Power broker

From nuclear, to wind to clean coal, GE’s Magued Eldaief is plotting the path to the UK’s energy future. Stuart Nathan reports.

Magued Eldaief has good reason to be scanning the papers. As the managing director of GE Energy’s UK business, the protests about the proposed coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, Kent, may be a harbinger of things to come. For while GE is not involved in Kingsnorth, it has its own plans for coal-fired power. It is providing turbines for the first power station in Europe to integrate carbon capture and storage into a coal-fuelled process.

The power station at Hatfield, South Yorkshire, due to come on-stream in 2013, is owned by Powerfuel Power, an offshoot of RJB Mining, which owns most of the UK’s remaining coal mines. The plant uses technology from Shell to convert coal into syngas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, remove the CO2, then burn the remaining gases under pressure. The heat raises steam, which drives one set of turbines, while the flue gases from the combustion spin another set.

GE’s involvement in this integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology goes back to the 1960s, when the method was mainly used for turning the carbon in natural gas and coal into a form suitable for reactions in the chemical industry.

‘The challenge for GE was to take the technology and commercialise it on a larger scale to make it cost-competitive against some other forms of fossil-fuel technology,’ said Eldaief.

Although the Hatfield plant will use Shell’s gasification technology, GE owns a version itself, bought five years ago from Chevron Texaco. ‘The thought was that we would take that technology, develop and combine it with our combined cycle technology to come up with a solution to capture CO2effectively, then burn the syngas into our gas turbines. We built demonstration plants as far back as the late 1980s in the US to demonstrate that IGCC technology and we’ve done it very successfully. The challenge was to do it on a bigger scale.’

This experience of syngas, which burns at a lower energy than natural gas, led to the contract with Powerfuel. ‘We have almost 3GW of experience in our gas turbine technology business, we’ve significantly ramped up our resources to get to the point where we can offer a competitive plant, and we’ve been successful in the US, with an order for a 660MW IGCC plant,’ said Eldaief. The Hatfield turbines are even larger, rated at 900MW.

Another alliance, with oil- and gasfield technology specialist Schlumberger, handles the other part of the carbon capture and storage combination. ‘They certainly have a lot of experience in understanding geological formations and what happens underground. We want to be sure we have someone with us who will be able to help our customers understand the risks of what will happen with CO2 storage on a long-term basis, to model some of these reservoirs where carbon is going to be stored.’

With this expertise at its disposal, GE hopes to play a role in making Hatfield capable of capturing, transporting, sequestering and storing CO2, either in depleted gas wells or other geological formations, by the time the syngas-burning turbines come on-stream.

If completed on schedule, it will be ahead of the government’s model CCS demonstration facility, which will use post-combustion technology (that is, removing CO2 only from the flue gases resulting from burning coal or gas), aimed for start-up in 2014. It demonstrates the importance of the UK to GE, said Eldaief.

Egyptian-born and educated, Eldaief has been responsible for this business since 2006. He is a mechanical engineer by training, has worked for GE since 1989 and run businesses in India, the Middle and Far East, and Europe.

‘We have businesses here [in the UK] that serve the needs of the globe,’ said Eldaief. Many are concerned with oil and gas, such as a business that supplies downhole sensors. It is also heavily involved in power transmission and distribution, with more than 90 per cent of the control systems for distribution on the National Grid coming from GE.

The company is active across a wide range of energy sectors, including the turbines for the fossil fuel industry. It also has footholds in renewables, producing wind turbines and dipping its toes into the marine sector, with a £2.6m investment in Ocean Power Development, which makes the Pelamis wave energy converter.

GE is also a major nuclear player, developing the economic simplified boiling water reactor (ESBWR), one of the technologies being assessed for the UK’s possible new fleet of nuclear power stations.

This spread of interests gives Eldaief commercial insight into the whole UK energy picture. ‘The UK’s facing the same challenge as many other countries in Europe, in terms of making sure that greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, but it’s also facing the challenge of energy security, to reduce dependence on Russian gas, for example,’ he said.

‘Generation has to meet these aggressive emissions targets. Short-term, we’ll see much more activity in wind.’

The government’s goals for wind generation might not be achievable, he added, but nevertheless an ambitious goal is important to keep development of the technology on-track. ‘But in the medium term and the longer term, I think nuclear has to be the answer.’

Wind is increasingly important to GE, and Eldaief said industry has now demonstrated that it can be cost-effective enough to stand alongside conventional electricity generation. ‘Generation costs have come down significantly in the last 10 years, and that’s been driven by the incentives that have been put in place to drive the technology and to drive investment into that business,’ he said.

Generating wind power is only part of the picture; getting the power generated into the grid is also a concern. ‘We spend a lot of time looking at that — we have a set of technologies that manage large wind farms as well as integrating those wind farms with the grid. But I don’t think that’s the main challenge. It’s getting the projects off the ground quickly.’

One of the great advantages of wind is that given a good site, an operating wind farm can be built and connected much more quickly than a conventional power station, and certainly faster than nuclear.

‘But the permitting process today is still quite long. The government recognises that there are areas that can be improved, and there’s a consultation process taking place right now, in which we’re participating.’

Eldaief believes that the wind sector can act as a model for other energy sectors. ‘When we think of the wind sector and how it evolved, I see the same thing happening with other technologies, such as CCS.

‘If you have the right government incentives up-front for investors like GE, we’ll continue developing the technologies and driving the price right down.’

With the nuclear sector in the frame as the key technology for meeting emissions targets, Eldaief is monitoring the progress of the different reactor types through the approval process with interest. ‘I think that how many types of nuclear plant are built depends on the customers and utilities that will own and operate them. It’s clear from the customers’ viewpoint that they’d want to standardise around one design, but I think that its likely that we’ll have two.’

One of these, he concedes, is very likely to be the French EPR design, whose builder, Areva, is associated with EDF. ‘If EDF is looking to put a nuclear plant in, of course it’ll be an Areva design. But companies that are interested in participating in building nuclear plant in the UK are working hand-in-hand with us to complete the certification of the ESBWR nuclear plants.’