MOSCOW, Apr. 29 — PRIME.. The role of power equipment in industry is difficult to overestimate: it must not only ensure the operation of fuel and energy facilities, but also prevent industrial accidents. Mikhail Lifshitz — Chairman of the Board of Directors at ROTEC JSC, a company that produces and services turbines and power equipment — gave an interview to Prime Agency to explain how the company’s predictive system makes it possible to avoid incidents at power facilities. He also took the opportunity to discuss domestic and foreign projects, energy accumulation and storage methods and plans to finish building an electric aircraft and clarified why the supposed environmental friendliness of today’s electric vehicles is just an illusion. The interviewer was Elizaveta Voronovskaya.
— Last year marked an anniversary for the company. Which of your projects do you believe have been the most successful?
— We didn’t even celebrate our anniversary in light of the COVID-19 mess... The atmosphere prevailing in Russia and worldwide simply wasn’t conducive to a celebration. But, in general, there were a lot of events, a lot of ideas. All of our projects have been successful.
Our Ural Turbine Works (the UTW — editor’s note) have been fundamentally transformed in recent years. A decade ago, the works were truly the worse for wear. The works employed more than 2,000 people who produced just one turbine a year, the shops were extremely dirty and cluttered, and the workers walked around in high boots. Currently, the UTW employs 1,100 people who produce up to 15 turbines annually. It is a modern machine-building enterprise. A generational shift has occurred and today, the average age of employees is 40.
The product range has also been modified. While we used to mainly produce CHP turbines, we’re currently focused on producing industrial generation machinery, turbines for nuclear-powered vessels and waste incineration plants. We’re developing and getting ready to propose a viable option for floating nuclear power plants with RITM-200 reactors. We’re working in the market and selling our products abroad, exporting in different years up to 50% of our total turbine output in the face of fierce competition from global players.
— Have you managed to optimize your capital expenditures during the COVID-19 pandemic?
— Certainly, there have been some adjustments in terms of delays in our accounts receivable, as well as delays in some projects on the part of our customers. Many construction sites have been forced to suspend their work. For example, one of the top-of-mind concerns is the issue of waste incineration plants (the UTW is the only Russian manufacturer of axial-exhaust turbines for RT- Invest waste incineration plants — editor’s note). The customer asked the government to push back the deadline (the facility’s completion deadline — editor’s note). It’s obvious that the progress of construction work slowed during quarantine.
— Have you made any arrangements, e.g. regarding the deferral of equipment supplies? Some companies made the decision to grant deferrals to their suppliers, citing COVID-19 as force majeure.
— We’ve never used the concept of “force majeure.” Our major projects were confronted with a challenging situation, such as in Mongolia, since the country literally sealed off its borders. It was almost impossible to transport our personnel there — people were quarantined for 45 days and there were 40 workers at the site instead of 100 One of the specific features of the Mongolian energy sector is that a single station is responsible for supplying all of Ulaanbaatar and its environs. Meanwhile, we were faced with the task of completing the second phase of the project to retrofit four of the station’s power units before the onset of cold weather.
Keep in mind that Mongolian winters are rather harsh. Despite the fact that our on-site staffing was just a third of what we had initially anticipated, we still managed to commission the last two units in accordance with the project and right on time (in October 2020 and January 2021).
The COVID-19-related restrictions imposed by Mongolia were among the world’s most stringent. So, here we applied digital technologies that we had road tested with one of our other projects, namely the PRANA Predictive Analytics and Remote Monitoring System for industrial equipment.
— What percentage of Mongolia’s energy system has been upgraded as a result of your company’s work, and what further plans do you have in this area?
— We’ve been working in Mongolia for 5 years already. We completed the most sweeping retrofit of the country’s energy system in the last 30 years — 60% of its total generation volume. By retrofitting the equipment of Ulaanbaatar CHP-4, Mongolia’s primary station, we anticipated achieving tangible fuel savings. But the actual outcome was far beyond our expectations. The station’s management reported that coal savings have amounted to 200K tons a year, exceeding estimated efficiency by a factor of more than 1.5. We’re currently vying for a new project. The government has put forward a resolution envisioning the construction of a new station at the site of the old СНР-3.
