Upgrading of the Power Sector

How long would it take to change the complete generation landscape? Let's consider how long it takes to implement high-efficiency off-the-shelf technology currently available. Thermal steam plants, using coal as fuel, produce the bulk of electricity in the US and worldwide. These plants may require a minimum of 4 years to construct, although schedules in the United States can be as long as 6 years. Add time for permitting (and the likelihood of legal challenges on various fronts) along with shakedown trials to the construction and negotiation phases, and the whole process could take up to 8 years before a facility begins producing power for dispatch. In those parts of the country where water cannot be extracted from rivers or underground aquifers, water restrictions can either delay the project significantly, or kill it entirely. Even restarting a nearly complete nuclear plant, such as Watts Bar, could require 2-4 years. These are just a few of the challenges that new project development face in the United States. Such hurdles can be sufficiently daunting that some developers opted to construct facilities just beyond the US border to reduce the administrative barriers and reduce total construction costs.

Switching to an entirely new power generation approach is expected to add significantly to the lead-time. Front End Engineering Design (FEED) work may require 1 or 2 years to complete for such a new product design, a product, (or process) that is expected to be a substantial departure from power generation designs commercially available now. By 2009 a number of FEED studies to evaluate various carbon capture technologies were underway in the US. The punch line here is that deploying a new and untested technology to replace one that works reasonably well will take many years to bring to service, and many more before the installed base of power generation and energy production begins to take an appearance markedly different from what it does today. In 2008, the retirement rate of existing power generation in the United States was less than 1%. Meanwhile the total capacity growth rate is projected to be over 1.5%, requiring on the order of 15-20 GW of new generation annually. Under this scenario it could be decades before the older power generation fleet, as well as the newest fleet additions, could be replaced, or upgraded with completely new environmental systems capable of removing CO2 gases.

Globally, the prospects are more challenging. China is adding about two new 500 MWe coal power plants each week [10]. In 2008, China reached a landmark point by releasing more CO2 from fossil fuel burning than the United States (even with a smaller inventory of privately owned motor vehicles, a fleet that is rapidly increasing and could grow to release as much CO2 to the environment as any other segment of the economy). Both China and India are on an accelerated rate of CO2 production, making it difficult to envision a rapid turnaround in CO2 emissions and even in Italy, new fossil coal plants are under construction in a race to meet growing demand.

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