Utilities Need 6th Sense To Face New EPA Regs For Coal-fired Plants

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Andy Beck, LumaSense’s Regional Manager for Northeast and Northwest U.S. and a specialist in thermal imaging systems, recently attended the AEP BRO Forum focused on Boiler Reliability Optimization. Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, American Electric Power (AEP) is one of the largest electric utilities in the U.S., serving over 5 million customers in 11 states.

The AEP BRO Forum is an annual event for AEP employees, invited utility company guests and about 200 of the industry’s top suppliers. Andy was invited to deliver a presentation on how online thermal imaging systems can help optimize boiler operations. Here’s his report …

AEP has the largest number of coal-fired boilers in North America. So how to deal with tightened EPA restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions was one of the biggest issues people were talking about at the recent Forum.

One of the ways AEP and other utilities are addressing the challenge is by switching coal sources. One of the coals that AEP is investigating a switch to is Powder River Basin (PRB) coal from Wyoming and Montana.

PRB coal has its pluses and minuses. It’s less expensive and burns cleaner, producing lower SO2, NOx and UBC emissions.  As a result, the cost to retrofit boiler operations to comply with emissions requirements is significantly lower than installing expensive scrubbers in order to meet the current guidelines when burning conventional eastern fuels.

But PRB coal “ashes up” inside the boiler more than other types of coal. Buildup of fused ash or “slag” on boiler tube surfaces results in inefficient heat transfer. In serious cases, large “clinkers” of hardened ash can develop and break loose, damaging boiler components. Over use of soot-blowers and other deslagging devices can lead to tube erosion. The resulting cracks and leaks in boiler tubes can result in expensive downtime while clean-up or repairs are done, as well as serious safety issues.

Advanced infrared imaging tools are the premier solution for optimizing coal boiler performance, allowing plant operators to quickly and accurately identify problems before they lead to unplanned outages. Real-time infrared (IR) boiler camera systems deliver online views of critical boiler sections reliably and clearly. Mid-wave tuning of the optical detector allows operators to see through flames, so they can continuously monitor various aspects of the boiler interior, even while under peak load.

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This technology is at the heart of our LumaSpecton for Boilers™ solution which was applied at another major coal fired generation facility in North America (not affiliated with AEP). The results were impressive:

  • Half the number of de-slagging operations needed.
  • Online boiler cleanings went down from four to zero in a six-month period, resulting in less downtime and an overall increase in average megawatt production per boiler unit.
  • Annual estimated savings of $10 million.

With President Obama’s “war on coal” and stringent new EPA emissions standards, utility companies are being forced to select which coal-fired plants to shut down and which to continue operating.

According to the Washington Post: “The average age of [coal-fired] plants that are closing or slated to close is 56 years; the average age of the remaining coal-fired fleet is about 40. So even without new EPA rules, utilities may want to scrap their old facilities and replace them with gas-fired plants.”

The US generated 41% of its electricity from coal

But utility companies can’t close all their coal-fired plants in one fell swoop and it’s not going away anytime soon. In 2012, the US generated 41% of its electricity from coal, the largest single source over natural gas and other sources. Interestingly, coal generated 74% of the CO2 emissions from electricity generation, which is the focus of Obama’s “war on coal”.

Thus AEP and other coal-fired generators will need to upgrade the facilities they don’t close to maximize efficiency. And even if they install scrubbers to minimize emissions, thermal imaging technology to stave off boiler damage is still critical to efficient operations.

Developing a 6th  Sense will come in handy as utilities adapt to meet new emissions requirements while providing the nation’s ever-growing hunger for the energy needed to power our country.

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