Strategic Flexibility Needed for Flexible Generation

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Imagine a world where the sun shone all day and night and the wind constantly blew, generating more than enough to power the earth, easily powering cities and entire countries. But just like Kayne and Kim Kardashian’s relationship, it was not meant to be, not yet anyway. Due to the fickle whims of Mother Nature, there is a need for malleable power, flexible generation even in an environment with ample rays from the sun such as the ASEAN. Flexible generation does the hard job of supplying power through upward demand swings and over other peak phases when the power supply is exceeded. In essence, flexible generation comes in like the hero to relieve pressure on regional power systems providing additional power when needed. Is this kind of solution even needed in Southeast Asia? The resources may be bountiful but there is still a very real need of reliable power especially when we know renewables are notoriously unreliable. How can countries across the region start down the path of diversifying their power sources with less economic resources? The way forward must be strategic especially with renewables growing rapidly and while flexibility isn’t necessarily required now, it will be important as renewable penetration grows.

Power system flexibility stands at the core of the transformation to a system that will make better use of low-carbon electricity. Although the oil and gas sector may have categorised by some as a ‘sunset’ industry, it’s too soon to discount gas completely and in fact, gas will most likely play a large part in power system flexibility. Some, like the Enbridge CEO, Al Monaco, would go as far as to say natural gas is the “great enabler” because it is a reliable source of energy that can aid the energy transition and can backstop renewables. Nicolas Leong of Wärtsilä agrees with Monaco’s sentiment and said, “Something has to fill in the gaps as solar ramps, and to cover the full load when the sun sets at night.” Traditional baseload combined-cycle gas turbines were designed for static operation and need roughly one to four hours to start and then four to six hours before ceasing operation. To avoid being switched off entirely, plants are “ramped down to minimum load for extended periods, which is about 40 percent, and kept online, burning gas, and waiting to ramp up when they are needed,” Leong said. “When inflexible combined-cycle plants run at minimum load, they use much more gas to produce a megawatt-hour of electricity than when on full output, thereby producing more CO2 emissions while adding fuel and maintenance costs for every stop-start cycle.”

“Something has to fill in the gaps as solar ramps, and to cover the full load when the sun sets at night.” – Nicolas Leong, Wärtsilä

Flexible gas power plants are a necessity for the continued process of the global energy transition; when a potential shortage is expected, modern, more flexible gas-fired power plants can start operating at full power within only 20 minutes or vice versa, if there is too much power in the system, it can quickly be ramped down. Gas has long been touted as the bridging fuel, but how long is that bridge? With it’s potential to support the adoption of renewables through flexible peaking plants of different scales, gas’s potential to increase its role in the fuel mix as a lower-carbon option in the long term seems assured. ASEAN’s gas demand has long been seen as the golden egg for global LNG suppliers but its growth has been slow, will gas projects begin to take off as the need for a flexible solution becomes more apparent? Vietnam, which now boasts the highest installed capacity of solar power in Southeast Asia, seems to be leading the charge and we have seen some activity in the last few years in LNG project approvals. As reported by Fitch, its current pipeline of LNG projects features 23 different projects; of these 23, 11, worth a combined $35.9 billion and 32.6GW in generation capacity, are backed up by pledges of funding from US companies, to be completed over 2023-30, and so seem as sure as possible to be moving ahead. Will the rest of ASEAN follow?

What more will be needed to increase power system flexibility and ensure maximum effectiveness of renewables? Narsingh Chaudhary, Black & Veatch’s Executive Vice President & Managing Director, Asia Power Business, said it begins with ancillary tools. “Integrating ancillary technologies, like battery energy storage systems (BESS), with renewable energy promises to increase efficiencies and reduce lost revenues,” Narsingh said. Batteries make utilising renewable energy on demand possible with the added benefit of asset management making battery storage more attractive but there are more BESS benefits to take into account. “BESS captures excess energy and sells them back to the grid when energy demands are high and supply is limited. Selling the energy when the value of electricity is at a premium could generate greater revenue for the producer. Another possibility is to use the excess renewable energy to produce green hydrogen that can be stored for long durations,” he said. You had us at charging a premium and capturing excess energy which is has been an ongoing challenge for power plants.

How then does BESS factor into flexible generation?

With tools such as BESS storage, reliable energy stores and coverage can be possible but BESS may not work for traditional plants for a full flexible generation integration. We asked our friend and the Director of North & South East Asia for Wärtsilä, Nicolas Leong, and he said renewables are the new baseload but inflexible power systems will be tested by maintaining system reliability, resilience, and stability. “A significant amount of balancing assets such as flexible engine power plants and energy storage are needed to support the seamless integration of renewable energy sources. Balancing power plants allow the system to quickly meet the need for long-term, seasonal balancing and short-term rapid response, multiple times per day, while energy storage systems serve to smooth variations in supply and store excess electricity from renewables,” he said. He went on to describe internal combustion engine (ICE) power plants as a solution because they allow the integration of solar and wind power without jeopardising the power system reliability and stability. Internal combustion engine (ICE) based power plants are different from a conventional thermal power plant because they deliver high efficiency and flexibility. “An ICE can reach 100% capacity within just 2 minutes, quickly ramp up and shut down, and can be restarted without any operational penalties and with minimal downtime. ICE power plants can operate on baseload, provide balancing power, and also provide grid stability services,” he said. The flexibility of an ICE system is attractive as it is an innovative solution to what has been the crux of full RE energy incorporation, stability.

“Grid stability is achieved when all the generators across the grid operate in harmony.” – Narsingh Chaudhary, Black & Veatch

With multiple moving components in a regional energy transition increasing grid management complexity, digitalization will present opportunities to address core challenges of grid stability, peak load management, system flexibility and reliability in a holistic manner, observed Narsingh from Black & Veatch. “Digitalization will be key to efficient performance of flexible power grids. Smart grids will help to integrate renewable generation into the grid and manage supply and demand, while predictive asset maintenance will allow plant operators to predict the state of the equipment so that maintenance can be scheduled in advance,” said Narsingh.  Narsingh believes that forecasting and real-time monitoring will address sustainability and stability issues of power grids, while mitigating costly outages and other equipment failures.

Stability will be key when determining the route towards Asia’s energy transition. In closing, we asked Narsingh what the biggest factors in ASEAN usage of flexible generation for a successful energy transition are and it all goes back to aligning oneself with the right partner. “Collaborating with partners who are familiar with every aspect in the lifecycle of generation, transmission and distribution assets will be critical. Such partners also need to be expert in integrating different assets to create a stable, efficiently functioning whole. The best partners will be able to marry technical expertise with the ability to help the power sector navigate and influence regulations and advise on investment strategies along each point in the asset lifecycle,” he said.

Partnerships and balancing power as well as assets are what will help move the dial towards a global energy transition. It is just as Narsingh said with regards to how batteries and, renewables fit into the flex generation equation, “Grid stability is achieved when all the generators across the grid operate in harmony.” With harmony and adopting strategies that enable a flexible power system, more energy streamlining possibilities will open up to those in search of a marriage of all energy sources which also should in theory lead the industry closer to the net zero carbon emission targets of the future.

If you would like to learn more, please join the discussion about Flexible Generation at next month’s + Series on the 27th of May. See you there!

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