Wärtsilä Corporation Annual report 2014

Operators need generators that start quickly, run efficiently and ramp up and down whenever needed. Wärtsilä provides the means for integrating clean, green power sources.

Renewable renaissance

How Wärtsilä technology is helping the US power industry go green.

Operators are now discovering that Wärtsilä's quick-starting internal combustion engines provide just the flexibility they need to effectively integrate clean, green power sources.

When the Stillwater Utilities Authority, which serves a city of 46,000 in Oklahoma, was looking to update its power generation setup, balancing the peaks and troughs from wind plants had to be part of the equation. The company also wanted the ability to sell electricity to the newly established Southwest Power Pool. As it turned out, the basic needs for both were the same: a generator that can start quickly, run efficiently, and ramp up and down whenever needed.

The solution Stillwater settled on was a 56 MW power station from Wärtsilä that will consist of three 18.7 MW Wärtsilä 50SG engines running on natural gas. The contract for the project was signed in September and the plant should be up and running by early 2016.

Gary Groninger, Business Development Manager for Power Plant Sales at Wärtsilä North America, explained why Stillwater chose this technology over the more traditional combustion turbines.

“Number one is that these engine generators start fast. They start in as little as five minutes and you can shut them down and start them up again in as little as two minutes. There's just nothing that compares to that in the industry,” he said. “If you have a big combustion turbine or a coal plant of 500 or 1,000 MW, it's a big lump that you can't start and stop easily or efficiently.”

Gravitating towards the sun

In other parts of the US, the renewables are different but the needs are essentially the same. Just like their counterparts in the windy Midwest, utility companies in Hawaii face the challenge of integrating a power source that is highly volatile: the sun. Solar photovoltaic (PV) input can drop at a moment's notice when the sun goes behind a cloud.

And like their counterparts in Oklahoma, the Hawaiian Electric Company has opted for Wärtsilä's fast-starting engines to fill the gap. Their new project, signed in July and still pending regulatory approval, entails installing six Wärtsilä 34DF engines with a combined output of 50 MW at the Schofield Barracks army base, about 40 kilometres from Honolulu. The plant will help the company serve its approximately 300,000 customers on Oahu, the state's most populous island.

“They need the ability to mitigate all the photovoltaic capacity that is going onto their system,” explained Wayne Elmore, Director of Regional Sales for Wärtsilä North America. But, he says, there was another renewables-related issue behind Hawaiian Electric Company's move: the unique ability of Wärtsilä's reciprocating engines to operate on more than one fuel type.

The plant will initially run on a biofuel blend, but operators want to keep their options open. “Today Hawaii has no natural gas or LNG, but in the future they believe they will have LNG. This plant will have the ability to run on LNG whenever it becomes available,” Elmore said. “And not only can the engines switch fuels, they can do so while running at full capacity.”

Gaining traction

The steady rise of wind power and solar power in the US, along with the need to balance them, has certainly been creating a natural market for Wärtsilä's reciprocating engine technology in recent years, but the corresponding sales boom arrived only in autumn 2014.

“There's a tremendous volume of interest right now,” said Groninger. “It's hotter here in the Midwest, but it's picking up everywhere.”

Wärtsilä now has four combustion engine plants in the US that are over 200 MW, all of which are used for wind balancing. Their existence, Groninger says, is likely to boost customers' awareness of the technology as well as cement the company's position as the leading manufacturer of this type of equipment.

“We have a good head start and we have a lot of capacity already running, which is a big advantage for customers,” he said. “We're eager to extol the virtues of this technology because it's really exciting,” he said. “It takes time and people are catching on. This technology is finally being discovered.”

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