By Dan Heintzelman, GE Energy Services
Power plant managers continually face the challenge of increasing efficiency, extending asset life and simultaneously optimizing power operations. No matter the external conditions, reaching optimum power levels with the least cost, effort and emissions is critical to continued business success.
Today, a growing urban global population and a business footprint that demands more power, while companies rely on fewer people and constrained capital resources to deliver it, further compounds this challenge.
But responding by simply purchasing more new plant assets doesn’t always translate to improved business or bottom-line efficiency. What may make more sense for some utilities and industrial energy suppliers is to pursue a strategy based on utilizing the best available technology to maintain and improve existing assets and infrastructure.
This strategy can be accomplished through a mix of equipment upgrades and more intelligent operational and maintenance programs. With much of the dialogue about energy efficiency today focused on demand side management, it is equally important that energy producers consider the energy supply side. In fact, much of the energy generated is lost before the electricity passes to the grid. Three solutions for improving supply-side energy generation efficiency are as follows:
• Retrofitting technology to upgrade gas-fired, combined-cycle power plants
Simply making what we already have more efficient seems a smart place to start. For example, gas turbines retrofitted with new compressors or rotors, advanced combustion systems and newly updated emissions and controls packages can help extend unit life by up to 25 years, in addition to providing the owner and operator with better performance, operational flexibility and often improved efficiency.
The benefits of upgrading existing gas-fired, combined-cycle power plants could be considerable given the global installed capacity base. Even a small percentage change in efficiency gained through retrofitting these gas-fired plants can create large results. For example, a one-percentage-point efficiency improvement in the GE fleet of F-Class gas-fired turbines could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 4.4 million tons a year.
• Improving controls to reduce VARs in electrical transmission and distribution
Today’s electric grid is inefficient. Losses occur throughout the system, from generation, through transmission to consumption. Making the grid 10 percent more efficient could save more than 27 GWh of energy. That’s equivalent to the power output from 56 coal-fired power plants.
Reliability issues also are problematic and these challenges cost businesses money. Across business sectors, the U.S. economy loses $104 to $164 billion a year to outages and another $15 to $24 billion to power quality phenomena.
These examples make it easy to see why improved controls can be valuable. When utilities are equipped with the proper controls, they can respond in real-time to power demands and power pricing to reduce cost. For example, line losses can be minimized by using VAR Control and, at the same time, power quality can be improved.
Further, peak-period voltage control could help reduce peak load, lowering peak generation costs and deferring capital expenditures for generation, transmission and distribution. Continuous voltage controls also help reduce overall load, lowering generation operating costs and reducing base load capital expenditures.
• Installing monitoring and diagnostic software and hardware
For many electrical utilities, there’s a focus on distributing power at the lowest cost with manageable reliability risk. Utilities using a time-based maintenance approach can have the unintended consequence that the reliability and availability of machinery is actually reduced. This affects the experience of customers and unnecessarily increases the overall lifecycle cost of the asset.
It can be far more efficient to install monitoring equipment that give up-to-the-minute reports so that current conditions can be assessed and the concept of condition-based maintenance can be applied, resulting in significant savings to the owner.
A monitoring solution provides accurate, real-time condition data. In some cases, that allows for an 80 percent increase in time between outages and a 60 percent decrease in outage durations. The right monitoring hardware along with diagnostics software in some cases can help decrease asset downtime by nearly 4 percent.
Early detection of asset performance degradations and malfunctions also helps extend asset service life and reduce maintenance costs, and reduces the overall likelihood of a significant event. Meanwhile, lessons learned could be embedded in the system as knowledge-based rules to continuously improve, automate, and validate diagnostics that can help predict future events.
Smart technology can be used to monitor and diagnose aging operating assets and is critical for achieving improved efficiency. A three-pronged approach of retrofitting older technology, installing the latest in controls and monitoring systems and a relentless focus on operational optimization will result in an increase in equipment reliability, improved performance, and in many cases, enhanced efficiency.
Taking these strategies into consideration afford power producers the opportunity to be cleaner, smarter and more efficient.
Dan Heintzelman is president and CEO of GE Energy Services based in Atlanta.