Wärtsilä calls for urgent action in the US to enable more flexible power systems

Technology group Wärtsilä is calling for urgent action to enable more flexibility in power systems in the United States, as the country reaches a crucial renewable energy tipping point.
Wärtsilä calls for urgent action in the US to enable more flexible power systems
Courtesy of IRENA.

According to US Energy Information Administration, the composition of the US power generation mix is changing. The output of wind and solar has increased by 127 percent and 477 percent respectively, compared with their 2015 outputs. At the same time, the amount of inflexible generation has declined. For example, coal generation has dropped by 521 million MWh, a decline of 38 percent.

At COP28, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed to transition away from fossil fuels and triple renewable power by 2030, which would make this tipping point even more pronounced.

Renewable energy will become the world’s largest electricity source by 2025, and it is vital that flexible technologies are deployed at scale and pace to support that transition to avoid widespread curtailment, increased prices, greater fluctuations, and higher emissions.

“We stand at a tipping point, with unprecedented levels of renewables being added in the United States over the next decade and huge volumes of traditional inflexible assets on the cusp of retirement” said Jon Rodriguez, Energy Business Director, Wärtsilä North America. “Over the past decade we have transitioned from renewables requiring financial support, to a position where inflexible assets, such as oil, coal and CCGTs (combined-cycle gas turbines) and nuclear are no longer viable without political support. This presents us with a unique opportunity: to add more renewable energy than ever before on to our grids, build the right level and right type of flexibility into our power systems and phase out inflexible assets while converting to sustainable fuels. Ultimately this will ensure a transition that fully phases out fossil fuels and is affordable, low carbon and resilient. The decisions that we make today in designing our power systems will echo for generations, as we aim to tackle climate change and embed the right technologies to accelerate the deployment of renewables.”

To ensure this tipping point is addressed, Wärtsilä is calling on policy and decision makers around the world to:

Choose the right technologies to accompany renewables, including grid balancing engines and energy storage to enable and accelerate the energy transition.

Enable and encourage flexibility through regulations and policies that incentivise investments in flexible generation assets.

Introduce shorter timeframes for power trading markets: Instead of trading in hourly periods, power trading markets should be operating in 15-minute, or even 5-minute, time resolutions.

According to IEA World Energy Outlook report, gas generation will increase 1 percent by 2030 and decrease 5 percent by 2050 (TWh), however global utilisation and the emissions from the sector will drop significantly, as an additional energy tipping point is reached. Gas will increasingly shift from providing baseload power to providing flexible and firm capacity for real-time and seasonal renewable balancing.

However, not all flexible generating assets are created equal. Inherently wind and solar power is intermittent, so flexible assets are required to manage minute-level, daily and seasonal variations in renewable generation, to ensure the lowest carbon and most cost-effective power systems.

Engines are the optimal flexible power generation technology choice over aeroderivative turbines in a five-minute market, as they:

Can outperform gas turbines when dispatched in real-time markets (i.e. 15- and 5-minute power trading intervals). One study found that an engine power plant can capture 60 percent more value than an equivalent aeroderivative gas turbine plant over 20 years. Have 10 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions than aeroderivative gas turbines.

Can run on sustainable fuels once they are available for the energy sector, and can switch seamlessly between different fuels.

Can ramp up in two minutes to support or balance intermittent renewables.

Have no minimum uptime or downtime and can start / stop as many times as needed with no additional cost or impact on maintenance.

Have high full load efficiency and can maintain it across a wide range of outputs – outperforming aeroderivative turbines under both normal and extreme conditions.

Can operate at loads as low as 10 percent, making them ideal for providing spinning reserve.

Can reduce curtailment.

“Grid balancing engines will play a vital role in bridging to higher renewable systems, as they are the most efficient power generation technology to support intermittent wind and solar” Mr Rodriguez added. “In the future they can run on sustainable fuels to create 100% renewable power so there is no chance of stranded assets. Fuel flexibility is vital for ensuring a dependable source of electricity. We have all the technologies required to achieve net zero. It is essential that the correct support mechanisms and policies are put in place today, to enable the deployment of correct technologies and keep costs and emissions low, while shaping the power systems of tomorrow.”

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