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Creating solar and natural gas synergies

Martin integrated solar combined-cycle plant, United States

Dr Amir Tadros, a Senior Mechanical Engineer within Aurecon’s Energy Services group, together with his industry and university colleagues spoke with Australia’s Gas Today magazine about creating solar and natural gas synergies.

With the Federal Government’s carbon pricing mechanism in place, researchers from the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures have come together with industry leaders from Aurecon Australia and ERK Eckrohkessel to provide a road-map for bringing natural gas and renewable energies together to provide cleaner and more reliable power.

By: Juergen H. Peterseim, Institute for Sustainable Futures University Technology of Sydney; Dr Amir Tadros, Aurecon Australia; Prof. Stuart White, Institute for Sustainable Futures University of Technology Sydney; and, Prof. Udo Hellwig, ERK Eckrohrkessel GmbH.

Hybridisation: the short-term goal

Current global efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, including the carbon tax in Australia, will inevitably place additional pressure on utilities and industrial plants to operate at competitive costs. Many operators and proponents are looking for reliable power generation options that are green and cost effective. Renewable energies such as solar thermal have made progressive leaps in technology in the past decade, as has access to newly discovered natural gas deposits across Australia. When combined, these two resources tick all the boxes.

The hybridisation of open (OCGT) and combined-cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plants with concentrated solar power (CSP) systems is key to achieving this. Of particular interest is the retro-fit of solar towers to reduce cost and allow independent operation of CCGT and CSP plants.

Integrated solar combined-cycle (ISCC) plants are very suitable for Australia as natural gas reserves and solar irradiance are abundant. Several existing plants are in suitable locations and could be retrofitted.

CSP technologies are considered capital intensive to construct and implement. Therefore hybridisation has cost-reduction benefits in terms of sharing equipment and knowledge for technology providers, operators and financiers.

Integration the key

Currently, a number of ISCC plants are in operation around the world in the USA, Egypt and Morocco, with plants currently under construction in Australia including CS Energy’s Kogan Creek and Macquarie Generation’s Liddell power stations. The largest ISCC unit in operation is the 75 megawatt (MW) Martin Next Generation plant in Florida, USA.

All existing hybrid plants use the well-established parabolic trough solar technology, providing saturated or slightly superheated steam to the heat recovery steam generator (HRSG), where further superheating-to-steam turbine requirements take place using the hot gas turbine exhaust. This concept is proven in several plants but requires both plants to operate simultaneously. Parabolic trough plants using thermal oil are the most mature CSP technology, however steam temperatures are limited to less than 390 degrees Celsius as the thermal oil used degrades very quickly above 400°C.

With more solar plants commencing operation and construction around the world, such as Torresol’s Gemasolar project in Spain and Brightsource’s Ivanpah project in the USA, the technology is becoming more mature and bankable.

Significantly higher steam qualities (greater than 540°C and 140 bar), compared to parabolic troughs, allow simple and efficient integration into the high pressure/temperature component of the CCGT’s steam cycle. Both plants are able to operate independently when both steam generators are able to provide identical steam qualities.

Operators of ISCC plants generally understand and appreciate the cost savings gained by sharing equipment such as the steam turbine, condenser, feed water systems and auxiliary equipment.

owever, an ISCC using a solar tower has the additional benefit of sharing building infrastructure. For example, the main stack can be modified to support the solar receiver. Stack heights over 100 m are common and provide a good cost-saving opportunity as, according to a 2011 study by Hinkley et al, the tower in a stand-alone plant requires approximately 5 per cent of the total investment.

The conversion of OCGT to ISCC plants increases the fuel conversion efficiency and reduces investment as a significant portion of the equipment is already on site, such as the gas turbine and plant control system. Adding the heat recovery steam generator (HRSG) and solar tower rankine cycle is in this case more cost competitive than building a Greenfield ISCC plant.

