Editorial - VGB PowerTech Journal 10/2015

Changes and chances for the power plant industry

There has recently been a radical change in the market for the manufacturers of coal-fired power plants. German and West European operating companies, which used to be a reliable cornerstone for new construction and maintenance order intake, are today hardly present on the market. Orders tend to come in from power suppliers in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Turkey. This is where we can benefit as the manufacturer of cutting-edge technology in Germany as regards, for instance, efficiency, availability and emissions. Advanced technology developed on the home market becomes, in fact, an export product. This is a common development path seen in many industries. Increased generating capacities also continue to be created throughout Asia.

However in Germany and Western Europe the picture is one of an excess supply of conventional plant equipment. The proportion of power generated in conventional plants continues to shrink. This is set to continue in view of the expansion of power generated in state-funded alternative power generating plants.

Does today’s generating system meet the demands which the politically desired energy turnaround defines for alternative forms of power generation? Basically it does not. This is down to the fact that today’s plants were all constructed under the same premise - one of full load being normal over many thousands of hours a year. It is precisely for these requirements that the plants were tendered, designed and optimized by operating companies and manufacturers. The path from cold state to 100% operation tended to be of little interest to those concerned as did a minimum load to the exclusion of backup fuels.

Today’s reality is a different one for the conventional plant operating companies. The requirements have changed enormously. Thousands of full load hours a year for the plants are, in fact, now the exception. The new maxims revolve around preferably low minimum loads to the exclusion of expensive backup fuels and efficient operations at only 30% or 50% capacities. After all, this is where the market will be calling the tune. Lowering generating costs in the partial load field is the chief requirement placed on a power plant operating efficiently on the market. The goal is a preferably slightly falling efficiency curve. It is certainly not one imaging the absolute peak value of what is engineeringly possible bought at the price of a steeply falling efficiency curve for partial loads.

This is something that we, as plant constructors, can realize. What then helps is to evaluate the total plant and not consider individual components such as steam generator, turbine or the flue gas cleaning system. To date we have noticed a tendency on the market for specific questions to be put which are directly associated with the components originally delivered by the manufacturer. This should change in favor of a functional inquiry. What does the operating company really want to achieve from his power plant?

Even though company operators frequently awarded the plants in single lots – the numbers of which have been continually and dramatically falling over the past few decades - plant constructors still developed extensive competence in turnkey, total plants. Contract awards for turnkey plants in Eastern Europe or in Turkey are the rule today. Extensive know-how on the interplay of individual components and their related interactions is available across a wide spectrum.

That is the basis on which we can optimise and enhance the operational performance of the total plant. It is one tailored to today’s and tomorrow’s economic requirements prescribed by the continuing additional construction of alternative power generating plants. The winner on the Western European market will be the revamped, conventional total plant which best adapts to power production from alternative plants. And this also opens up the chance for plant constructors to export these technically intricate home market-developed solutions. After all, the generation of power from alternative plants will also increase in those countries where we are still setting up base-load power plants.

Free-market rules in power generation regrettably have no role to play today - at least as far as Germany is concerned. Revamping existing plants can be a paying proposition for all concerned given that power plant operators in future receive a price for their product not solely defined by priority feed-in and statutorily guaranteed feed-in payments but one which also considers, for instance, power grid stability and a requirement-compliant supply. This can then also serve as a promising model for other countries.