A Look Back at Issues and Events from 1988

Issue 2 and Volume 112.

Twenty years ago on page 6 of the January 1988 edition of Power Engineering magazine, a full-age ad introduced “POWER-GEN ‘88” to the world. The inaugural event, which grew to become POWER-GEN International, was held at the Orlando Convention Center from December 6-8. The event covered fossil and solid fuel power generation, including coal, oil, natural gas, municipal solid waste and other waste fuels. “Paper abstracts are invited,” the ad read. That opened the floodgates, which, over the next 20 years, would see thousands of papers researched, written and presented at the world’s largest and most prestigious exhibition and conference for the power generation industry.

Power Engineering magazine has been PGI’s flagship media sponsor since the beginning 20 years ago. This year to celebrate PGI’s 20th anniversary we’ll take a look back at some of the issues and events that were making news. A lot of the same issues continue to make news today.

Twenty years ago this month, Power Engineering magazine asked the question “Is natural gas the fuel of the future?” Yes, at least according to George Lawrence, then president of the American Gas Association.

“That pronouncement may surprise some, particularly those in the coal business,” wrote editor Robert Smock. But gas producers were serious, he said. “Stung by a slowly declining share of the fossil fuel market and a sharp hike in competition from oil in recent years, they are aggressively marketing natural gas—and power generators are a primary marketing target.”

The gas industry was being buoyed at the time by repeal in 1987 of the Fuel Use Act prohibition on natural gas in new baseload capacity and by growth in cogeneration applications.

John Kearney, at the time senior vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, said electric utilities were concerned about the adequacy of future supplies. “While there may be supply, we are concerned about the adequacy of pipeline capacity to deliver the gas when and where it is needed,” he said.

AGA’s Lawrence said supply would not be a problem: “Natural gas resources in the U.S. and all of North America are very large, and with rational, economic pricing, gas supplies will be forthcoming to satisfy demand well into the future.” He said the Lower 48 had a 50-year supply of conventional gas resources and 200 years of “near-term unconventional” gas.

A feature article in the same February 1988 issue of Power Engineering discussed how competition was raising the value of life extensions and aging plant upgrades alike. “The rising tide of competition in the power production industry is leading plant owners to take a fresh look at the value of aging power plants,” the article said. “It is becoming clear that the keys to survival in the new marketplace will be high efficiency and low production cost.”

Programs aimed at improving performance and extending the lives of old power plants were thought to be growing in importance. In the past, the article said, utility and industrial plant owners could afford to “merely evaluate life extension as a less-costly alternative” to retirement and replacement. “Now, forward-thinking owners are viewing old power plants as valuable, low-fixed-cost assets in the new, competitive power production marketplace.

A consultant survey quoted in the feature article found the dominant driver among utilities for life extension was capacity avoidance. Cutting costs, the survey concluded, was the single most important step a utility could take to remain or become competitive. The biggest opportunity for cost reduction lay in improving the performance and extending the lives of existing power plants. The consultant said that utilities in 1988 were in a situation similar to that of the U.S. manufacturing industry: they needed to upgrade existing capacity to remain competitive in a rapidly changing marketplace.

The article included a table detailing estimated fossil-fuel steam capacity available for life extension efforts between 1990 and 2020. Most targeted plants were built in the 1950s and 1960s. Some 303,000 MW of coal plants were seen as likely candidates for life extension. More than 71,500 MW of natural gas capacity was identified (although only 1,000 MW was seen as eligible after 2001). And 28,000 MW of oil-fired capacity also made the list; in this case no upgrades were expected after 2006.

Finally, consider this. A Letter to the Editor shows how much things have changed in 20 years. The letter pointed to an error in a computer program published in an earlier edition of the magazine. The program was used to calculate the cleanliness of surface condensers. The editor responded that the problem was a typo in the program coding: a parenthesis, he explained, was omitted in “line 150” of the program. “Omission of the parenthesis prevented the program from checking the entered tube diameter against the limits shown in line 150, and so it stopped with the system error.” Ah, the good old days when a missing parenthesis in line 150 of hand-typed code could stop the wheels of progress dead in its tracks.

We’ll continue our look back at events and issues from 1988 in next month’s issue of Power Engineering magazine.