The Answer Is There Is No Answer: Solar and fuel cells and wind, oh my! Industry follows various roads to renewable power
by amanda m. klemp
Global power demand is increasing. The cost of oil and fuels is increasing. Emissions regulations are getting more and more stringent. It’s a series of factors that all seem to be working against each other when it comes to generating efficient and affordable power. Yet, companies traditionally in the engine and turbine industry are continuing to evaluate the next generation of power production.
Dresser-Rand projects its environmental solutions revenue will grow at a faster rate than its traditional revenue streams over the next five years. At Alstom, Robert Gleitz, vice president of marketing for the public sector, said, “I believe it’s fundamental for a company like Alstom to be able to offer a wide portfolio in the renewables area. In 2020, when we look at the market, we have to keep in mind that probably half of the new installs will be CO2 free. “When we are looking at the technologies, whether tidal, wind, solar or biomass and so on, we have to keep in mind that there is no single solution that will answer all the requests.
Wärtsilä has traditionally focused on fossil fuel plant efficiency and emissions reduction and is expanding into natural gas, biofuels and biogas. Now, the company is also conducting research on fuel cell technology. Juha Kytölä, vice president – product center, ecotec, said, “This [fuel cells] is a technology choice we made because it allows a wide variety of fuel quality to be used in the fuel cell liquids or gas of a different kind. And, it has high efficiency and low emissions actually zero emissions so it’s a very, very sustainable technology.” Wärtsilä’s fuel cell technology is not yet to market; however, tests have shown promising results, said Kytölä. In addition, he said the fuel cell technology may be too expensive at this time for success in the market, which varies in demand and willingness to pay for renewable technologies. While there is no shortage in methods of generating power, affordable manufacturing, infrastructure and distribution also need to be developed. The cost involved in implementing “green” power plants either has to be passed on to the utility customer or subsidies need to be supplied.
“There is a contradiction between the public desire to consume electricity generated by renewables and their willingness to pay higher energy bills,” Newsom said. Rossi said, “One way to make these technologies more economical is to bring down the overall capital costs building the plant and the hardware.” Enter the chicken-and-egg conundrum. Costs won’t go down until demand increases and demand won’t increase until costs go down. Gleitz suggested that regulations prompt technology advancements, which could lead renewable power technologies to stand on their own.
He cited wind as an example, saying it is well on its way to becoming on traditional drivers such as gas turbines and internal combustion engines to investing heavily in renewable markets such as wind and solar. One thing is agreed upon, however: There is no single technology that will meet every demand and regulation, so the best approach is to diversify. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) is looking at how to increase the efficiency of its gas turbines, marked by the introduction of its J-class gas turbine featuring over 61% efficiency in combined-cycle operation.
Bill Newsom, vice president of sales and commercial operations at Mitsubishi Power Systems Americas Inc. a Florida, U.S.A.-based subsidiary of MHI, said while renewables are an important part of the power supply equation, he predicts natural gas will see the most growth in response to power demands. “Natural gas combined-cycle plants can be built in relatively short periods of time, provide very competitive CAPEX and operating costs, large scale and sustainability,” said Newsom.
Marco Rossi, vice president of New Equipment – Environmental Solutions at Dresser-Rand, said the initial focus for environmental solutions is to increase the energy efficiency of existing and new facilities by using combined heat and power (CHP) configurations or waste heat recovery units (WHRU) in both the oil and gas and power generation sectors. Dresser-Rand is working to further expand its product offering into the commercial and institutional markets, such as malls, hospitals, universities and data centers. CHP applications lend themselves well to natural gas and biogas use. “Natural gas is a very evolutionary approach to renewables, Rossi said. “It’s not the kind of big jump into fully ‘green,’ but it’s a much cleaner fuel with a lot of current applications for using Dresser-Rand high-speed rotating equipment. We like natural gas as well as CHP, based on natural gas or biogas and then, progressively, we are moving increasingly into renewable energy.
“We have been active in biomass, which is a fairly traditional renewable source of energy. There is some debate regarding how carbon neutral it is, but in general, it’s considered a clean, renewable fuel,” said Rossi.
Fairbanks Morse manufactures its engines to be compatible with biogas and biofuels, such as landfill gases, methane from bio waste and even, in one application, fish oil at a fish-packing facility. Luke Fredrickson, marketing communications coordinator at Fairbanks Morse, said, “We feel that the marketplace is going to evolve to more green opportunities and green technologies. However, there will still be a niche for diesels in critical applications and that’s what we focus on primarily.” Fairbanks Morse is active in diesel genset backup systems for nuclear plants. He continued, “There’s always going to be a need for the dependability and reliability of diesel and dual-fuel medium-speed engines, and so we’re committed toward providing that product and providing new technologies that increase efficiency and lower emissions, including our diesel oxidation catalyst as part of RICE NESHAP as well as upgrade kits and R&D that we have ongoing for our current engines that will help them be more efficient.”
Addressing the renewables market, MHI has a wind turbine business it has organically grown over the last 20 years. However, Newsom explained, factors including subsidy availability and weather pattern changes largely impact the implementation of renewable power sources. One technology from Dresser-Rand gaining recognition in the renewable sector is compressed air energy storage (CAES), designed to store excess energy from fluctuating wind and solar power sources to help maintain a steady power supply to meet demand.
Looking into the future of renewables, Rossi said, “Technology is being developed to make these sources of energy more competitive. Wind has become increasingly competitive over the last few years. Solar power is independently viable. He suggested that solar is not far behind wind, and within 10 to 15 years, tidal wave systems may enter the market as an economically viable power source. “The regulations and incentives, or most incentives, are something temporary. It’s a push to help the technology mature and to become a bit more cost-effective, to improve the
efficiency,” said Gleitz.
It’s up to the OEMs to determine which path will be conducive to their product offering and business models, what their customers are looking for and how to implement the technologies. Newsom said, “We [MHI] are positioned to provide a diverse portfolio of products and we are engaging the U.S. utilities and IPPs to understand their future investment plans and offer the best combination for their needs.”
“I believe that there is not one single trick that needs to be done, but there are marketable steps,” said Kytölä, projecting how the industry will answer the green call. “Everything cannot be changed overnight, so we need to have programs for replacing nonsustainable technologies with more sustainable, but not going to the extreme. It would be too much to think that we can immediately do things that are in research at the moment,” he said.