As the world tackles the challenge of reducing carbon emissions, there is a big opportunity for new technologies that can help meet global energy needs in more environmentally sustainable ways.
And given that 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from electricity and heat production, making this the single largest source, a global push is on to adopt renewable energy alternatives to fossil fuels — particularly coal, whose burning produces more greenhouse gases and other pollutants than any other energy source.
Concurrently, global demand for energy continues to grow, propelled by the rising aspirations of the emerging-market nations and driven at a pace that wind, solar, and other alternative energy sources can simply not meet.
Although the costs of wind turbines and solar panels continue to decrease, big installations that could replace some conventional power plants take considerable time and money to build. Even if there were enough wind and solar capacity, the need remains for conventional power generation as backup for the periods when the sun is down, winds are calm, and storage batteries are not sufficient to maintain a steady and adequate flow of electrical current.
In many parts of the world, meanwhile, government subsidies to support alternative energy are a big reason why renewables seem more cost effective than they really are. Energy economics are not necessarily at odds with environmental goals.
Supporting the Energy Renaissance
One of the biggest reasons is the U.S. renaissance in oil and natural gas production, largely a result of production from shale rock formations. By the 2030s, the United States is expected to produce more than 30 million barrels of oil and gas a day mainly because of production from shale rock formations according to the latest World Energy Outlook from the International Energy Agency. That would be 50 percent more than any other country has ever produced in a single year.
That’s fortunate for the U.S. economy and for the energy-hungry world, because oil and gas will remain necessary to meet the world’s growing energy demands in coming decades. Fossil fuels are an important part of the energy mix along with renewables.
The challenge for public utilities and other power producers is to operate cleanly and efficiently. Natural gas is already a relatively low-carbon fuel and, thanks to advances in turbine technologies, is becoming cleaner and more efficient than ever. As more of the world’s coal-fired plants switch to natural gas as a fuel source, carbon emissions from electricity generation are falling even as the production of power increases to meet global demand.
Adoption of Digital Tools to Increase Energy Efficiency
Energy efficiency also depends on the smart allocation, integration, and distribution of electricity across the grid. Demand requires grid operators to nimbly juggle wind, solar, and other alternative-energies with conventional power sources and apply digital technologies to manage real time allocation of energy to ensure steady, reliable power to businesses and households.
Using software systems and networks to remotely monitor and troubleshoot power plants also means they can run at peak efficiency with predictive analysis enabling preventive maintenance.
Modular turbine design is another factor in efficiency. Compact generators that can be shipped with all the necessary components in cargo containers to even the most remote parts of the world are helping emerging countries quickly achieve steady, reliable flows of electricity. These turbines enable developing countries to avoid adopting the dirty, coal-burning technologies that have fouled the air of many developing cities. Remote monitoring and diagnostic technology is especially well suited and necessary to keep power up and running in remote areas.
Raul Pereda is President and CEO of PW Power Systems, Inc.