Flexible, On-Site and in Charge: Q&A with Pete Belmonte

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One of history’s oil busts shifted Peter Belmonte’s career trajectory from the oil and gas industry to power generation and environmental consulting. He has worked with coal, natural gas and environmental issues ever since.

Now he is chairman for the Flexible Generation and On-Site Power track for POWER-GEN International. Belmonte, who is vice president and national market director of power and utilities for TRC, talks about how his future was shaped by his godfather, why he thinks balance is key in the generation mix and what’s the best part of his job.

Belmonte also will give readers and POWER-GEN attendees a sneak peek on what’s going to stand out in the track at this year’s POWER-GEN conference December 4-6 in Orlando, Florida.

1)      Peter, give us a little insight into the earliest part of your career. As you were growing up, what led you into the power generation industry?

“I didn’t choose the power industry, it chose me. Growing up, I looked up to my godfather who was a successful chemical engineer and I decided to follow in his footsteps. I graduated from Manhattan College and wanted to get a job in the oil and gas market or at a refinery in the western part of the country or in Texas. However, the job market fell out in 1991 and I took an entry level position with the EPA.

“After a year or so I moved into environmental consulting and for eight years supported a number of industries including power generation and waste to energy.  I took a position at Trigen Energy in 2000 which was acquired by Tractebel/Suez where I went from supporting smaller CHP projects to larger power facilities ranging from 500–780 MW including permitting, development, acquisition and startup/commissioning.”

2)      You have audited, assessed risk and, ultimately, permitted more than 7,000 MW worth of power generation projects in Texas, as well as hundreds of power plant pollution control projects nationwide. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen as the sector develops and diversifies.

“Most of the projects I worked on in Texas and throughout the US in the early 2000s to 2010 were coal plant expansions and CCGT plants. Since 2010 it has been primarily CCGTs, peakers and cogens.  Renewables started coming on strong in 2008. Wind in west Texas grew due to the state standards and PTCs, and solar has really become hot in the last 5 years due to the same incentives.  Coal fired power plants started shutting down in 2012 due to MATS and other regulations, and the price of natural gas dropped to such low levels that coal plants started shutting down because they couldn’t compete cost effectively. The other changes I have seen since the renewable era started is load following with peakers (engines and turbines with quick start capability) and of late, the lack of suitable grid capacity to move all that wind and solar power to the load centers. Renewables facilities are often out in the middle of nowhere, so upgrading the grid and pole replacements are part of the grid infrastructure issue that needs to be addressed.”

3)      Do you see these developments as good in the long term?

“I still believe we need a proper fuel mix. Renewables alone won’t cut it from a reliability standpoint due to their reduced capacity factors–the sun isn’t always shining and the wind isn’t always blowing.  Battery storage will help in the future but it will have to be able to store more than just 2-4 hours of capacity to get through night time loads.  With all that said, cost-effective natural gas will continue to play a significant role in the US and the world to make up the difference.”

4)      As chair of POWER-GEN’s Flexible Generation and On-Site Power track, tell us why this segment is important now, perhaps more than ever?

“For the reasons I state above, flexible generation is more important than ever.  While renewables have become the focus of the past few years, flexible generation is becoming a focus for the next decade . It will help support the demand requirements of not just the grid, but production facilities (i.e. refineries, chemical plants, manufacturing, hospitals, even Universities) that need a reliable source of power and steam to meet their operational requirements, business drivers and bottom line.  Without a reliable source of power, other industries cannot meet their global demand.”

5)      What are the key things attendees are going to hear about specifically in the sessions within the Flexible Generation and On-Site Power track?

“One of the key drivers over the past several years has been storm and emergency response.  Since Hurricane Harvey, Irma, Maria and as recently as Florence, on demand and flexible power generation has become extremely important. States like Florida have requirements now for nursing homes and hospitals so they can function reliably and keep their patients safe. We will look at lessons learned of flexible and on site power projects–the dos and the don’ts.  We will also look at the market drivers for flexible generation, project viability factors and what role utilities play in these solutions.”

6)      One of those sessions is a panel discussion on rate-based on-site power and combined heat and power. Can you give us a sneak peek at the themes likely to pop up in that discussion?

“The complex and difficult development of smaller on-site power and combined heat and power assets is being enhanced by regulated utilities supporting and developing projects at customer sites. These projects are designed to provide system-wide shared benefits and are therefore being supported in the rate base, changing the dynamics of for project viability and financing.”

7)      In your career you’ve handled very technical paper details, plant assessments and working with regulators, stakeholders and property owners, among many other things. What’s your favorite part of the job and why?

“Very good question; it depends on the day. Some days I’d rather be on the owner/operator side as the client and other days I’d rather be the consultant.  That just goes to show there are various dynamic challenges in the power sector marketplace!  I learned a lot on the owner/operator side; and as a consultant I get to take that experience to various other clients.  Everyone (owner/operators) have their own processes/procedures to follow and point of view of how things need to be done. Being on the consulting side and in a business development role is very rewarding as no two clients are the same nor are their issues. It’s never a dull moment on the consulting side—just when you think things are going to slow down and you can catch up, the next opportunity arises.  You just need to have the passion and fire in your belly to meet those challenges and opportunities. When that fire in my gut goes out, well then that’s when it’s time to move on and find something else to do.”