— Given the significant upgrade of its energy system, might Mongolia no longer need to import electric power from the RF in the future?
— In terms of energy balance, the systems will continue to coexist. In the meantime, however, the Government of Mongolia — just like any other country — is trying to solve the problem of energy security. At the same time, our neighbors are really counting on the construction of a gas pipeline. It’s obvious that the country’s access to gas would somewhat alter the contours of its generation. Today, its essence is dictated by coal. Nevertheless, they are leaning towards the expansion of gas infrastructure.
— Nowadays, it’s evident that there’s more transparency in the notification of incidents at power facilities. How much can the PRANA Predictive System by ROTEC enhance the reliability of such facilities?
— The budget of any generating company includes two items: unforeseen repairs and fines stemming from unscheduled shutdowns. We’re trying to bring these two items as close to zero as possible. Thereafter, it depends on the size of these items prior to their connection to PRANA.
Undoubtedly, reliability is of critical importance. Companies strive to eliminate shutdowns while maintaining the continuity of heat and power supply. But the energy system itself is constructed with a high level of redundancy; in most cases, it’s possible to make up for a power reduction through the use of other stations. Therefore, we put the economic factor at the forefront.
For example, the emergency repair of a gas turbine costs USD 6–10 mln. Such failures are virtually eliminated if there’s an operating predictive system. Moreover, if we turn an unscheduled shutdown into a scheduled one by notifying the customer of an incipient defect beforehand, the station has the opportunity to alert the “System Operator,” redistribute the load to other capacities and, accordingly, calmly take the machinery for scheduled repairs while saving a huge amount of money and providing extra safeguards for personnel health and safety.
— Is the system supervised by a ROTEC representative?
— Yes. That’s true for the current format. We have a Situational Center that monitors the status of connected equipment continuously and around-the-clock. That said, we’re capable of setting up such centers at the customer’s site as well.
But simple math shows the following: if the Situational Center is staffed by 24 supervisors working in shifts and by experts who have to overview the entire process system-wide while accepting requests from supervisors and customers, such an add-on is a rather large financial burden for the owner of two or three power units.
It’s cheaper and easier to buy these services from us. You might find it expedient to establish a center of your own if you were connecting a large number of facilities, e.g. 50–60. In this case, we’d be prepared to sell an upper-level software license and hand over the business model to the customer.
— So, for discussion purposes at least, you could see the predictive system operating according to this format — but are any such negotiations currently underway?
— Yes, they are. We’re keeping an eye out for where it would be appropriate. However, not all of the projects have been implemented yet. Our Situational Center is currently working with Mosenergo, Gazprom Neft, RusHydro, T Plus and Pavlodarenergo in Kazakhstan.
— Which other foreign customers, apart from Kazakhstan, have reached an agreement with you on PRANA?
— We’re negotiating with our colleagues in Indonesia and India. To enter their markets, we first have to prepare interfaces in the respective languages in order to meet the requirements set by their regulatory authorities. We’re working on these tasks right now. Meanwhile, we have to overcome the existing prejudices towards everything Russian. And the third challenge is certainly COVID-19. We started full-scale commercial operation three years ago. Of the past three years, COVID-19 stole a full year-and-a-half from us.
— Could you tell us about your plans for other projects?
— One of our most recent projects involves the production of components for steam and gas turbines, aircraft engines and turbochargers. These include honeycomb seals and sound-absorbing panels, which largely determine the fuel efficiency and competitive performance of turbines. Today, we manufacture components for absolutely any domestically-produced turbojet engine. Incidentally, Russia has become the fourth country worldwide to have the technology for the production of honeycomb products made from superalloys.
— What’s your attitude towards localization requirements?
— From my point of view, this is an absolutely healthy trend — in principle. On the other hand, there are some extremes. When we’re talking about technologies that either need to be revived or developed, it’s okay. But as soon as localization becomes an end in and of itself, that’s part of operating by fits and spurts. We used to have the DPM-1 (the TPP modernization program — editor’s note), and we currently have the DPM-2 and incentive mechanisms. Clearly, that’s helping us a lot. For example, the enterprise develops turbine models anew every year.
