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Conventional and Renewable Energy Will Dance Even More Closely Together

Michael Weinhold's picture
Siemens Energy
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  • May 15, 2014 12:00 am GMT

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Rnewables and Conventionals Together at Last

Hi everybody,

Here is the first part of my insights into the future of energy from an interview given at Hannover Messe for TheEnergyBlog.

The introducing part “The rapidly accelerating future of energy” you can find here.

I’m looking forward to your vision and ideas.

All the best,

The key issues in managing the relationship between conventional and renewable energy are efficiency and flexibility, according to Prof. Dr. Weinhold. “This relates to both conventional and renewable power plants and how we integrate both to meet power needs in the most efficiently seamless method possible,” he said. “We have more and more renewables with variable outputs coming online so we also need to make conventional inputs as flexible as possible. This goes hand in hand with the production of renewables. We will need to more accurately predict and compensate for variations in both production and demand,” said Dr. Weinhold.

He added that digitization is a key factor because it is what enables and controls the whole process. It is also what makes it possible to look into the Big Data aspects, which are critical for things like weather and load forecasting and then managing a given system accordingly. “The past was more about what has happened and why. The future is more about what will happen and why… and what we should do to anticipate it. This marks a massive shift in the way we manage energy,” he said.

“Efficiency and flexibility are also very much about materials and design – which incorporates 3D printing and technologies. For example, looking ahead we will be able to manufacture much more complex turbine blades where you have cooling channels built in. This was just not possible until now. 3D printing allows us to incorporate very fine structures that really push efficiency to new levels. And we are just seeing the start of what this new technology offers. This gives engineers a much higher degree of freedom when designing solutions.

“Digitization also makes research simulations much faster and more accurate. The effect of this is that we can test technologies faster and get them to market much quicker than ever before. It also adds up to greater security and stability because built-in sensors make it easier to monitor power plants in real time…. the vision is to have some kind of auto-pilot or self-managing system that automatically makes corrections and manages difficult situations. It also makes much more accurate prediction possible so you can fine-tune your power plant to, say, the prevailing weather conditions and anticipated power needs for the next day.

Digitization, or what some are calling “The Internet  of Everything” will be all around us. More and more decision-making will be done by machines, without any human intervention at all, or at the very least they will assist us in making much better decisions, faster,” said Dr. Weinhold.

“I am really hoping to see all these changes during the course of my professional life and, at the current rate of innovation, I believe there is a very good chance I will. I really want to be in the middle of the action,” he concluded.

In the next post in this series, Prof. Dr. Weinhold discusses the future of grids – “The glue that holds it all together.”

Photo Credit: Energy Integration/shutterstock

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John Miller's picture
John Miller on May 14, 2014

Dr. Weinhold, while your comments and ideas definitely have merit, many of them appear to possibly represent the status of more historic state-of-art technologies 20-30 years ago; which have since substantially evolved and improved.  When it comes to power (grid) systems, conventional fossil fuels, nuclear and hydropower may ‘dance’ with renewable wind & solar, but clearly are ‘leading’ and renewables must ‘follow’.  This is due to the controllable, fully-dispatchable capabilities of most conventional power vs. variable, limited control/non-dispatchable renewable wind/solar.  The energy industry also made the transition from the older hardwire, analog and feedback control technologies to wireless, digital and feed-forward control technologies many years ago.  Most complex control and production facilities/systems also made the transition from manual operators to supervisory/advanced (auto) controls in the last century.

Can current technologies be improved further?  Certainly, particular in power systems that experience significantly higher penetration levels of variable renewable energy supply.  This includes more sophisticated supervisory feed-forward modeling to better predict weather patterns and impacts on variable wind/solar power and consumer demand, and more efficiently balancing power grids’ supply-demand balances 24-7-365.  Expanding ‘demand response’ and optimizing available backup power generation/storage will also increase the efficiency and complexity of controlling and optimizing energy supply with demand.

Michael Weinhold's picture
Michael Weinhold on May 23, 2014

Dear Mr Miller,

The so-called conventional technologies are of course not without innovations. Due to the increased complexity of the higher intake of fluctuating power from renewable energies it is even more important that we further develop these conventional technologies to higher flexibility. Specifically gas-fired power stations have already shown that they are ideal partner for renewables. Within Siemens we have developed e.g. the fact cycling technology called FACY which enables the operator of a combined cycle power plant to start up more than 100MW in less than 10min.


