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performance impacts and viability of undertaking fuel switch. It is
not uncommon to end up with a very complex matrix of options
or path forward with respect to project scope, generating capacity,
emissions profiles, and operating flexibility.
Depending on the type of coal currently burned in a plant,
switching to burn natural gas could result in a notable drop in
plant heat rate and loss of efficiency. For example, when switching from bituminous coal to gas, plant operators could see an approximately four percent degradation in efficiency due to the high
moisture content of natural gas. A switch from Powder River Basin
coal to gas would result in little or no change in plant heat rate.
However, the current low price of natural gas may make up for at
least some of the cost of this loss of efficiency.
There’s also a significant impact on heat transfer in the boiler
from one fuel to the other. In many cases, the original boiler heat
transfer surfaces will be inadequate for full natural gas firing. The
heat transfer characteristics for natural gas versus coal vary significantly - coal has more radiant heat transfer and gas has more
convective heat transfer. Without either modifications to the existing heat transfer surfaces or identification of alternative operating conditions, problems with metallurgy can arise and these
components run the risk of becoming unreliable. Alleviating this
potential issue requires careful consideration and study across the
complete spectrum of load dispatch and cycling scenarios.
Many owners intend to convert plants from coal to gas and use
that asset to provide power on-demand through direct sale or sale
in the capacity markets. There can be significant financial penalties in the capacity market for a plant not being available to generate power when that capacity is needed. This is an important consideration for older units which may have legacy reliability issues.
Working in tandem with the plant owner, the engineer can work
to determine the issues and the capital investment required to address those issues. This allows the owner to do a project justification and determine whether the project makes sense to proceed.
Overall, most generating asset owners have opted to take a
minimalist approach to more costly boiler pressure part upgrades
and address identified concerns through careful monitoring and
changes in operating parameters. The extensive engineering analysis on the front end of these fuel conversion projects allows the
plant owner to take advantage of these lower cost options.
From a manpower perspective, it takes fewer personnel to operate and maintain a gas-fired plant than it does a coal plant. There
are a lot of people involved with unloading and handling of coal
used as fuel. Not so with natural gas. Significant manpower is also
used in maintaining plants that run on coal due to coal’s inherent
erosive and corrosive nature as a fuel.
Overall, switching to gas, even at current gas prices, is generally
not an easy choice economic choice considering the capital cost,
fuel costs, cycle efficiency, and future regulatory uncertainty.