GE's flex technology natural gas plant heading to France

EDF and GE will develop a 510-megawatt combined-cycle natural gas power plant in France. Find out how this super-efficient power plant could help solar and wind.

General Electric's jet engine-inspired natural gas power plant -- introduced a little more than six months ago -- has gained another customer. This time, EDF, one of the world's largest utilities, will jointly develop GE's FlexEfficiency 50 combined-cycle power plant in France. The gas-fired plant will produce 510 megawatts, enough electricity to power 600,000 French households.

A utility deciding to build a natural gas-fired power plant might not seem like good news for solar or wind energy. This is a fossil fuel-based power plant after all. But aside from taking between one and four coal plants offline (the average coal plant is between 500 and 2,000 megawatts), it also makes it easier to add a renewable energy component.

GE's natural gas-fired combined-cycle power plant can start up or slow down rapidly -- just like its jet engines -- to smooth out the electricity supply, save wasted energy, improve efficiency and to better accommodate the fluctuation of renewable power. As I've written before, a natural gas power plant that can quickly takeover when the sun stops shining sounds obvious. And yet, current power plants are light years behind GE's design.

The power plant can ramp up energy production at a rate of more than 50 megawatts a minute -- or about twice the rate of current industry benchmarks.  Meaning, it will take about 10 minutes or so for the FlexEfficiency plant in France to reach 100 percent load. The power plant's fuel efficiency is greater than 61 percent. Traditional steam-powered generation plants, including those powered by coal, have somewhere around 33 percent efficiency.

The power plant was designed to operate at 50 Hz, the power frequency most used in countries around the world, which is why all seven sold so far have been in Europe and Asia. The United States would need a 60 Hz version, which GE plans to develop in the future.

In at least one case to date, renewable energy capacity has been bolstered because of the new GE power plant. GE partnered in June 2011 with MetCap Energy to create an integrated renewables combined cycle power plant in Turkey. The plant will combine GE's Flex 50 power plant with 22 MW of wind power and 50 MW of concentrated solar thermal. China's Harbin Electric and Japan's Toshiba also have agreed to buy the GE's flex technology.

These are no small investments by GE or its customers. Paul Browning, president and CEO of GE Energy's thermal products business, told me the company invested $500 million in the research and development of the flex technology and another $170 million to build its test facility. GE and EDF aren't revealing the cost of the power plants. However, Ricardo Cordoba President and CEO of Western Europe and North Africa for GE Energy EDF CEO and Chairman Henri Proglio said (in response to a question) at the event announcing the deal, the utility had invested somewhere in the range of 400 million Euros (or $535 million) into the power plant, Browning told me in a phone interview.

Photo: GE


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