Gas, Wind

A Power Ballad: Winds of Change Coming for Gas Generation?

Do you ever feel like your life is played out in a song? How about a 1980s hair-metal power ballad?

Me, too. That’s why I immediately thought about the state of the gas generation industry when I heard Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” in the car a few days ago. You know the song–it’s the one with all the whistling that will be stuck in your head for the next five hours (you’re welcome).

Like all power ballads worth their hairspray, this song follows a predictable formula that often mirrors life and nature, including patterns in the energy industry. It’s like Euler’s number or the Pythagorean theorem for those of us who don’t like math.

Despite the obvious connection to renewable energy in the song’s chorus, the musical and thematic structures of the song are more important to this analysis than the actual lyrics. In fact, the lyrics of most power ballads are immaterial as long one understands a few common themes of the genre: change, nostalgia, and resolution (plus bonus points for whistling).

Those same themes grip today’s energy industry, with change leaving the most obvious fingerprint. The industry is shifting at a pace unseen since the days of Edison and Tesla. Nostalgia is also an easy reference point, as many utilities and major equipment manufacturers yearn for a simpler time when terms like “baseload” and “peaker” still made sense.

Resolution is unfolding in real time as gas generation dances at the song’s emotional apex. Power ballads typically resolve through triumph or tragedy, so what will become of gas generation in our tune? Will we hear a three-part harmony with storage, renewables, and gas? Or will the industry break up, unable to mend creative differences?

Per the power ballad formula, our song started slowly as gas generation found its footing: small gas boilers and simple cycle combustion turbines that slowly increased in size and efficiency through the 1960s. The second verse carried us through the 1990s with significant advancements in simple-cycle and combined-cycle technologies.

During a rock ballad’s second chorus, the drums often intensify as the song builds momentum, analogous to the market conditions, technological improvements and environmental policies that pushed gas generation into the limelight. The growth of intermittent renewable energy sources, coupled with traditional baseload plant retirements, drove the need for flexible generation. Meanwhile, gas prices dropped, and the fuel became the hero of flexibility and low-cost capacity.

After the second chorus, there is a clash of symbols and booming pyrotechnics. All stage lights go dark except for the lone spotlight on a sunburst Fender, glistening through manufactured fog. It’s time for the gratuitous guitar solo.

In line with most power ballads, the gas generation guitar solo was approximately 15 years long. The accompanying video montage highlighted over 290 GW of utility-scale gas projects from 2000–2014, including simple-cycles, combined-cycles, boiler conversions, reciprocating engines and probably a leather-clad gas turbine riding a motorcycle in the desert.

That brings us up to date in our song. With the last note of the solo still sustaining, we enter the most crucial, if overlooked, phase of the power ballad: the bridge. After the excess of the solo, the bridge presents a dramatic shift in song structure, possibly a key change, and almost certainly no explosions onstage.

The bridge is a literal and figurative transition, guiding the song toward resolution. Transition is everywhere in energy. Utility business models are evolving to promote renewable power purchase agreements and distributed energy resources. Energy storage price reductions are challenging the economics of new gas peaking plants. Instead of reading about the latest combustion turbine advancement or successful gas project, we now read about the latest manufacturer downsizing or restructuring. Is gas just a bridge fuel to a renewables and storage future, as some have predicted? Or can the industry transform and thrive in tomorrow’s market?

Turbine and reciprocating engine manufacturers are adapting by developing storage products or partnering with integrators, but the future for gas generation is still unclear. If storage owns the flexibility role once played by gas, perhaps there is an opportunity for gas to support storage with firming power. Instead of designing for flexibility, maybe a new market emerges for low-cost, modular products. Fuel cells may pair with storage as the technologies advance. Perhaps developments in renewable biogas production offer new possibilities. The only certainty is change.

In the last verse of our song, will the winds of change bring triumph or tragedy for gas generation? If we heed the advice of another whistling power ballad, all we need is just a little patience.

About the author: Kieran McInerney is an engineer and consultant in Burns & McDonnell’s Energy Division.  He supports clients in planning/development for storage, renewables, and gas generation projects.