National Geographic News
Photo of El Segundo "flex" plant.

California's El Segundo Energy Center is the second power plant in the United States to be outfitted with technology that allows it to ramp up or down quickly with natural gas to accommodate a shifting supply of renewable energy.

Photograph by Gil Hidalgo

Josie Garthwaite and Christina Nunez

For National Geographic

Published October 31, 2013

Shifting rapidly with the weather, the supply of renewable power can be quite changeable. Most power plants, however, are anything but. Unable to ramp up or down quickly and efficiently, conventional facilities lack the ability to capitalize on a growing influx of wind and solar power to the grid.

Now the technology behind power plants is shifting in response. In California, two new "flex" plants have been built to swoop in and fill the gap with natural gas when renewable resources fall short of demand. One of the plants, the modernized El Segundo Energy Center, opened in September near Los Angeles. The project, which is operated by NRG Energy and uses technology from Siemens, is only the second of its kind in commercial operation nationwide; the first opened last year in Lodi, near Stockton. (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Electricity.")

Employing innovations that make the most of combined-cycle technology, in which exhaust heat captured from the burning of natural gas drives a steam turbine, El Segundo's two units can each ramp up to 150 megawatts within 10 minutes and reach a maximum output of 275 megawatts apiece in less than an hour. In contrast, old gas-fired steam boilers still in use at the site take up to 12 hours to warm up, and NRG typically fires them up in the evening to be ready for the next day's power needs.

The new units are helping NRG replace less efficient steam boilers at El Segundo after nearly four decades of operation. Using roughly 30 percent less natural gas per megawatt than the old units it replaced, the system can generate enough electricity for more than 400,000 homes.

Tweaking the Tried and True

As renewable sources of energy like wind and solar begin to make up a larger portion of the power supply, providers are being challenged to ensure that electricity is always available when the wind doesn't gust as powerfully as expected or cloud cover crimps solar production. New or updated plants that can start, stop, or throttle up and down quickly and efficiently—all without breaking down or coughing up excess emissions—might hold one of the keys to accommodating these fluctuating renewables, says Debra Lew, a senior engineer for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory whose research focuses on integrating wind and solar into power systems. "This is what you're going to need in a high wind and solar future," she said. (See related blog post: "A Promising Outlook for Solar Energy Forecasting.")

At the same time, this type of power plant is not an entirely new class of technology that would require utilities to step far outside their comfort zones, notes Steven Minnihan, senior research analyst for the market research firm Lux Research. "Rather, Siemens has made noteworthy improvements on the tried-and-true combined-cycle gas turbine," Minnihan said. "They blend the familiarity and ease of conventional natural gas with some of the flexibility that an energy storage system can offer."

The system does not respond to fluctuating needs as quickly as emerging energy storage technologies, he said, which can capture wind energy generated at night, for example, and make it available as needed when demand picks up during the day. But "Siemens has familiarity on its side," Minnihan said. (See related story: "Too Much Wind? Save It in Underground Volcanic Rock Reservoirs.")

Siemens is not alone in promoting new gas turbines: Alstom, Mitsubishi and General Electric (GE) have all rolled out new generation systems in recent years with an emphasis on flexibility. All of them feature upgrades that go beyond the efficiencies of combined-cycle technology: By adjusting internal controls, improving specific components, and reworking architecture, manufacturers are aiming to provide fast-start turbines that can adjust output quickly without sacrificing performance.

"In the past, there was always a compromise between having highly efficient gas turbine combined-cycle plants, or very flexible gas turbine power plants," said James Donohue, senior marketing manager with GE Power & Water. "We really think that with this technology, you don't have to make that choice anymore."

The technology also addresses concerns that conventional plants' efficiency could be degraded by renewables, erasing the benefits of moving away from fossil fuel. "There had been some myths that had said emissions actually got worse because of cycling impact," said NREL's Lew, referring to the impact of ramping generators up and down to smooth out fluctuations in wind and solar. (See related story: "High Voltage DC Breakthrough Could Boost Renewable Energy.")

