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Power Forward


When it comes to worldwide energy consumption, transportation gets most of the attention – but power generation is the leading use of raw energy. Power generation consumes energy in all its forms (coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, wind, solar and more), and on a global basis is projected to have the greatest volume growth going forward.

Thats because electricity availability is strongly linked to economic growth, and in turn, rising prosperity increases demand for electricity, Senior Energy Advisor Todd Onderdonk of ExxonMobil pointed out at a recent industry event. As developing nations try to catch up with the industrialized world, they may be able to discourage or postpone the use of personal transportation, but reliable electric power is a must-have.

During Mays annual meeting of the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers, the Dallas-based energy analyst presented his companys global energy outlook to the year 2030. Power generation was a major focus of his review – as it was for other speakers during the meeting in Cleveland. They highlighted the segments upcoming growth, the huge investments at stake, and the crucial need for reliable lubrication.

While coal will remain the primary fuel for power generation in the United States, Onderdonk said, natural gas and renewables will see the most rapid growth. In the United States today, coal burning accounts for about half the power generation capability, and nuclear another 22 percent. Natural gas is 17 percent, and renewables 6 percent of the energy mix; these last two will see annual growth of 2.4 percent and 2.7 percent to the year 2030, he predicted. If it can overcome public sentiment, nuclear could see growth of 4.4 percent, thanks to its favorable cost position.

By contrast, he sees reduced growth in U.S. vehicle fleets.

These trends suggest that transportation may see a shrinking share of the lubricants market going forward – just as the power generation industry beefs up demand for more and better lubes.

Busting Peaks

The need for improved lubrication at power generating facilities was made explicit by Walter Smith, plant manager of FPL Groups Doswell generating station in Hanover County, Va. He spoke at a special STLE session on gas turbines organized by Afton Chemical. As Richard Kuhlman Sr., Aftons liaison to industrial OEMs, pointed out, Many people here probably know how to lubricate a turbine, but they may not realize what economic factors are driving power generators to put added emphasis on equipment reliability.

Smith, who has 24 years of power industry experience, explained that FPL Group is best known as the parent of Florida Power & Light, the regulated utility that serves much of that state. It also owns FPL Energy, the largest wind energy owner and seller in the United States, and one of the largest investors in solar energy. In all, FPL Group generates more than 16,000 net megawatts, including 5,410 from wind. Thirty-one percent of our power capacity is wind, Smith said, and we have a footprint in

25 states outside Florida.

Most of FPLs energy, though, comes from plants such as Doswell, located north of Richmond, Va. It includes a 708-megawatt per hour coal-fired combined-cycle plant, and a 172 megawatt dual-fired, simple-cycle plant. (Dual-fired means it can burn either natural gas or low-sulfur oil.) In this smaller plant, the turbine is connected by a shaft directly to a generator. Hot combustion gases turn the turbine blades, and the rotating shaft turns the generator, making electricity.

This simple-cycle plant is mostly used to bust the peak demands, like early morning when folks are turning on their lights and equipment, Smith noted. The plant must start up rapidly, shut down rapidly, then be able to start up again when needed.

In Doswells larger, 708-megawatt combined-cycle plant, the hot combustion gases turn a turbine, too, but also boil water for steam; the steam is fed into steam turbines which turn generators and make even more electricity. Power from this combined-cycle plant is dedicated to local electric company Dominion Power, while the smaller plants capacity is available for sale on the open market to the highest bidder. This is lucrative but highly risky, Smith said, emphasizing the difference between regulated and deregulated energy markets. Theres money to be made, but people who cant deliver are punished severely, he observed.

Doswells excess capacity is sold via the PJM Interconnection, a regional transmission organization which works like a commodities trading exchange to set electricity prices. In PJMs day-ahead market, Doswell can bid on the next days energy needs, offering its untapped capacity on the open market. For example, it may offer 100 megawatt per hour to PJM bidders, and if it wins, it will crank up the simple-cycle plant and make the promised power.

What happens if you fail to deliver? Smith continued. Well, the good news is you get paid anyway. But if you have an outage the next day, you are obliged to go out to the open, real-time market and buy it at that days rates.

The real-time market is where the sharks come out, he added, and they can smell blood right away. The real-time market price is set at 5-minute intervals. So if Doswell wins the day-ahead bid for delivering 16 hours of power at 172 megawatts, it may see tidy profits. But if we have equipment problems, the result is we cant deliver, and have to buy the power from another supplier at the going rate.

Somewhere in this country right now, theres a power generating plant losing hundreds of thousands of dollars this way, Smith said. The real-time market is so risky that you can lose millions in a day – it punishes you severely for failing to deliver. A bad day can wipe out months and months of profits.

Containing Risk

No wonder FPL Groups mantra now is delivering certainty. That means plant operators like Smith must know and be confident in their plants capabilities and equipment. The equipment must be managed properly to be dependable and efficient, he said. The days of delaying maintenance are fading rapidly.

Turning the spotlight to combustion turbine equipment needs, Smith said, Several of the risks we deal with have to do with the quality of oil. On any given day, a lot of money is lost due to companies – to us – not managing oil quality as we should.

