The following is a contributed article from Lincoln Bleveans, former assistant general manager of power supply at Burbank Water and Power.
Middle-aged conventional power plants are still the backbone of the US power system. Magnolia Power Project (MPP) — a hulking natural gas-fired combined cycle power plant in downtown Burbank, California — is no different.
Sure, it had been a big deal in its youth, winning Platt’s 2005 International Power Plant of the Year for environmental innovations like its Zero Liquid Discharge system and its use of plentiful recycled — rather than scarce potable — water to slake its one-million-gallons-per-day thirst. But that was 16 years ago (“power plant years” being a bit like “dog years” relative to the human calendar).
Until very recently, those middle-aged power plants — steady, efficient, large-scale conventional power production — were the stars of the power system. MPP was designed for exactly that: making as much power as possible as efficiently as possible, 24/7. Like a long-haul truck, continuous operation and fuel efficiency were its calling cards (with much smaller “peaking” plants, derived from airplane engines, taking up the slack when demand spiked). MPP thrived in that world.
Then the world began to change, slowly at first and then faster and faster. In MPP’s case, only a year after commissioning California’s path-breaking 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act gave a policy kick-start to the Age of Renewables. Soon economics took over: solar and wind power became cheaper and cheaper, and more and more plentiful. A virtuous cycle is transforming the power system.
Today it’s the intermittency of renewables — especially solar — that dominates power system operations, from the diurnal cycle of solar switching on and off with the sun to its intraday volatility as clouds pass over solar farms. (Wind power is slightly easier to forecast and manage). And California’s latest target, 100% greenhouse gas-free power by 2045, means that today’s renewable integration challenges are just a taste of what’s to come. That’s a massive challenge for the always-on electric service reliability that our societies and economies rely on: physics does not negotiate with policy, yet we must reach our goals to best mitigate global climate change.
Back in Burbank, that left MPP with a massive mid-life crisis. As a member of the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power balancing authority (and not the California Independent System Operator — or “CAISO” — system) BWP must integrate the increasing amounts of renewable in its portfolio in real time using the resources that it has. MPP most of all: Designed for baseload operation, it MPP now must operate like a sports car, rapidly accelerating and decelerating, and not like the always-on, steady-as-she-goes long-haul truck it was designed to be. It’s one thing to trade-in a vehicle as needs change (or a mid-life…