Michael Weinhold

John Miller's picture
John Miller on May 23, 2014

Agreed, as the penetration levels of variable renewable power increases the need for more innovative-flexible backup-intermediate and fully dispatchable power generation will increase.  Gas-fired power capacity will become more than an ‘ideal partner’, but more of a ‘required partner’.  Developing faster startup-cycling FACY technologies will and have definitely helped improve balancing power grid’s supply-demand by minimizing the need for hot standby-spinning power reserves.  My understanding is that FACY CCGT’s have reduced cold startups from about 100 minutes to 30 minutes.  Can you provide a reference for your ‘10 minute cold startup’ data.  In my past engineering-operations experience with CCGT’s and other primary/backup power generators, a 10 minute startup could lead to significant gas/steam turbine damage.  A 10 minute cold startup sounds more consistent with state-of-art ICE generators.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on May 24, 2014

Willem, if it is a steam generator-turbine that is operated in a bypass mode, the fuel efficiency will definitely suffer.  Beside increased equipment wear-and-tear by repeated/increased short-period starts/shutdowns, the impact on fuel consumption and power generation efficiency is another significant concern.

You and I both realize that Germany would not be able to operate its power grids reasonably reliably without connections into neighboring EU countries’ power grids.  Not only do these ‘partners’ provide the option to allow (cheap) export excess Germany variable-renewable power when supply exceeds German demand, but also these same EU partners help provide peaking power when the wind does not blow or blows too fast; I understand significant hydropower/pumped storage capacities are available in some of these neighboring power grid partner countries.

Michael Weinhold's picture
Michael Weinhold on Jun 10, 2014

Dear Mr. Miller,

In my recent article, I wrote the following: “Grids are the glue that hold it all together. They are a highly efficient means of transportation, and efficiency in transmission is obviously critical in terms of cost and practical delivery.” The issue is therefore not that Germany is unable to stabilize its power grids without its European neighbors. The opposite is also true. We are embedded in a continental European network, and I see this as a great strength. By working together, the European countries can better balance fluctuations in consumption and generation and maintain a stable grid frequency.

It is indeed true that we are currently unable to transport the electricity from renewable sources produced in northern Germany to the southern regions, since we lack the necessary high-voltage lines. However, this is just a temporary issue. If we look to the future, we can see that Germany is working on solving this problem. The federal government’s grid development plan provides for connecting future offshore wind farms to the grid by 2032 and for building the necessary north-south links, among other things.

Admittedly, our ability to cover seasonal fluctuations in wind and solar power will still be limited, even with the expansion of power lines. I agree that if renewable energy is to play a central role in Germany’s power supply, this can be done only with corresponding storage technologies. Energy providers already use pumped storage systems as a backup. Their efficiency (around 80 percent) is extremely high, yet the capacity is still not enough for temporary storage of large quantities of energy. In addition, very few suitable sites exist in Germany.

At Siemens, we believe that so-called power-to-gas systems will play a crucial role. These systems first use a chemical process (electrolysis) to break down water into its constituents: hydrogen and oxygen. Excess sustainable electricity supplies the energy needed to do this. With the so-called PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) technology, we already have an efficient electrolyzer, which can specifically use the fluctuating supply of renewable energy. You can find more information here.

My colleague, Gaelle Hotellier, head of Hydrogen Solutions at Siemens, has already indicated that hydrogen will provide the bridge to other forms of energy. Please also see this blog-post.

I quite agree with her. The ability to convert hydrogen into methane gas in another step by adding CO2 will be crucial to the future of energy supply. This methanized gas can drive turbines in combined-cycle power plants directly and thus be recycled at an efficiency of more than 60 percent.

Doing this enables us to supply energy flexibly and on demand. Appropriate gas-fired power plants could act as a backup in the future, and can be started up very quickly on cloudy or calm days. This methane generated on the basis of renewable energy can also be fed into the public gas grid. Experts point out that Germany’s natural gas grid can easily cover the storage demand for excess renewable energy.

To integrate renewables in a meaningful way, we also need to work on adapting the structure and organization of power generation and distribution systems. It is not a question of technologies – they already exist today.

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