Engine-based power plants have proven to be dependable complements for intermittent renewables, but they are also capable of providing steady baseload electricity. With the right technical support, including lubricant analysis and condition monitoring, engines that may have originally been developed for marine applications can provide a long life of consistent operation at inland power plants.

Travel to some of the most remote inland territories in the world and it is highly likely you will see a range of electricity generating engines more commonly associated with marine applications. And because inland power plants use marine engines, specialized marine lubricants and technical support services are required here too.

The inland power generation market is one Total Lubmarine is looking at more closely with a dedicated team now servicing its growing clients’ needs around the world. Power generation implies a very different business approach, but the fundamentals of combining highly effective products with timely deliveries and technical support to help maintain these vital assets is exactly the same as the marine industry.

Tomorrow’s Energy Mix

Today, engine power plants are a widely used technology in power generation, especially when emergency power is needed, and in delivering combined heat and power applications. The integration of more and more intermittent renewable energy—primarily centered on wind and solar energy—into the electricity grid, means operators need to have a very flexible, and fast, backup power solution to ensure supply in times where no sufficient energy can be generated from sun and wind.

We only have to go back a couple of years to the unprecedented blackout in South Australia to understand the need for energy protection systems that are able to ride through voltage disturbances and are resilient enough to ensure continuity of supply. Engines help to counterbalance this energy demand with fast and responsive generation capacity, quickly backing up the power system from potential and extended blackouts.

If there are clouds, sun power goes down significantly, similar to wind, and then you have to make sure the backup power is extremely fast. With an engine you can be on the grid within a minute and have full power within five minutes. It’s a big advantage.

Reliability and flexibility are critical. The engines can be turned on (and off) very easily and very quickly. They are straightforward to use and produce electricity efficiently, and do not produce a great deal of unnecessary emissions in idle or minimum-load mode. Even in a volatile power profile, if you have a cluster of engines you can, for example, shut down two to three engines and still run with all the others on full power and efficiency.

Power Immediacy

Thanks to their modularity, engine power plants are convincing for a number of reasons. Some of these include:

    ■ Only energy that is really needed is generated.
    ■ Biofuels and biogas can be used to power the engines.
    ■ Decentralized applications, meaning reduced need of additional overhead power lines.
    ■ High efficiency rates in combined heat and power generation.

Engines can use the most widely available fuels in the most environmentally responsible way, and take power where it is needed most. They can be optimized for a wide variety of fuels from liquid to gaseous, depending on the availability, purpose, and environmental considerations.

Among today’s engine power plants, natural gas is a popular option with engine sizes of more than 1 MW capacity. It is one of the fastest growing segments today because you don’t have the prevailing SOx and NOx emission issues of traditional high-sulfur fuel oil (HSFO) fuels—a top priority on the boardroom agenda—contributing further to lowering emissions from the energy sector. Likewise, we are seeing developments in the way engines can burn renewable sources such as biogas and biodiesel.

Continuous Supply

In recent years, the investment into engine developments to help ensure reliability, safety, and robustness mean engine power plants can provide steady power, around the clock, to meet the continuous electricity baseload requirements of communities across the world. While other technologies can face technical problems or higher costs when adjusting load to the actual demand, engine power plants are a very stable technology to perform this task.

Today, you can combine a number of engines in one plant. When you look back just 20 years, engine technology was used only in small-scale applications, but now there are sizeable plants greater than 500 MW, such as the 573-MW IPP3 facility in Jordan, which has 38 multi-fuel engines on-site. Reciprocating engines are considered versatile, reliable, and efficient in comparison to other fossil fuel resources.

Just in the last year, there have been a number of developments in the latest engines manufactured to help better support local communities with power supply from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) including Himsen, Caterpillar, and Mitsubishi, to name a few. One of the latest examples is Wärtsilä with the supply of a 200-MW flexible baseload power plant to Cambodia that will help meet the country’s rapidly growing energy demand (Figure 1).

