The Progress of Power Technology

I’ve developed something of a love/hate relationship with awards. Initially, it’s exciting to spot outstanding or unusual projects for our POWER awards, but over time, any number of things can happen to those plants, making them appear less than stellar. Sometimes it’s changing policy or market conditions that make a record-setting plant completely uneconomic (see the discussion of Germany’s Irsching 4—a 2011 Top Plant—in the story about this year’s Plant of the Year Award winner). In other cases, mechanical or structural flaws may become apparent only after startup, as was the case with last year’s Plant of the Year winner, SaskPower’s Boundary Dam Carbon Capture Project, and our 2014 winner, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. Although it’s usually impossible for anyone to anticipate what sorts of problems such exemplary projects will develop, first-of-a-kind technologies are almost guaranteed to experience teething pains.

No Risk, No Progress

Despite the challenges that even award-winning projects face, it remains important for the industry to keep striving to envision, design, and develop cutting-edge power projects because, as this month’s Commentary author reminds us, we need more of all the best low-carbon options we can get—as quickly as possible.

For example, the technology deployment breakthrough that we recognized with last year’s Plant of the Year Award, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) at an operating coal power plant, is central to prospects for the continued use of coal as a fuel globally if international commitments to a lower-carbon future are to be met. (Incidentally, I’m happy to share that my August 2015 cover story detailing SaskPower’s CCS achievement won an award of its own this June: Best Scientific Writing or Technical Reporting, from the Specialty Information Publishers Association.)

After addressing some unexpected challenges, the Boundary Dam project is now able to operate more reliably. Meanwhile, new CCS approaches continue to advance. For example, in June, Quebec-based CO2 Solutions presented third-party-verified pilot test results of its enzyme-based carbon capture process for stationary sources. During summer 2015 the company ran its 10 metric tons/day carbon capture demonstration unit successfully for over 2,500 hours, mostly with autonomous operation. Engineering firm Tetra Tech validated the company’s claims that “CO2 Solutions’ packed tower process configuration, when applied at large scale, would reduce the cost of carbon capture to below $40 per tonne (including compression) and below $30 per tonne (without compression). These numbers, as announced in 2015, are 10 years ahead of the U.S. Department of Energy’s cost target for 2025 of $40 (including compression),” according to a press release.

But the industry can’t place all its bets on CCS. We also need more efficient generation across all fuel types, as well as increasingly affordable clean energy options. You’ll read about several projects that are setting the pace in this issue and in the September through December issues, which cover our Top Plant winners.

Modeling Excellence

Each of the award winners we profile this year offers at least one technology or development approach that’s ripe for picking by future projects. Here’s one that stands out for me this month: the building envelope design for our Plant of the Year, Lausward Power Plant’s Fortuna unit in Düsseldorf.

As shown on our cover and in the article, the Fortuna unit is housed in an attractive, intriguing structure. You may argue that good design is more important for a plant like this one because it sits in an urban environment, but good design doesn’t necessarily have to cost more than ugly design. Power plants may be a “practical necessity,” but so are phones. It took Apple’s Steve Jobs to realize that a mobile phone can offer enhanced functionality (“power”) in a design-savvy package that people want to be seen with. Power generators, who are increasingly aware of their public image, might also do well to think about the visual statements their facilities make.

Profiles in Practicality

One way to assess trends in any industry is to look at its award winners. Based on the nominations we received for this year’s award categories, and the other projects the editorial team threw into the pool for consideration, the past year in power project execution has been one of largely incremental improvement. Although that may be less obviously exciting than a year in which brand new technologies are introduced—concentrating solar power or carbon capture or fusion (no, we’re not there yet)—it should inspire everyone to achieve excellence. After all, few have the stomach to be the first to adopt a new technology—which has repeatedly proven risky, as you’ll see from the story of this year’s Reinvention Award winner—but most generators are looking for ways to deploy the latest best practices.

This year’s award winners do include projects where the first of a new turbine model, or a new process, or new digital tools were used, but the stories are as much about owners and developers solving problems creatively to deliver exemplary new generation or make cleaner power from existing plants. Some award winner profiles present aspirational projects that may be feasible only for a few; other project successes are clearly achievable for many. They all demonstrate some sort of edge that merits recognition. We hope you will enjoy reading about this year’s winners. ■

Gail Reitenbach, PhD is POWER’s editor.

PWR_080116_SOP_greitenbach