Her research with NREL suggests this is not the case in the West—the emissions avoided by harnessing solar and wind instead of burning fossil fuels more than make up for the efficiency lost by running a conventional plant at less than full throttle. But it remains true that utilities must cycle their plants more frequently to accommodate high levels of wind and solar energy, and that this results in some additional maintenance and operations costs.

Rising Intermittency, Changing Needs

Pressure to build a system where renewables and fossil fuels can complement one another on the grid is especially strong in California, where an ambitious mandate calls for renewables to make up at least one third of the total power supply by 2020. Similarly, New Jersey, which ranks behind California as one of the nation's top states for solar installations, recently broke ground on an $845 million, 700-megawatt natural gas facility in Woodbridge.

But new power plant designs like these can help to fill gaps well beyond the United States, too. "They represent an easy and cost-effective way to manage rising intermittency globally," said Minnihan. (See related story: "Japan Solar Energy Soars, But Grid Needs to Catch Up.")

GE, which is providing its FlexEfficiency turbines for the New Jersey facility, hoped to debut its technology in Turkey, touting it two years ago as a world first. That project is still caught in financing discussions, but another flex plant in France is moving forward and expected to come online by early 2016, around the same time as the Woodbridge plant.

Donohue said GE has also had orders for its flex turbines in South America, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. "Over the past several years, there's been more and more of a realization of the fact that with the intermittency of renewables, in order to have a reliable and stable grid, you need to have dispatchable power like combined-cycle power plants to make up for that intermittency," he said.

Donohue said GE is still selling plenty of conventional gas turbines as countries such as Algeria and Nigeria catch up technologically. "The largest order that we ever had in our business recently in Algeria was not [flex] technology. It's kind of an old standard machine that ten years ago was the machine in Europe," Donohue said. But as Algeria develops, he said, "I would bet that in five to ten years, they'll move to this FlexEfficiency technology." In other places, like China and Brazil, Donohue said, competition from coal has held back demand for flex gas plants.

Around the world, new power plants will play a key role in the integration of renewables onto the grid, but NREL's Lew pointed out that another important step will be adapting older power plants to meet society's changing needs. "There's a huge existing fleet out there that's still going to be used because it's been paid for or nearly paid for, and there might be some simple things that can be done to make them more flexible."

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Arpit Kumar
Arpit Kumar

The problems with renewable energy are technological as well as economical -

1) As it has been debated in many forums that harnessing wind power is little questionable. Energy consumed during the manufacturing of wind turbines and equipment is huge in comparison to the energy they produce. So it becomes arguable to correctly find out the ROI on the investment not only economically but energy wise also.

2)One of the other problems is fluctuation in generation of renewable electricity, it is necessary to make voltage and frequency suitable before injecting it into grid.

3) Gas fired combined cycle plants are good in conjunction with renewable resources to complement them but it is not new.

4) Companies like GE and SIEMENS are working on increasing the efficiency of the combined cycle plants. There also modifications possible to increase capacity by adding afterburners before HRSG in CCPP.

My point is not to criticize the efforts but to point out that it is also necessary to look into the current assets and improve their performance to save on already installed capacity. It is necessary to improve on renewable generation but i think still lot of years are in between today and complete dependency on renewable sources. Till that time we need to use non-renewable sources efficiently.

Arpit Kumar 

Igor Matveev
Igor Matveev

It’s known that renewable energy sources, like solar and wind just de-stabilize the grid due to unpredictable nature behavior. So, one of the ways is to create some kind of huge power storages. For, example, pump up water to higher altitude ponds with further power production by hydro turbines at high electricity demand periods. So named peak-power gas turbine power stations are also known for decades. What might be more prospective is to use more widely such renewable sources as different kinds of waste, starting from municipal solid waste to sewage sludge to produce synthesis gas with further power production in combined cycle gas turbines. Every year we generate about 250 million tons of municipal waste, which conversion into power could cover about 6% of the national power demand. Plus we have over 1,000 landfills with much more hidden energy. One more source – sewage sludge. Its annual amount just in the US is equivalent to about 50 million tons of low grade coal. Scrap tires, bio-mass, and other sources to list a few. I believe that before starting poisoning other planets we have to clean up the Earth. Approaches are also known, but still no commercially available industrial-scale waste to power technologies. Visit to know more

Dr. Igor Matveev

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