Block Andrews, an environmental engineer with Burns & McDonnell, says the firm’s power-sector clients need services across a wide range of applications, including transmission, new planning, research, environment, decommissioning and more, as utility operations become more diverse.
“Finding ways to connect often remote, new power stations to electrical demand centers is a focus right now, along with looking to integrate traditional and alternative generation and distribution models,” Andrews says.
Centralized power plants continue to dominate power production, but new $1-billion-plus greenfield projects are a rarity in today’s market, Andrews says, explaining that most new power design work is focused on distributed generation. “There are many smaller projects, such as helping a utility to diversify its fuel sources or installing a combined heat-and-power system,” he says.
Although there are more commercially viable power-generation sources than ever, new power builds over the next decade will heavily favor natural gas. Andrews says low natural-gas prices will most heavily influence capital spending on new production capacity, followed by renewable portfolio standards, too many obstacles for new coal and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). The CPP, which is likely to face a Supreme Court challenge in coming years, seeks to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants by 35% over the next 15 years by requiring states to develop plans to reduce overall emissions of carbon dioxide from existing and new power plants. Although the ultimate fate of the CPP is uncertain, combing through its regulations and advising clients as to what new emission rules will most affect them is a major focus for Burns & McDonnell right now, Andrews says.
He notes that the plan, which looms large over the desks of designers, has three principal mandates: make existing coal plants more efficient to reduce carbon emissions, increase the use of existing natural-gas-fired plants, and increase the use of renewable sources of energy and nuclear. The program will push designers to help utilities reduce emissions through non-traditional methods. “Most of the major power plants already have emissions controls, so they’ll have to find other ways to cut back,” Andrews says, citing possible use of less carbon-intense feedstock or sourcing their power from a green energy provider.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration in a May report said natural gas has overtaken coal as the primary electricity source in the U.S., with alternative fuel applications losing momentum since 2014. However, wind and solar generation, spurred by tax credits, will make strong gains over the next five years, EIA predicted.
Still, circumstances can change fast in the power-building markets. Despite the dominance of natural gas, designers still will have to navigate a complex, seemingly endless network of fuel sources, transmission lines and grid applications to tailor solutions for clients.
“Nobody really knows what that future power-delivery model is going to look like—what new technologies could revolutionize the market or how power sources will be connected to demand centers,” Andrews says.