1. After an order was placed in June 2019, Wärtsilä delivered 12 high-efficiency 50DF dual-fuel engines, like the one shown here in its factory, for Electricite du Cambodge’s C7 power plant, which is located near the capital city of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Courtesy: Wärtsilä

Total Lubmarine experts are supporting operators to ensure that engines and gensets can be run efficiently for mission-critical facilities such as hospitals, data centers, industrial plants, and oil and gas production operations, among others. Its relationships with the OEMs are strong, and the company applies its technical knowledge to help with the demand for engine power plants, and the increasing technology variants and needs.

Investing in the Future

While some of the recent trends around climate goals and distributed energy resources will continue, the COVID-19 pandemic has catalyzed the transition of the power sector, while lending urgency to energy resources and growth opportunities. In the BloombergNEF New Energy Outlook 2020 report, it says: “Reducing emissions well below two degrees under our clean electricity and green hydrogen pathway requires between $78 trillion and $130 trillion of new investment between now and 2050.” The authors said about $64 trillion would be spent “on power generation and the electricity grid for direct electricity provision.”

Reliability and security of supply are likely to emerge as key areas of concern in the short term. This is where flexibility and innovation in supply will play a key role. Why? Power is needed at all times, so a flexible system with the right energy capture and storage solution will be critical to enable a sustainable energy supply and balance the intermittent nature of wind and solar energy.

Will high-performance batteries take over a share of the engines’ market soon? Very interesting developments have been seen from Total’s batteries division, SAFT, where a balance between engines and batteries are helping to reduce emissions and costs for operators, while increasing grid stability.

Customers around the world value the level of technical expertise and support Total Lubmarine’s dedicated teams are able to offer them to not only help deliver engine lubrication recommendations for optimum cost control results, but crucially, through analysis and insight of equipment, to ensure operational efficiency and safety, helping reduce engine downtime and fluctuations in power supply. Naturally, fuel choice, lubricant developments, and the next wave of engine monitoring and prescriptive intelligence of how an engine is performing will enable the company to plan ahead of any potential issues, reducing the amount of effort required to identify a potential situation, determine its impact, and act accordingly.

While there continues to be a vast scope for more technology-based applications in the near future, there is value in how digitization can further enhance today’s engine monitoring and inspection operations. Progress in engine and lubricant technology, as well as the longer-term work on achieving higher efficiencies, are there for the foreseeable future. The expertise of Total Lubmarine chemists, based at its state-of-the art Solaize Research Center in France, enables the company to create new lubricant formulations and improve existing ones, day-in, day-out.

Total Lubmarine has taken initiatives in the past year to extend its level of technical support with the opening of its new lube oil analysis laboratory in Chicago (Figure 2). This latest lab opening means the company has increased its network of laboratory services to five centers around the world, with Chicago joining Ertvelde, Belgium; Shanghai, China; Panama City, Panama; and Singapore. The opening of the new lab ensures a dedicated technical center for both North and South America. It also meets the growing demand for the company’s products and technical support in the U.S.

2. In June 2020, Total Lubmarine opened a new laboratory in Chicago, Illinois. The range of services available through the new lab include standard analyses for engine oil, non-engine oil, drain oil, thermal oil, stern tube oil, and EAL (environmentally acceptable lubricant). Courtesy: Total Lubmarine

By carefully monitoring lubricant and power plant machinery condition—detecting and reacting to any abnormalities and contamination—unnecessary wear or damage can be prevented before it happens. Given recent experiences with fluctuating oil prices, a pandemic, and increasing geopolitical tensions, people around the world have learned to expect the unexpected. While Total Lubmarine continues to supply customers with high-quality lubricants and technical expertise, its work is always focused on partnering with customers to help energy operators produce electricity more efficiently. With its technical support and guidance, customers are able to optimize their fuel and lubricant consumption.

Gabriel Landaeta is power generation manager for Total Lubmarine.