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The power industry is poised at the brink of major restructure. What used to be “large power” (i.e., massive corporations that produced power and sold it via international and national transmission networks) is now a swelling, increasingly mixed bag of players. The age of distributed power advances. None too soon, if one considers the current potential losses in power transmission (up to 30% of power generated in some less industrialized countries) and the huge amount of deforestation (with consequential increased greenhouse gas loads) that transmission lines often require.
Today’s independent power producers, which may be consortiums of governments, private corporations, and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of power-generation machinery, grow in numbers and increasingly take over inefficient government-only power corporations. They may also construct and own their own transmission lines and distribution terminals.
Contemporary power producers today also include merchant power producers (MPPs). MPPs may own smaller generator units that are portable and can provide enough power for a mid-sized factory or small village. They may also operate stationary facilities for limited durations that are expected to yield adequate return on investment. Just 30 years ago, “small power production” (SPP) was carried out mainly by massive process plants in locations so remote that conventional grids could not supply all their needs. Such plants, like the first Syncrude tar sands plant in northern Alberta (120,000 to 170,000 barrels of crude a day), produced most of its power consumption.
The power machinery available at that time included gas and steam turbines that were about 20 megawatts (MW) in size, and that physically took up as much room as a 100- MW (and larger) gas turbine might today. Turbine technology, and especially controls technology, was still in its relative infancy. Similar small power production (other than that from small stand-alone systems like some wind turbines) usually required power lines to be brought to their doorstep for backup and peak power requirements.
However, in ice storms and hurricane seasons, downed power lines and poles cripple power reliability. Ultimately, everyone dreams of not being dependent on power lines of any sort or size. That day approaches—faster for those who practice distributed generation.
Meanwhile, small power producers (SPPs) today describes a quickly growing motley that includes large refineries, plastic conglomerates, and steel mills that may produce a waste fluid or flue gas that suffices as power-generation fuel. An SPP may be a village residents’ co-op in Denmark that owns and shares the power from one 1.5-MW wind turbine. It may be a remote hospital or mid-sized factory that owns its own microturbine, which then allows them to be power independent. SPPs frequently maintain a grid interface to sell power back to that main grid when they produce in excess of their own requirements.
SPP equipment options are varied and several. However, the equipment item that is probably best suited in current day conditions, to extend the world of distributed (i.e., decentralized, non-megasized national company power model) power may be the microturbine. There are several reasons for this. The order of importance of those reasons is arguable, but they include the fact that as a small gas turbine, the microturbine is more like the conventional large turbines than say, wind turbines or solar cells. Further, they are not burdened with the “look nice, be acceptable to neighbors” requirements that frequently hold up solar cell household roof installation or massive wind farm developments.
These new trends are partially fostered by the failure of conventional “large power” to be absolutely reliable. In the United States and Canada particularly, the 1990s revealed a series of costly power industry Achilles’ heels: crippling brown-outs in California (together with opportunistic power authorities in other states taking major monetary advantage of the situation), the collapse of the nuclear industry in Canada due in part to internal mismanagement, and failures of large sections of ice-laden power lines that cost severe financial loss in the northeastern United States. Consumers, government bodies such as the U.S. Department of Energy, and the research-and-development arms of major turbine manufacturers vowed that enough was enough.
And so we have today’s quasi-distribution model that aims for a mix of large-scale conventional power, small and domestic industries distribution, as well as massive process plants and oil producers who make their own power. In addition, the electric power storage research community industry is pushing for a commercial debut with developments such as fuel cells. The power transmission line industry will take several decades to die, but with the exception of a few lines where no other technology makes sense, die
it eventually shall.
Maximum turbine inlet temperature (TIT), the prime technology issue with large gas turbines, gave way with early microturbine applications to maximizing recuperator (waste heat recovery) performance. Simple microturbine applications can get up to 40% fuel efficiency with a recuperator. Once microturbines have their recuperator designs mastered, they then concentrate on the same issues as large gas turbines: maximizing TIT and pressure ratio (PR). However, in conjunction with a fuel cell, microturbine system efficiencies of 80% can be achieved. Large combined-cycle power-generation unit efficiencies still hover around 60%. So instead of a 300-MW combined-cycle power plant, a residential city can have several (joint or not) owners of microturbines with or without backup wind turbines, as well as households and building complexes with photovoltaic banks on their roofs: a distributed power scenario. The current global political weather is affecting global fuels industries, as the current U.S. energy bill proves. The hype for fossil fuel needs strengthens, even as oil companies are allowed to increase stockpiles and charge the average consumer far more for gasoline. This continues, even as those same companies buy developed alternative energy technologies that save gasoline (such as higher-mileage cars), perhaps for the sole purpose of sitting on them until the windfall rise of gasoline prices has been exploited to its breaking point. The problem then is that the ramp-up to market of tested technology of this kind may take as long or longer than seven years.
Meanwhile, the “alternative energy” community, which includes all the major gas turbine and steam turbine manufacturers in the United States, are awarded Department of Energy grants to hone their alternative energy technologies. Sometimes they release them in a conservative or indirect manner that will not threaten their main product lines (the large turbines). They may, for instance, license microturbine packagers to sell microturbines that include a recuperator, the technology for which was developed by the OEM. Their research arm may have developed a fuel cell that they test in conjunction with a microturbine that they or a joint venture partner have developed.
The potential applications for microturbines, given their expanding partnership with fuel cells and a growing list of viable, unconventional fuels, are endless. All that said, if the general public do not educate themselves about new technologies, they will not know enough to pull growing market entry for alternative technologies out of OEMs and oil companies. Unless new items such as carbon dioxide legislation, tax credits for household SPPs, and tax rebates for business and household SPPs force OEMs and oil
companies to promote smaller, distributed power, those big players will not push small power. So to not get swallowed up by rising fuel costs if you are an average person or small company, it’s pull not push time. Unfortunately, most of the U.S. public does not have a history of pulling. However, knowledge has its own powerful pull. So if you pick up this book and check out even some of what’s in it, you’re pulling
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