Darwinism Determines Technological Survivors

Issue 10 and Volume 100.

Darwinism Determines Technological Survivors

By Frank Bevc, Westinghouse Power Generation Business Unit, and Samuel Harkness, Westinghouse Science & Technology Center

In an industry where new power plant planning and budgeting cycles stretch from one to three years, where a typical new generation product takes from five to 10 years to successfully enter the market and where some plants have a 30- to 50-year econo-mic life, change is an evolutionary process. However, that change, driven by the application of new technolo-gies, is inevitable. Twenty-five years ago, in 1971, gas turbines were perceived to have limited applications and were primarily used for part-time peaking duty. Today, they are the baseload, new power generation technology of choice. Nevertheless, more than 55 percent of the U.S.`s electricity is still generated by coal- fired steam turbine plants, the technology of choice 25 years ago.

Power generation technologies will evolve further, but it`s doubtful there will be any new concepts that are not evident in today`s laboratories. Twenty-five years from now, today`s coal-fired steam turbine plants will still provide the majority of the electricity generated in the United States. However, new natural gas or syngas-fired combined-cycle plants will make up the majority of the new additions, perhaps as much as 20 percent of the overall installed capacity in 2021.

Still, during the next 25 years, a number of new generation technologies should become economically competitive and enter the market. Technologies moving from today`s demonstrations to wide-spread applications include:

Gasification–advances in gas turbine technology and hot gas ceramic filters hold the key to integrated gasification plants achieving lower electricity costs than pulverized coal plants equipped with scrubbers. The trend of gasifying residual oils and coal is already evident. Biomass applications, using wood waste or sugar cane bagasse, also hold promise. As environmental pressures increase, gasification may be the technology that allows coal to maintain its leading position as a generation fuel.

Pressurized fluidized bed combus-tion–another solid fuel conversion technology is also moving into the market, aided by rapid growth in application of atmospheric fluidized bed combustion plants during the past 10 years. Pressurized fluidized bed combustion offers increased fuel flexibility, lower initial plant capital costs and smaller installation footprints. It is ideally suited to low-rank coals and mixed waste fuels abundantly available in countries that have the highest electricity demand growth.

Fuel cell hybrid cycles–the material challenges that have slowed fuel cell development appear to have been overcome and fuel cells are moving to commercial-scale demonstrations. Operating one type, solid oxide fuel cells, under pressure and applying them in a gas turbine topping cycle

allows power plants in the 1 to 30 MW size range to attain overall efficiencies approaching 70 percent. The technology is the first that allows small, distributed power plants to beat the economies of scale of much larger plants.

Solar photovoltaics–production quantities for solar cells are finally reaching levels that allow them to become economically competitive with grid delivered power in larger areas of the United States. Efficiencies are slowly climbing upward, but lower production costs will enable broader use.

And by 2096 …

One hundred years is a long enough period for revolutionary, as opposed to evolutionary, changes to occur. In 1896, the primary environmental problem in most cities was the result of the primary mode of transpor-tation–horse-drawn carriages. While the automobile had been invented, its widespread use had to await mass production technologies to move to dominance in the market.

Dominant Forces

Clean, low-cost energy, available when and where needed, will always be the holy grail of power industry scientists and engineers. Something like the “Mr. Fusion” power source in Professor Brown`s DeLorean time machine in the “Back to the Future” movie series may be available to meet the world`s energy needs in 2096. If so, its entry into broad use will be evolutionary and very much predictable in the context of a 25-year time horizon.

Even looking 100 years into the future, some trends are evident. The earth`s resources are finite. The primary drivers for resource consumption, global population growth and the demand for economic parity and an improved standard of living in developing countries, are unstoppable trends. Fossil fuel economics will change considerably as finite resources are consumed. These higher basic energy costs should enable more capital intensive, higher efficiency technologies to meet a larger share of future energy demands. At the same time, renewable energy technologies will become even more competitive.

In that sense, the energy industry in 2096 will be very much like the industry in 2021, where a variety of generation choices are available. That`s somewhat like the industry today.

There will be a growing trend toward an increased use of electric propul-sion in transportation systems. Advanced battery systems and fuel cells will allow much better urban air quality. Desalination could become increasingly important as a source of fresh water. There will be a much greater per capita consumption of electricity in the developing countries as they follow the path of the United States where an increased gross national product has led to an increasing share of electricity usage for the past 90 years.

Utilities are expected to be an important part of the electric power management system 25 years from now in this country, although there will be major changes from the way they operate today. Deregulation will lead to far fewer vertically integrated utilities with the result that some will focus on generation, others on transmission and still others on distribution. The fraction of total power generated by independent power producers will continue to increase. Separate businesses that oversee the wheeling of power within a large geographical region are expected.

The primary drivers for resource consumption, global population growth and the demand for economic parity and an improved standard of living in developing countries, are unstoppable trends.

Frank Bevc is responsible for the commercialization of a number of diverse advanced technologies, including clean coal power generation systems, solid oxide fuel cells, compressed air energy storage, biomass energy conversion and advanced turbomachinery and cycles.

Dr. Samuel Harkness serves as the principal liaison with the Power Generation, Energy Systems and Government and Environmental Services Business Units. Previously, he served as general manager of the Power Systems and Environmental Technologies Division at the Science & Technology Center. Power Systems and Environmental Technologies Division`s major areas of emphasis were the development of new remediation technologies, the application of ceramics to both power generation and electronic packaging, the life extension of nuclear components, the application of superconductivity to the power industry and the qualification of advanced fossil and nuclear systems.