By Jason Aberdeen, Chief Engineer at APR Energy
Utilities across the globe are exploring the wide range of innovative and emerging technologies that are available today as options for updating grid infrastructure. One of the challenges of navigating this breadth of options is that the timeline for making decisions on upgrading grid infrastructure is quickly approaching.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reported in 2017 that the majority of the electric transmission and distribution lines in the United States were installed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy. This means that the figurative expiration date for large swathes of the national grid is imminent. However, this problem is not unique to the U.S. as utility providers in several countries begin to launch initiatives that are focused on maintaining and upgrading old grid infrastructure.
The journey to installing new grid infrastructure takes years, which brings into the question the short-term ability to meet energy demands during this time. As utilities consider what technology to select in upgrading their infrastructure, the question of how to implement these innovations while maintaining grid stability should be a top priority.
This is where developing an effective power bridging strategy becomes critical. While every project will need its own unique approach to account for various issues, such as the level of renewable energy sources currently connected to the grid, there are baseline factors that every utility should consider.
As the chief engineer of APR Energy, I oversee a global team that transports, installs and operates specialized power solutions for a wide range of applications, including power bridging needs. Here are a few tips gathered from our team’s experience that utilities should keep in mind as they develop a power bridging strategy to meet interim needs during the upgrading and maintenance of their infrastructure.
Time to Full Power
An effective power bridging strategy should leverage technology with quick-start capabilities. The latest generation of mobile gas turbines, as an example, can reach full power in less than 10 minutes, enabling a power plant to ramp up to maximum output quickly in the event of unexpected grid issues. Quick-start capabilities are particularly critical for utilities that will have limited capacity while infrastructure is offline for maintenance or upgrades. The right solution should also feature technology that supports voltage and frequency and ensures that a quick-start bridging strategy will account for potential grid instability that may occur.
Speed is also a factor when it comes to planning the design and installation of a power bridging solution. Upgrading existing infrastructure or building new permanent power plants can take years to plan, finance and construct. Such plans are often affected by unforeseen delays, which can extend the length of time that a grid is subject to the potential for outages. Utilities should plan for the unexpected by finding a solution provider that can commission a temporary power plant within weeks to ensure stability as longer-term infrastructure plans commence.
Even though a power bridging solution may not be permanent, utilities should not discount the environmental impacts that their temporary power solution may have over the course of its operation. Alternatives to traditional high-speed diesel engines, such as mobile gas turbines, produce significantly lower emissions, which can help utilities comply with environmental regulations as permanent infrastructure upgrades are completed.
The cost and availability of various fuel types can be greatly affected by volatile market swings, but there are interim technologies available today that can switch seamlessly between different fuel types. Utilities should seek solutions that are not only compatible with diesel or natural gas, but also can switch between liquid distillate and gas fuels.
Freedom to Scale Up
Plans often evolve as grid infrastructure, technology advancements and regulatory requirements rapidly change, which means utilities should avoid locking themselves into a solution that will not be able to scale up to meet future needs. The most reliable power bridging solutions include interim technologies that are modular by design, which provides utilities with the flexibility to place them at strategic positions along their grid.
While these areas of consideration should be part of every utility’s planning process, there is no single approach that will work for every grid. Every infrastructure project will face its own unique obstacles. Utilities that do not have the internal expertise or resources to navigate their options should find an industry partner that can work with them throughout the duration of their project to ensure they are leveraging the most appropriate technology to support their infrastructure upgrade and maintenance plans.
Jason Aberdeen has nearly 30 years of engineering experience. As Chief Engineer, he is responsible for all aspects of engineering for APR Energy, including plant design, ongoing operations, and the research and development of future energy solutions and equipment. Mr. Aberdeen spent nearly 20 years in the British Army and provided counsel to various government agencies including the UK Ministry of Defence. Mr. Aberdeen earned a bachelor’s degree in aeromechanical systems engineering and a master’s degree in science with a concentration in electrical and mechanical engineering, both from Cranfield University. He also underwent training at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the Royal School of Military Engineering.