Gas Power Plant Operations & Maintenance Trends
- The US Energy Information Administration predicts that most of the electricity generating capacity additions installed in the US through 2050 will be natural gas combined cycle and solar. Onshore wind will most likely only be competitive in a few regions before the tax credits are phased out, but might become more competitive later in the forecast period as the cost for installing the turbines continues to decline.
- The transition from coal to natural gas and renewables has led to a significant drop in carbon emissions over the last decade.
- In 2018, natural gas overtook coal as the leading source of electricity, making up 27.4% of the mix, with coal at 25.4%. Hydro provided 13.8%, wind 7.0%, and solar 3.0%.
O&M Costs Increasing
- Operations and Maintenance costs represent insurance, taxes, land lease payments, replacement costs, and maintenance over the lifetime of the plant. Overall, Gas CT plants are less efficient than Gas CCD power plants and tend to run as intermediate plants as needed.
- In the last two decades O&M costs have increased by 74%. Costs, with the exclusion of fuel, rose to an average of $10.80 /megawatt-hour (MWh), up from $6.21, for investor owned power plants.
- Overall costs in the last two decades have risen by 113%.
- Maintenance costs are consistently higher than operational costs. Since 2005, maintenance costs have been ever-increasing. From 1993 to 2017 maintenance costs rose from $2.39 to $5.01 per MWh, making overall O&M costs rising from $4.74 to $10.12/MWh as an average for all power plants.
- According to the US Energy Information Administration, in a reference case they completed, the natural gas CC value to cost ratio was close to 1.0, indicating that the value just covers the costs to produce the energy.
- "Combined cycle plants, defined as having at least one combustion turbine and one steam turbine, operate at much higher efficiency levels than the other types. While this lowers operating costs over the long-term, capital costs for construction are also higher. Combustion turbine natural gas power plants are less efficient than combined cycle, which results in higher operational costs, but are also less expensive to build."
- The state of California provided a detailed breakdown of their O&M costs, which may be viewed here.
- The growth of renewable energy, which was up 8.3% in 2017 according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, has affected production. This has led to combined cycle plants operating less frequently.
- "Lower natural gas prices and reduced capital costs of new natural gas-fired combined-cycle (CC) generating units shift fossil fuel electric generation use during the next decade. Beginning in 2020—the first year of availability—new, advanced CC natural gas-fired units have the highest projected capacity factors of all technologies, averaging 76% between 2025 and 2050. With their lower efficiency, conventional CC units decline in utilization, from 56% in 2020 to 18% by 2050, still remaining higher than combustion turbines but much lower than their designed operating rates."
- Even though they are generally operating less frequently, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) reports that natural gas grew the most when it came to power generation and was up by 156.4 TWh to 2,298 TWh in 2018, a 5.6% increase. Natural gas is now the leading source of electricity in the OECD.
- As the shares of gas generated electricity increase, the shares of coal and nuclear electricity decrease. By 2050, it is predicted that gas will make up 39% (up from 34%) of the energy mix, and renewables will increase from 18% to 31%.
Workforce- Education & Training
- Labor is becoming a major cost for combined cycle plants.
- New technology is abound and the workforce needs an ever-changing skill set. Ongoing education and training is vital to this process. It is recommended when interviewing candidates that one should make sure they are willing to develop new skills as needed.
- To combat the rising costs, plants are cross-training their workforce on multiple tasks, making them more versatile.
- A well-educated staff enables the plant to run at a lower cost, as it is more efficient. It is recommended that training should be viewed as a university system, by providing a base education and building upon it with "graduate and doctorate" courses that expand the workforce's skills.
- Training programs should not just be in classrooms, but in state-of-the-art labs that can replicate the situations that workers face.
- Many municipalities have formed Joint Action Agencies to share workers between companies, enabling them to benefit from the expertise they do not currently have.
- 3D visualization coupled with VR is set to revolutionize operations and maintenance training. VR can offer training and learning that is safe and controlled. Several startups are working on offering solutions in this area. This training will let workers learn from their mistakes before they actually make them in the field.
- Automation is a direct result of the rise in O&M costs. Some technologies include robots, drones or AI software, chatbots, robotic process automation, and blockchain. This will assist with maintenance and be a key factor in predicting outages and grid management.
- With combined cycle plants firing less frequently, sometimes for only a few hours a day, maintenance is stretched out over a longer period, but the labor force is still getting paid. Automation helps reduce some costs associated with labor.
- Sensors are being installed on rotating equipment like generators and turbines to automate these processes. The trend with declining prices in sensors is assisting this effort, and making it a more economical option.
- Automation also opens up the option for remote work. With more automation, control room operators can manage multiple plants remotely, and off site if needed.
- "While onsite field operators will still be needed for routine maintenance or plant emergencies, these tasks can be combined to require fewer people, including control-room operators. With tablet computers, they can perform key functions while conducting field work, reducing the headcount at the plant."
- Plants have been turning to 3D visualization to streamline operations. 3D visualization assists in the construction, installation, and maintenance of a power plant.
- Power stations are becoming more modular in concept, with large modules being produced onsite. 3D models assist by letting the developers see potential issues during the construction and installation process. This way issues can be ironed ideally out before the installation begins. These models further assist when it comes time to upgrade and in the constant maintenance.
- Andreas Locher, the global head of commissioning at GE, explains in an interview with Transform: "When we have new developments, new products, or new designs, the services team is always a part of the constructability review meetings. They verify that their needs are considered in the right manner and we look at 3D models as part of that."
- The models can also ensure a longer life cycles of the equipment, assist in the emissions regulation adherence, and in changing grid code requirements.
- When upgrades are needed, 3D models let the plant designers simulate trends and issues, and deal with them during development, instead of when the upgrade is already installed. This technology can help assure the right options are used for the need at hand. These needs will likely include renewable balancing, ancillary services provisioning, and even reserve capacity from onsite energy storage technologies.
- 3D visualization has also allowed for data coupling with 3D powerplants. In this scenario, all the data and documentation about any component is introduced into the 3D software, letting operators update and modify data as maintenance or replacement of components occurs. This lets the plant have a real time picture of the condition of all elements and components in the plant.
- Shell has used 3D printers to prototype their Stones Oil and Gas station in the Gulf of Mexico. They used the printer to produce a scaled down plastic version of every component. This let them understand what they needed to do to improve the components before the actual build. This saved them $40 million dollars by being able to flag design flaws early on. It also let them show the government precisely what the station consisted of and sped up their approval process.
- To be considered a trend, the topics must have been included multiple times in the research process and their needed to be evidence that this trend would continue into the foreseeable future. Reputable sources such as the US Energy Administration and the OECD were used to begin the research, then supplemental sources were found to support the trends.