GE's off-the-grid power fix for remote, water-deprived areas

GE's new jet engine-inspired natural gas turbine doesn't require water and can operate independently from the power grid. Desert islanders rejoice!

GE has designed a jet engine-inspired natural gas turbine that can deliver power to isolated communities, medical centers and industrial operations that are off-the-grid and have little to no access to water. In other words, it can provide power anywhere in the world.

The 50-megawatt turbine, officially called the FlexAero LM6000-PH, is the smaller, more nimble kid sister to the FlexEfficiency 50, a 510-megawatt natural gas-fired combined-cycle power plant that GE unveiled in May. The FlexAero turbine could power 15,000 households, while the FlexEfficieny 50 could meet the electricity demands for a 600,000-household city the size Dusseldorf, Germany, Steve Bolze, president and CEO of GE Power & Water told me in a phone interview this afternoon.

How it works

Both models essentially achieve the same goal with a few distinct differences in tech, size and design.  The models are designed to start up or slow down rapidly -- like GE's jet engines -- to save wasted energy, smooth out the electrical supply and allow for more renewable energy to be integrated into the power grid.

The crux to renewable energy is its variability. Meaning, when the wind stops blowing or the sun sets, renewable power sources drop off and that can create headaches for grid operators trying to maintain a steady electrical supply. It also presents a problem for remote communities or industrial operations that are off-the-grid and want a cleaner and reliable power source. The FlexEfficiency 50 and the new FlexAero use that jet engine tech to power up quickly and accommodate the fluctuations of renewable power.

The FlexAero (pictured on the right) has the additional tech that allows it to operate anywhere even on, say, a desert island, and power up even faster. Bolze said the turbine can reach full power in five minutes, but if it's already "warm" it can take one minute.

The nifty part is that it doesn't require any water, which is typically used to dilute carbon dioxide and NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions in a gas turbine. That translates into 26 million gallons of water saved per year for each turbine.

Bolze projects demand will be highest in remote, water-scarce areas that use distributed power including Australia, China, Indonesia and even in parts of North America.

It has a nice application in mining," Bolze said during the interview. If you think about it, these are remote sites with big power usage.

What you'll definitely see ... utilities, independent power producers, industrial and medical centers. When you go into places like Indonesia or China, these [turbines] are probably a little too big [for sparsely populated villages with only a handful of residents]. There might be rural communities that form a co-op together to buy that power source. I can see that happening.

Big business

GE's recent boost in R&D spending -- twice as much as it spent five years ago -- has helped produce the new line of flexible gas turbines. And that's paying dividends today. The company has received more than $1 billion in orders for heavy duty and aeroderivative gas turbines for projects throughout North America since the end of last year.

The company's aeroderivatives unit, which develops and sells these jet engine-inspired turbines,  is one of GE's best businesses and has generated revenue north of $3 billion, Bolze said.

Photo: GE; Flickr user mjn9, CC 2.0

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