Post Modern Power Systems

25 March 1999

You currently hold in your hands a copy of Modern Power Systems. Reflect for a moment on that title – 'modern', 'power', 'systems'. 'Power' is clear enough; in this context, it's just a shorter word for electricity. 'Systems' indicates, quite correctly, that the generation and use of electricity entails linking a variety of technologies that interact to deliver the desired service – an electricity or power system. But what about this word 'modern'? Suddenly we find that we have a problem on our hands.

As it is used in the title of this periodical, 'modern' presumably means 'up-to-date', 'contemporary', in tune with today's times, at the cutting edge. What, then do we mean by a modern power system? This is not a frivolous question. The key technical concepts that continue to dominate electricity systems all over the world – water turbines, steam turbines and synchronised alternating current – date back for more than a century. To be sure, they have been much refined over time. Through the years and the decades, materials science and fabrication processes have dramatically improved the performance and the economics of systems based on these concepts, allowing for some spectacular increases in scale and reductions in cost. Advances in controls and system management have made electricity systems based on these century-old concepts extremely robust and reliable. But can they really be called 'modern' in any meaningful sense of the word? Do they genuinely fulfil the criteria that we would apply if we were beginning today with a clean sheet to establish electricity systems for the coming century?

Consider, to take but one example, fuel efficiency. Electricity systems based on steam turbine stations – which are by far the majority across the world – still achieve an average fuel efficiency of not much better than 30 per cent. Even the very best of coal-fired baseload stations manage perhaps just 47 per cent, losing more than half of the energy of the fuel even before the electricity has reached the station busbar. The consequent economic cost of this situation is still further compounded by the accompanying emissions to atmosphere. For more than a quarter-century, technical development of condensing steam cycle plant has concentrated on extracting minuscule extra fractions of a percentage point of efficiency. Can we really describe a system whose main output is useless low-temperature heat as a modern power system? Just because we've taken it for granted for so long does not mean that it is satisfactory.

Moreover, we can do better. Try designing on paper from first principles a truly modern power system. You can use the most effective combinations of technologies, energy sources and finances that are currently available. Remember that what people want, and are prepared to pay for, are the services that electricity provides – such as illumination, comfort, motive power, materials processing, information, entertainment and so on. While delivering these services, your modern power system must be not only technically and financially, but also politically feasible. That constraint may all but preclude some options that we now take for granted. In most OECD countries, for instance, you will be hard pressed to get political acceptance for any new long-distance overhead transmission line. You will meet stubborn, intractable opposition to this, usually well-organised and often international, to any large hydro dam or coal-fired or nuclear plant.

“For years and possibly decades to come, power systems with very different attributes will have to coexist, as an untidy and disconcerting transition unfolds”

Your main problem, however, may not be an environmental one, but a financial one. A modern power system may now be neither vertically integrated nor may it be a monopoly franchise. In this modern context, when almost every traditional ground rule is now undergoing dramatic change, large-scale long-term investments may look precariously risky, not to captive customers, but to the shareholders and the bankers. Are you sure that you want to build gigwatt-scale power stations and hundred-kilometre transmission lines?

You no longer have to. As the pages of this publication amply demonstrate, there are new generating technologies that now offer a rapidly widening range of options for small plants located close to users – more convenient, more environmentally acceptable, and easier to finance. Similarly, there are new network technologies that offer opportunities for interconnections and interactions that are much more elaborate and subtle than synchronised AC. If we were starting from scratch to design and install modern power systems, the results would look very different from the systems that presently surround us.

We are not, however, starting from scratch. Like it or not, all over the world people now own, operate and depend on power systems that are far from modern. We therefore find ourselves in an uncomfortable limbo. For years and possibly for decades to come, power systems with very different attributes will be forced to co-exist, as an untidy and disconcerting transition in the industry unfolds. Commentators will have to watch their language.

In English literature, writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and T S Eliot were called 'modern'. But they were working in the 1920s and 1930s, more than half a century ago. Literary critics were therefore forced to invent a strange and anomalous term in order to be able to describe the work of their successors. Electricity people may have to do likewise. Who's for 'Post-modern Power Systems'?


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