Some are of the opinion that a turbine should be 100% localized. Okay, let’s say it’s 100% localized. But the foundry industry is unable to provide it with blanks, since demand for them has quintupled in an environment of just two manufacturers! So, what do the metallurgists do? Multiply the price, of course. And then they tell us that we have to stay competitive. It turns out that domestic foundry products cost us twice as much as foundry products from the Czech Republic or China. Therefore, when we talk about localization, we have to pay more attention to the content component.
— Which companies are being provided with ROTEC equipment as part of TPP retrofitting?
— We work with virtually all of the generating companies: Inter RAO, Enel Russia, T Plus, Quadra, Mosenergo, TGC-2, TGC-11, etc.
— Do you think it’s feasible to provide towns and cities with electric power by means of storage units over the long-term?
— There are many different ways of storing energy. Electric storage batteries can be used. Let’s take, for example, Greece or Israel: there, convectors are mounted on roofs in order to heat the water. When people take a shower in the evening, they take no notice that they’re showering with water that was heated by the sun during the day. And it’s a storage unit as well. The topic is much broader than just batteries.
The methods of energy accumulation and consumption will always vary. Just as the methods of energy generation do. No truly universal technique has ever been implemented. But there’s a theoretical possibility that everyone has forgotten about. Nikola Tesla was the only one to assert that mankind would only become free when people learned how to collect atmospheric electricity, likely causing all of the energy industry’s other issues to fade away.
Until that happens, the energy industry will remain multimodal. After all, energy can’t just be stored, but also transported. For example, there’s a company in India that is currently engaged in selling the energy stored in batteries to poor areas. While the business model might be small, it does already exist.
— Generally speaking, is that really necessary? Wouldn’t it perhaps be better to run a power line?
— The construction of a power line might simply be inexpedient. There are many other solutions that would be suitable for remote population centers. Let’s consider a case from our practice: in the Altai village of Yaylyu, power was supplied by a diesel power plant that used to operate for only a few hours a day. We supplemented it with a small solar fleet with a capacity of 100 kW and an energy storage unit. As a result, the consumption of diesel fuel has been more than halved. But the most important thing is that the village has been provided with an absolutely steady and round-the- clock supply of power. Thus, this combination — the sun, an energy storage unit plus a diesel power plant — is an excellent solution for remote locations. Today, the local residents don’t even feel the need for running a power line to the village.
— As for the energy storage units produced by ROTEC — supercapacitors, what’s the scope of investment in their production?
As of today, we have invested USD 20 mln.
— What’s the essence of the technology?
— A battery takes a really long time to charge, but it stores energy and releases it over an extended period. That said, a high load current is fatal for a battery. A supercapacitor, on the other hand, gets charged almost instantly, but it gets discharged just as quickly and is capable of providing high currents.
Supercapacitor-based systems are a perfect solution to ensure high-quality power supply. This is especially important for modern plants operating precision equipment that switches off if voltage fluctuations exceed just 5%, whereas GOST allows up to 10%.
According to statistics, 80% of all problems related to the quality of power supply fall within the scope of voltage loss for a period of up to 5 seconds. Here, the use of supercapacitors is the most rational option since they’re capable of instantly filling this pause, have an enormous number of charge-discharge cycles as compared to batteries, and their assemblies are much denser than current battery-based solutions; moreover, they need no maintenance or special temperature-controlled premises.
The use of supercapacitors in start-stop systems for Russian Railways’ diesel locomotives ensures seasonal fuel savings of up to 30% thanks to the fact that it allows the huge diesel motor of the diesel locomotive to get started when it’s needed. Previously, diesel locomotives used to get started at the depot in the morning and run non-stop all day long because the motor couldn’t get started again after its shutdown, even if it was just at a standstill. The supercapacitor makes it possible to cut the motor off and get it started when necessary.
— Can they be used in electric vehicles? They’re today’s hottest new trend.
— I have absolutely nothing against electric mobility. But today’s electric vehicles are the most pollution-intensive mode of transport.
