking, Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University, found fault with the report, saying that research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which found high levels of leakage in Colorado had been ignored. For industry, leakage measures (gaskets, maintenance and monitoring) tend to pay themselves off, as they result in a higher portion of captured products, and it is expected that emissions management will improve further. The new data has been submitted to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Alstom has announced it has won a contract to supply equipment and services to Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited for a 2 x 800 MW superthermal power plant to be built in Gadarwara, Narsingpur, Madhya Pradesh, India. The €100 million ($US 131 million) contract will see Alstom supply design services for the supercritical boilers. Alstom will also supply their pressure parts, as well as pulverisers and airpreheater components. Expert construction and installation advice will also be provided. Manufacture will be carried out both in the US and in India. The first unit is to be commissioned in 2016, the second in 2017. Alstom has had a relationship with Bharat Heavy Electricals since 2005, working on at least seven power plants so far.
US power company NextEra Energy announced in late April that it is to sell its oil-fired power plants in Maine, USA, which include the 822 MW Wyman plant and the 18 MW Cape Gas Turbine. The rationale was that the company wished to decrease its exposure to fluctuations in fees paid to merchants in the procurement of oil. In March, NextEra sold 351 MW of hydropower generation capacity, and the two sales will help the company to invest between $US 1 – 3 billion (€0.76 – 2.28 billion) in new wind and solar power generation capacity. This will complement its recent and ongoing investments in gas-fired generation, with the 1,200 MW Cape Canaveral gas-fired plant ($US 900 million/€684 million) just completed, the 1,250 MW Riviera Beach plant due to be in service by June 2014, and the 1,277 MW Port Everglades plant due in June 2016. The company operates a total of 18.8 GW of power generation capacity, with 10.1 GW being wind power and 0.3 GW being solar.
A look back at US Energy Information Administration future energy predictions from 2000 has proved energy prediction to be a difficult business. Predictions from then failed to include shale gas and the US natural gas boom (and subsequently over-estimated the role of coal), while there was a prediction of a total of 3,660 MW of wind power by 2020 – in contrast, 13,131 MW was installed in 2012 alone. The EIA is due to release new predictions on 2 May of this year; amongst its predictions known so far are that oil consumption will peak in 2019, vehicles will will consume 40 times more natural gas than today, and a biofuel boom will be driven by California’s strict vehicle emissions limits.