Small-Scale Power Plants–But Where?

The need for energy prompts constant innovation. Emerson’s Douglas Morris, on the alternative energy and metals & mining industry teams, analyzes the role of small-scale power plants.

Emerson's Douglas MorrisThere was an interesting announcement this week by Synthesis Energy Systems (SES) and GE Packaged Power. These companies are working together to market an unique plant idea, that is, build small 50 to 100MW plants whose turbines run on synthesis gas (syngas) created through gasification of low-rank coal or certain types of waste products.

Syngas would be generated using SES’s U-Gas technology, which is a fluidized bed reactor design that is perfect for these feedstocks. The plant would not be an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle plant (IGCC) because there is no heat recovery steam generator (HRSG) as far as I can tell.

This makes the design unique as an Integrated Gasification Simple Cycle (IGSC) plant, not to be confused with the other IGSC, which is an Integrated Gasification Steam Cycle plant. Got it?

Source: Synthesis Energy Systems, U-GAS Process

The idea seems fine, but I wonder where these plants might land? Looking at the US market, the potential for these plants seem slim as there are too many dynamics working against it. Atop that list is the price spread between gas and coal, which incents power producers to switch away from their coal generating assets to gas. This combined with the dropping demand for power in the US does not create a positive environment for the development of a newer technology based on coal.

Source: Market Realist: Lower natural gas prices last week positive for coal-to-gas switching

What about China? China is ground zero for coal gasification and there is an ever-growing need for power production in the country. Even though SES has a footprint of installation (for chemical production), there are potential headwinds. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has been implementing rules for scaling assets larger to make more efficient use of the country’s resources, and as a result, the country will likely continue constructing large supercritical units. Perhaps these IGSC plants can help with the growing pollution, but the governing body seems intent on using renewables to diversify its power generation fleet and mitigate emissions.

Beyond India and some niche applications globally, maybe Africa offers the best opportunity for this technology. The continent is growing fast, has a need for power development, and lacks transmission infrastructure…these stand-alone units seem like a good solution and are perfect for regionalized transmission. Beyond that, South Africa has an abundant supply of coal, including lots of low rank and off-spec product, both ideal fuels for this gasifier. The topper, though, is that South Africa is home to Sasol, the most experienced gasification company in the world, so there’s a ready pool of experience for any new plants.

Time will tell.

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