US President Barack Obama tours the General Electric Plant with GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt (L) and plant manager Kevin Sharkey January 21, 2011 in Schenectady, New York.

General Electric recently announced $1.2bn orders for its new FlexEfficiency 60 turbine, which the company claims is a step change for the industry in its ability to supply both baseload power and ramp quickly to smooth intermittent loads from solar and wind.

Paul Browning, the vice president of GE Power & Water, told Breaking Energy in exclusive comments that the company already supplied 25% of electric power generation equipment globally.

“We think there is this 25 year super-cycle for gas coming that’s very favorable for us because we do have a very strong presence across the natural gas power generation portfolio of products.”

At the launch in San Francisco’s City Hall, 19 turbine orders were announced. The turbine’s fast ramping capability also made it an attractive option for utilities with high penetrations of renewables such as California, which has a Renewable Portfolio Standard of 33% by 2020.

“A typical plant with this new product would be 750MW. When you don’t want to run that plant you can turn it down to 100MW, which is an incredible new standard.

“That’s the new number that shocked everybody – 14% of full load of 750MW is approximately 100MW. You can park it there at 100MW and then when your renewables come on and off and you need quick power it can ramp 100MW per minute.”

Previous technology iterations of gas powered peaker plants were not efficient and their high emissions offset some of the low-carbon benefits of renewables, he said.

GE claims its new turbine avoids up to 56,000 metric tons of carbon emissions per year relative to existing technology.

“What we’ve done for the first time in one power plant is given the best fuel efficiency available anywhere in the world and the best flexibility available anywhere in the world,” he said.

It’s that combination that makes it a great partner with renewables.” – Browning

The MetCap project in Turkey discussed during a panel blends FlexEfficiency 50 turbines with 22 MW of GE wind turbines and 50 MW of eSolar concentrated solar thermal tower technology. The power plant will be rated at 530MW, enough to power more than 600,000 homes.

GE’s global competitors for the gas turbine market include Siemens and Alstom. But GE could move more quickly in developing high efficiencies as it was the only company in the industry to include an aviation division, he said.

“A fighter jet for example is always ramping up and down and they do that constantly that’s more and more how power plants have to operate today.

“We take all that technology and bring it into this land-based technology. We get all that aircraft technology for free.”

The FlexEfficiency 60 turbine is designed to generate electricity in markets where grid frequency runs at 60Hz such as North America, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

At the launch in San Francisco’s City Hall, Browning said: “By any measure the [orders] already made here today make this the most successful new product launch in the history of GE’s heavy duty gas turbine business. We have a strong pipeline of projects to announce.”

It follows on from last year’s announcement of the FlexEfficiency 50 designed for Europe, much of Asia and Africa.

Since that launch in Paris, sales have reached $400m, perhaps slower than the company anticipated given Europe’s relatively high penetration of renewables. But GE expects to do much better with sales to markets where the price of natural gas is much lower.

Three US projects were announced. Only the full details were made public for the Cherokee repowering project in Denver, Colorado, although the Hess Corporation and another customer in the western US have also placed orders.

Although Browning would not give an individual price of $ per MW for the projects, the technology is likely to be expensive given its high spec engineering.

A Pacific Gas & Electric plant in Oakley, California, proposed to use the GE turbine technology in a $1.5bn project. After approval by the California Public Utility Commission in 2011, ratepayers’ advocates intervened and successfully appealed to the courts to stop the 586MW project.
PG&E initiated a new application for approval in early 2012 and a CPUC decision on the new application is expected in December 2012.

A Call for US Natural Gas Exports

GE’s FlexEfficiency turbines have also been sold to electric power companies in the Middle East and Japan, where they are being used for baseload power even though the price of natural gas imports to Asia is around $15 per mmbtu.

During a panel discussion, Kozo Ban, executive officer at Chubu Electric in Japan, appealed to GE for help in securing long term contracts for reasonably priced natural gas.

“Japan relies 100% on imports [linked] to the oil index. As a result, things were OK when oil prices were relatively low. But with the recent surge of oil prices this is becoming a big issue.

“To address that one of the active discussions going on is how do we get shale gas or an energy export company in the US to this part of the world.

“Since we have ordered a big 3GW of GE technology it would be great if that could be linked with shale gas coming from the US.

So we ask for cooperation with that, especially from GE.”

Browning acknowledged that GE was helping to advocate on its customers’ behalf on the export of natural gas from the large supplies opened up by shale gas.

“There’s a debate going on right now around the export of natural gas,” he said. “Should we keep it all here in the US or export? What we can do for a company like Chubu is we can help various stakeholders understand Chubu’s point of view.

“That’s really the role we would play to help make sure their voice is being heard in terms of the strategic importance that this would have for Japan who is an important trade partner of the US.”

Most of the 19 turbine projects will be constructed from next year and completed by 2015.