— The efficiency of a gasoline engine onboard a car is about 50%. In other words, 50% of the energy gained from the fuel being burned is transferred to the car’s wheels. And that’s factoring in the insignificant loss from the gearbox. If the car is made electric, the fuel will be burned not onboard but at a СНР located not in the downtown area, but on the outskirts. The efficiency of the power plant where the fuel will be burned is also about 50%. If we subtract the auxiliary power consumption of the СНР, network losses and losses at the charging station, only about 25-30% of the efficiency of the fuel burned at the СНР is left for the electric vehicle to move. Thus, the electric vehicle will burn substantially more fuel than its gasoline counterpart.
Ultimately, there’s less pollution along your driving route, but the area around the CHP is polluted twice as much! It’s what’s called “environmental selfishness.” Moreover, it also implies a twofold increase in the earnings of those who supply fuel to these particular СНРs. Hypothetically speaking, electric mobility can only be environmentally friendly where fully renewable energy sources (RES) exist.
— Why don’t you have anything against electric mobility then?
Any electric engine turns into a generator when braking. The recuperation system allows the kinetic energy of braking to be converted into electricity, accumulated in a storage unit and released to the engine when accelerating. A battery cannot completely solve this problem because it is rather slow and not designed to operate with high currents. But by supplementing it with a supercapacitor, we can get an absolutely functional circuit that provides considerable savings of up to 30%.
A truly energy-efficient and rational circuit is achieved thanks to a hybrid that combines an electric motor, a supercapacitor with a battery and a small internal combustion engine that generates electric power onboard.
— Can hybrid vehicles theoretically contribute to savings?
— Yes, of course, in case of their mass production. The fuel consumption is simply reduced.
— Does ROTEC have any plans in the field of producing large gas turbines?
In order to launch a project for such a turbine, we have to make sure that there’s demand for it in the amount of at least 10 pcs a year for 10 years. As yet, no one has generated such demand. Moreover, I have great doubts about the long-term prospects of large gas turbines in general from the global standpoint. In megacities, such machines are genuinely required — but in limited quantities only. However, the emerging global trend in the energy sector is decentralization. Small gas turbines and aircraft engines will generate demand for a very long time. Therefore, I’m more interested in supplying them with component parts as we’re currently doing for General Electric, Rolls-Royce, the GTE-110M, etc.
— With respect to the GTE-110, will it be in demand?
— The GTD-110 is the perfect machine for a large gas carrier. That is to say, in the context of an LPG tanker, the installation of such a turbine will make it possible to get rid of the separate fuel tanks, which will greatly affect the size of the vessel. But this solution is rather ambiguous in the case of a station that sells electricity at a regulated tariff as opposed to gas in a tanker. This turbine has no horizontal joint, which means that it is virtually impossible to carry out its service maintenance and repairs in station conditions. It’s hard to say how this will affect the price.
— Two years ago, we learned that you were planning to construct an electric aircraft in 2020. What’s been your progress?
— We set up a flying laboratory and are exploring the possibilities of photovoltaics in the air. We’ve already used it to launch a fairly large program. We’ve developed an energy balance, i.e. an understanding of how to construct a solar-powered aircraft for a non-stop round-the-world flight. The key question we used to have with respect to the aircraft was whether it would be possible to collect and store enough energy onboard to ensure a round-the-clock flight. The design work and tests that we carried out have proven that it’s rather feasible. At the moment, we have a layout solution, weight balances and ergonomic calculations.
As for testing, calculations and development costs, we’ve spent about USD 2 mln. The aircraft itself has a budget of USD 7 mln. We’re fully aware that it’s not a commercial project and that the product is fundamentally new. There’s no market for such products yet. It’s not an investment for us. It’s a purely research-related endeavor, so if someone joins us, things will go even faster.
— Could it be converted into a cargo or passenger aircraft in the future?
— No, it couldn’t. We shouldn’t indulge in illusions in this case. The amount of solar energy that could be accumulated using the solar modules installed on an aerial vehicle wouldn’t allow for its use for cargo transportation purposes.
— Could you explain its potential application in more detail? What is the ultimate goal?
— In the context of a slowly-flying high-altitude drone, it could pursue various goals such as weather observation, aerial photography and wide-range monitoring. It would be much cheaper than observations and photography from a satellite.