Turbine oil sounds simple: Its about 99 percent base oil (which increasingly is API Group II or Group III) and about 1 percent additives, including antioxidants, rust and corrosion inhibitors, demulsifiers (especially important in steam turbines), and some antifoam. Yet varnish, sludging and oxidative breakdown can take their toll.

FPL has found that one critical function where lubrication makes a huge difference is the controls for combined-cycle units. These controls had failed repeatedly at Doswell, leading to costly outages. We did a root-cause analysis, and found several things could impact our oil quality, but as a power generator, we didnt have the knowledge to solve it ourselves. We went to oil maintenance and condition monitoring experts, who came up with countermeasures that included aggressive preventive maintenance schedules, a new filtration system – the old one went in the trash – and an oil condition monitoring program.

In the two years since, the oil has been within its engineering specs 100 percent of the time, Smith said. To build on those gains, were now working with Afton on developing a new turbine oil technology.

Being vigilant about oil quality is a cost of reliability, he added, and is key to delivering power in todays U.S. energy market. Most of the country is using power on a supply-demand basis. Its very dynamic. People in the real-time market are there to make money, not to help out power generators with a problem. If you fail, you get punished severely.

In this environment, maintenance and equipment reliability require a holistic approach, Smith said. And it cant be done alone. If theres a power delivery problem, we need to check our egos and invite the lubrication and condition monitoring experts to come in and help to make these issues go away in the future.

Heating Up

Next up at the Afton-sponsored session was Kevin Brooks, manager of accessories and controls at GE Energy in Atlanta, part of GEs $56 billion infrastructure business portfolio. GE Energys technologies include thermal (gas, steam, coal and generators), nuclear and renewables.

Essentially, the driver today is more fuel in, more power out, he said. Raising the firing temperature gets more power, and also allows higher efficiency – but it brings a lot of problems. A higher firing temperature needs more technology to contain it. Higher firing temperatures put more stress on turbine oils, and lead to oxidation, deposits and additive depletion.

Among GE Energys turbines are the F Class (about 1,200 megawatt in size and used for main power generation) and the smaller E Class, which mostly are used for peak power demand. A new project coming to market is the IWPP (for integrated water-power plant) that uses an F Class power turbine to generate electricity, then harnesses the exhaust gases for water desalinization.

Equipment reliability is a major effort at GE, Brooks stated. Some machines only run 30 to 40 hours a year. Yet all the systems – water, lubricants, cooling – are an integral part of running.

He pointed out that oils operate very differently if theyre cycling on-off, versus a steady-state condition. Cycling on-off puts added stress on the fluid, and seems to contribute to varnish formation, field research shows. Were seeing more startups per year now, which indicates theres need for extra generating capacity in the U.S. And not only in the U.S.; demand elsewhere to turn up the lights is going up, up, up. We believe electricity demand on a global basis will double by 2030.

Peak power demands also are pushing turbines to start producing faster, once they begin turning. GE is working on turbines that can be ready to generate more megawatts sooner – within 10 minutes of startup.

GE agrees with ExxonMobil that coal is likely to fire most new power plants, especially in China. They have large coal reserves and different regulations on emissions. So they have the coal, and theyre going to use it, Brooks explained.

In todays market, were seeing higher fuel prices, higher peak demand, environmental pressures and increased competition, he added. Under these pressures, the industry focus naturally is turning to flexibility, performance and emissions.

No Ill Wind

Fuel-burning turbines are overwhelmingly the largest segment of the power generation industry, but the fastest-growing segment is wind. Today, the worlds biggest wind turbine manufacturers are Vesta, GE Energy and Gamesa, Gerald Fox of bearing manufacturer Timken in Canton, Ohio, told another STLE session. Reliability is a major concern for these OEMs, and lubrication specifications and intervals are tightly controlled.

Imagine youre a developer, planning to build a 300-megawatt wind farm with $500 million to spend, Fox urged his listeners. Your biggest financial driver is the dollar cost per kilowatt hour, and you have to deal with factors such as land and licensing issues. You think your payback should be in just six years, but uncertainty about operations – particularly gearbox problems – could push that back to 10 years.

Gearbox problems in wind turbines are notorious, and remain the number one challenge to advancing wind power. Wind turbines, Fox explained, generally are designed to operate at speeds of 10 to 11 miles per hour (or as low as 6 mph for the newest models). If the wind speed rises above that, the turbine will disengage and shut down; otherwise, it can spin out of control and rip the equipment apart. The modular gearboxes used in wind turbines today have step-up ratios as large as 100-to-1, but staying within their capacities is still critical.

There are various styles of turbines, including gearbox drives, where a gearbox transfers the energy from the turbine to a generator; direct drives, where the turbine blades are connected by a shaft straight to the generator; and hybrid systems that bridge the two.

Todays higher towers and longer blades put even greater loads on the gears, drive shafts and bearings. Yet in all cases, the emphasis is on being light, lean and reliable, Fox said, and investors now expect more than 20 years of life for gears.

For lubricants, thats got to sound like an electrifying opportunity.

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