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Extreme Makeover: Aging Gas Power Plants Playing The Energy Game Increasingly Defined By Renewables

Three years ago, when GE and Italian utility A2A resurrected a mothballed power plant in Chivasso, they also created a roadmap for how older plants could be made over to emit fewer greenhouse gases and become more competitive players in the energy market. Now the lessons of Chivasso’s extreme makeover have been extended to A2A’s other decades-old power generators in Northern Italy: two gas-powered plants in Cassano and Sermide.

“These plants are now able to do duties which weren’t even thought about 10 years ago,” says Mario Cincotta, general manager of multiyear agreements for GE’s Power Services business in Europe. “We have adapted the plants in a way that can support renewables growth, because without flexibility, you’d have problems on the grid.”

Renewable energy is Italy’s fastest-growing energy source, leaping from 1.7 gigawatts in 2000 to 34.5 GW in 2017, according to research firm GlobalData. The rise of renewables and an increasingly interconnected power system throughout Europe have reduced local energy costs, but they’ve left aging power plants at a two-pronged disadvantage: They can’t compete with the new supply of energy on price, and they’re often too inefficient to meet strict European Union environmental standards.

In the case of Chivasso, which first fired up in 1952, that dynamic led the plant to actually be shuttered in 2013. But GE came up with a plan for its rebirth: It used data analysis of regional demand and supply, as well as GE energy-trading models, to uncover a way to make the plant more competitive. Upgrading Chivasso with GE’s Predix-based Asset Performance Management software, which adapts operations to get more energy from the same physical environment, made Chivasso a workable plant again when it came back online in 2016. Based on Chivasso’s success, A2A asked GE to look at two more locations.

“We are continuing to digitize our power plants to both modernize the facilities and improve their efficiency,” says A2A CEO Valerio Camerano. “These initiatives are putting us on a path that will help us make our plants more flexible to quickly adapt to market conditions, while also improving the ecological footprint and reducing operating costs.”

Top: First fired up in 1952, this power plant in Chivasso, Italy, got the extreme digital makeover it needed to compete with more modern facilities. Now, two gas-powered plants in Cassano and Sermide have gotten the same treatment. Above: As you an see, these aren’t your grandfather’s power plants. Advanced analytics keep operations moving smoothly, and other technology allows Italian utility A2A to sell the energy they produce at competitive prices. Image and GIF credit: GE Power.

At the Cassano and Sermide plants, GE’s Digital Energy software uses analytics to improve predictive maintenance and bolster operational efficiency. At Sermide, GE is also upgrading equipment for its two 9FA gas turbines. All plants have already implemented GE’s Dry Low NOx 2.6+ combustion system, which helps cut atmospheric pollutants.

Natural gas power plants have an important role in the evolution of the grid to being cleaner and more reliable. Solar and wind alone can’t meet the demands of the Italian economy, the fourth largest in Europe: When the sun stops shining or the wind slows, the grid is starved of electricity almost immediately. Traditional energy generation can help keep the system balanced, but the challenge has been finding ways to adjust old plants to evolve with the grid.

When the A2A plants were built, they dispatched hundreds of megawatts of steady baseload electricity to the grid pretty much continuously from the time they went online until they were shut off to be inspected. That’s just not realistic for the modern-day grid, which calls for flexible power plants responding to the ebbs and flows of electricity coming from intermittent renewables. Cassano, which opened in the early 1960s, and Sermide, which opened in 1986, weren’t in imminent danger of being mothballed themselves, yet changes had to be made to ensure the plants remained economical.

GE’s hardware and software allow the plants to power up and down far more quickly and operate at much lighter load production than they were built for, allowing A2A to sell quickly to the market energy at competitive prices.

In the past, for example, getting the plants up to full power would take eight hours or more. Now that eight-hour startup time has been reduced to 90 to 120 minutes in every condition (cold, warm or hot) and the plants can level off at a much lower minimum production level of about 165 MW. “It’s like telling a running champion to get out of bed and start running 100 meters as fast as you can,” Cincotta says.

The overall combination of quicker ramp-up time and lighter production levels means the plants burn less fuel too, adding in costs and environmental savings. Says Cincotta: “This was all installed with a holistic view of the plants, so they could go from the baseload economy to this new economy for which they were not designed.”

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