The future of fossil fuel power plants will be characterized by an increasing need to adeptly manage new variables in a world of accelerating change. As wholesale power markets evolve, existing fossil generation assets may be required to adopt new operating patterns to support the continued reliability of the electricity grid. Accordingly, owners and operators of fossil power plants will be compelled to consider adopting advanced technologies that can enable an expanded set of possible operating regimes, which, in turn, can enhance asset profitability and value.
Perhaps no area of technology innovation is currently experiencing more intense activity than the field of predictive analytics (PA), which leverages the increasing availability of immense digital data sets and the declining costs of sensing and measurement, data transmission, and computational capabilities.
Applied to the realm of fossil power generation, integrated PA software packages allow plant operators and owners to more fully utilize ever-accumulating sets of information across the complex network of systems and components inherent in a power plant. They can do so without having to shut down assets or dedicate large quantities of staff time and other resources to analysis. In addition to better identifying existing improvement opportunities, PA also utilizes probabilistic approaches to recommend future actions that can increase plant profitability, such as undertaking proactive maintenance to simultaneously increase plant availability (producing greater revenues) and component life (deferring replacement costs as long as is prudent).
Interest in PA within the power sector is burgeoning. Earlier in 2017, POWER Magazine launched the inaugural Connected Plant Conference, convening speakers and attendees from across the power generation industry to share lessons from the growing number of successful PA case studies.
While the increasing utilization of PA is revolutionizing the power generation marketplace, good software alone can't do everything to increase a plant's value. Sometimes, plant owners or operators can improve profitability potential by undertaking equipment upgrades.
In recent decades, advancements in engineering, materials science, and manufacturing techniques have improved virtually every component of a power plant, from combustor designs to turbine blades to fuel management controls. The catalog of potential upgrades to consider at a power plant is lengthy, and depends significantly on the plant's type and vintage. Naturally, older plants are more likely to present a greater number of opportunities—especially at replacement intervals involving scheduled outages—wherein components or entire subsystems can be readily replaced with newer designs.
While the costs of upgrade options are usually straightforward to estimate, quantifying the potential benefits they afford can be quite challenging. Performing an accurate analysis of the benefits available from upgrade options relies on a detailed understanding of the complex interactions between the many factors that dictate the power market prices the power plant will face. These include: cost structures of other power generation assets in the area, electricity market operation rules, the regional transmission network, and local electricity demand characteristics.
Such a comprehensive analysis of power plant economics relative to prevailing market conditions is valuable for more than just evaluating specific upgrade opportunities. By utilizing advanced PA software and considering the spectrum of viable equipment upgrades, owners and operators of fossil power plants may find that an asset's highest value in the evolving energy marketplace can only be realized if it operates in a completely new mission or duty cycle. In turn, this may justify and necessitate a complete transformation of the power plant, involving multiple upgrades in combination.
The need for such a holistic reevaluation of fossil assets is only growing. With increasing penetration of renewable energy into power markets, the future of fossil fuel generation depends critically on enhancing operational flexibility. Fortunately, fossil power plant owners and operators have many options to consider, thanks to the continuing advancement of technologies.