Thermal storage references exist for parabolic trough and solar tower technologies. Implementing thermal storage has the potential to maximise the solar contribution but depends strongly on the value and ability of energy to be dispatched. Historically, electricity demand is higher during the daytime and that’s when the solar plant can provide the additional capacity needed.

Photomontage of a 200MWe solar tower ISCC plant by Institute of Sustainable FuturesThe possibilities are endless
A number of locations in Western Australia, Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia have an excellent Direct Normal Irradiance (DNI) as well as access to natural gas. Typically, a DNI of 2,000 kilowatt per square metre (kWh/sq m) per annum is required for a stand-alone CSP plant but due to cost-reduction benefits of ISCC, plant areas with a DNI as low as 1,600 kWh/sq m per annum could be considered.

At 200 MW, CCGT plants realise overall efficiencies of 55 per cent resulting in a very efficient use of gas compared to back-up boilers in traditional CSP plants. Larger units could even realise up to 60 per cent conversion efficiency. ISCC plants are likely to operate in high ambient temperature environments, which reduce the gas turbine efficiency. To keep the gas turbine efficiency high, low-temperature CSP heat could be used to chill its inlet air.

The capacity of the solar plant is mainly driven by the part-load efficiency of the steam turbine. A 100 MW steam turbine remains efficient down to 50 per cent part-load. With the HRSG providing sufficient steam to generate 50 MW base load, the steam turbine is operating at a good efficiency during the night with power peaking at 100 MW at daytime through additional CSP steam. Using thermal storage would allow a larger solar contribution when night time energy could be drawn from the storage tanks to keep the steam turbine operating at higher loads. The main stack in this scenario would need to be approximately 30 m higher than required for a stand-alone CCGT plant to ideally locate the solar receiver.

To optimise the heliostat field size and avoid optical losses due to mirror wobble, the heliostats are arranged in a 320° circle around the plant, with the main stack in the centre. Steam turbine, cooling towers and buildings are arranged adjacent to the main stack/solar tower. To avoid thermal losses the steam turbine is placed very closely to the steam generators. The ISCC plant could be either air or water cooled with air cooling being the more likely option, considering water scarcity in remote sites and avoidance of plume formation.

The carbon dioxide intensity of the proposed ISCC plant is 365 kilograms per megawatt hour (kg/MWh), which is 60 per cent lower than the 2005–07 Australian generation portfolio average. Using 15 hours of full load thermal storage has the potential to further reduce the carbon intensity to 308 kg/MWh. Depending on the remoteness of the site and infrastructure availability, the cost of electricity for such an ISCC plant can vary from $140 to $180/MWh.

Power for the future
ISCC plants are ideal for sites with a high DNI, abundance of natural gas and a requirement for reliable power all year round. The hybridisation of CSP technologies reduces capital expenditure significantly, allowing the construction of reliable low carbon intensity power plants today without significant or indeed any government subsidies.

Remote sites, such as mines, suffering from high electricity prices stand to benefit from ISCC plants particularly when OCGT/engine plants are the current source of power generation. Reducing the carbon intensity of power generation by a potential 60 per cent, compared to the 2005–07 Australian generation portfolio average, is significant and would help Australia meet its emission reduction target cost competitively. This also has numerous financial flow-on effects for the mining industry who will strive to keep export prices, and therefore operational costs, competitive.

Amir TadrosAbout Amir
An advocate of sustainable energy, Amir specialises in mechanical engineering in the resources sector. Over the past 16 years, Amir has successfully delivered in the role of project and engineering manager, facilitating multi-disciplinary cross continental teams.

The renewable, conventional and oil and gas sectors have been a focus during Amir’s career, having modelled, designed, constructed, commissioned and tested a number of engineering systems for many different clients.

Amir leads the industry by collaborating with colleagues to publish innovative work. As a university lecturer specialising in energy, he teaches and mentors the future generations of engineers. You can contact Amir at amir.tadros@aurecongroup.com.

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