Tackling the Big Questions in Power Generation


Some big questions shadow the power generation industry. Some are positive, some a little uncertain, but all involve a recognition of the exponential pace of change.

I’ve talked to various industry insiders recently to get their take on some of the big issues facing utilities, their contractors and suppliers. It’s not too dramatic to say that these are revolutionary times, making it a virtual lock that the grid of today will not look much like the grid of a decade from now.

The POWER-GEN International conference and exhibition is full of content focused on industry issues in the here and now. At the same time, many of those sessions point the way forward.

In other words, these sessions tackle the Big Questions facing power generation now and to come. They offer many answers, but also sometimes look ahead to what the questions will be in 5, 10 and 20 years. For example:

What is the Future of Coal?

Both economics and environmental concerns make it abundantly clear that few, if any, coal-fired plants will be built in the U.S. and Europe within the near term. That is not true all over the world. So, POWER-GEN, which is an All-of-the-Above conference because that's where we're at, offers numerous sessions on how to keep coal-fired generation states operating in ways that meet regulatory and operational goals. Those include the challenges on cycling and meeting air pollution requirements of the modern coal fleet, as well as improving the competitiveness of those baseload facilities. Coal plays a big role in the Optimizing Plant Performance and Emissions: Cut It Out! Tracks.

No doubt that many utilities are retiring coal-fired plants, which are less economic than natural gas-fueled turbines at this time in history and less environmentally friendly than solar, wind or hydro. But coal has its place in the generating mix at least for decades to come, and POWER-GEN’s content reflects that age-old, if unhip, truism.[CC1]

What is the Sweet Spot for Renewables in the Generation Mix?

This is like the flipside of the first question. How little coal in the portfolio, how much solar, wind and hydro can we have and still maintain a resilient grid? POWER-GEN leaves the larger question to the ages, but in Orlando this December it offers first-ever conference tracks for wind, solar, hydro and microgrids, while also taking it down to the exhibition floor for the first-ever Knowledge Hubs.

Renewables and energy storage will highlight two theaters on the Hub sessions, including such issues as market design challenges, grid integration and the utility-scale opportunities. Upstairs on the third floor of the Orange County Convention Center, the ins and outs of renewable dispatching, utility-scale building challenges and technological diversity will be featured in the conference/summit rooms.

What are the Future Business Models to Help Utilities Diversify with Generation Revenue Falling?

None of this happens without money and lots of it. The retirement of coal, in many cases, is less about environmental regulations than the economic sea changes wrought by the shale gas drilling revolution and accelerating decline in solar and wind component prices. 

Enter the “Show Me the Money!” track at POWER-GEN. All of the sessions within that track feature panel discussions offering industry leader insights on how projects are financed…or not. Experts span the breadth of the industry, from oversight groups to contractors to financial advisors. The PJM Interconnection, ERCOT, Cohn Reznick, Deutsche Bank and other power sector companies are represented in these conversations for all to hear and consider.

How big will Batteries be in the Future: Niche or mainstream?

The answer is likely somewhere in-between. Prices are falling and residential storage buy-in actually exceeded utility-scale battery investment in the second quarter of 2018, according to industry groups. POWER-GEN’s Knowledge Hubs features one theater completely devoted to energy storage and its integration within the grid. Various sessions focus on the latest trends, the integration benefits and challenges both with microgrids and flexible gas generation, among other things.

What is the Future of Smart Grid Technology?

Well, that answer is as simple as counting the cutting-edge Ones and Zeros out there. Digitization is the no-brainer for operations from inside the control room to the sensors along power lines to substations and the meter. At POWER-GEN, the “Digital Solutions and Cybersecurity” track tackles how next-level learning, machine communications and grid defense are being improved by digital tools never dreamed of in previous eras.

One session highlights various key approaches to cybersecurity, while another looks at practical applications for digital twins of power plants. The later panel discussion will seek to demystify the concept of digital copying and storing of all the operation data of a power plant to better enable predictive analytics and other key maintenance tools.

What can the Natural Gas-Fired Fleet do to Maintain its Efficiency?

We answer the question with a question. “Gas Turbines: What’s New?” is a popular track at POWER-GEN, looking at ways to expand turbine capability and flexibility. Another session looks at how utilities maintain those growing fleets, offering experience from those who serve in the field.

The “Operation and Design of Gas-Fired Plants” and “Optimizing Plant Performance” tracks feature expert opinion on how gas-fired solutions work in today’s disrupted generation market (in the former) while how to modernize and meet demands for new modes of dispatch (in the latter).

POWER-GEN’s content does not claim to answer all the questions facing the industry (and there are many more). In fact, new questions will arise as the sessions inspire conversations and problem solving.

We hope you will be there. In fact, if you register before October 5 here is a special discount code to receive a FREE ticket to the POWER-GEN 30th Birthday Bash, our off-site networking party taking place at the ICON Orlando (a $35 ticket value includes food, drinks, games, music and a ticket to ride the ICON)! Use code PGITICKET or CLICK HERE to get registered!

Rod Walton is content manager for POWER-GRID International and Power Engineering. He can be reached at rod.walton@clarionevents.com.