Coal, Renewables

Natural Gas + Renewables = the Future of Power Generation

Issue 9 and Volume 116.

By Jim Donohue, Marketing Manager – GE Thermal Products, GE Power & Water

There is no single solution that will meet all of our future energy needs. We need to find new and innovative ways to make all of our energy resources work together – natural gas, cleaner coal and nuclear, as well as renewable options such as wind, solar and biomass.

Renewable energy will make an increasingly important contribution to the power grids of the future. Not only does it produce cleaner power, it is becoming more affordable as wind and solar technologies move forward.

Of course, there is an obvious drawback to renewable technologies. When the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, we need other sources of energy to meet grid requirements.

The logical choice is natural gas, the cleanest of the fossil fuels. New discoveries and improved extraction methods in the U.S. and around the world are increasing the abundance of natural gas and reducing its cost. Shale gas is now expected to enable the U.S., the world’s largest consumer of natural gas, to be self-sufficient for decades.

It is widely recognized that natural gas is a cleaner source of power compared to traditional fossil fuels. Less known is the fact that natural gas plants are highly flexible. These plants can start up quickly and adjust their output rapidly. That makes natural gas an ideal partner for wind and solar, which are variable sources. There may be a time in the future when renewable resources don’t need fossil fuel backup, but we’re not there yet.

Until recently, the problem was that highly flexible gas-fired power plants had to sacrifice fuel efficiency. We had to make a trade-off. It was much like buying a high-performance sports car vs. a fuel-efficient sedan. You can get power and responsiveness under your foot, but at a heavy fuel cost.

Think about renewables and gas working together. With yesterday’s technology, as more and more renewables came on line, power grid operators were forced to put more and more inefficient, gas-fired power plants on line as well, to provide the power on demand that was needed to offset the intermittency of wind and solar.

Once again, technology innovation has responded to the changing needs of the energy industry. Today, the technology exists to build gas-fired power plants that combine world class fuel efficiency with world class flexibility. This advanced technology provides the flexibility to take full advantage of natural gas and renewables, without sacrificing fuel efficiency.

Today’s gas turbine-based solutions borrow from well-proven jet engine technology to produce cleaner, more efficient and more flexible power. Plans have been announced to build the world’s first Integrated Renewables Combined-Cycle (IRCC) Power Plant, using GE’s FlexEfficiency 50 technology. The IRCC plant will include a next-generation gas turbine, steam turbine and generator— plus wind turbines and concentrated solar thermal tower technology, all integrated by a plant control system with a single-button start.

At site conditions, this technology is capable of reaching a record 69 percent fuel efficiency. This landmark project will set a new global standard for the efficient integration of natural gas and renewable energy. It will enable the grid to use more wind, solar and natural gas, helping to meet the growing demand for cleaner, affordable and reliable power generation.

In addition, Electricite de France (EDF), one of the world’s largest utilities, has announced plans for the first FlexEfficiency 50 power plant to be connected to a national grid. The combined-cycle plant, to be located at Bouchain in northern France, will produce 510 MW and is expected to achieve greater than 61 percent efficiency at base load, which will conserve natural gas and reduce the production of greenhouse gases. Its operating flexibility will enable the plant to respond quickly to fluctuations in grid demand, facilitating greater use of solar and wind.

As the U.S. and other international markets consider cleaner energy sources, EDF’s decision to install the FlexEfficiency 50 plant is an important example of how flexibility and efficiency can combine to enable greater use of renewable power globally.

Around the world, nations are looking for solutions that combine economic progress with environmental sustainability. The world’s energy mix has changed over the last decade, and we recognized the need for technology that delivers the necessary combination of flexibility and efficiency to meet a wide range of challenges. We believe that the greater use of renewable energy, in combination with natural gas, is the future of power generation.