How about tearing down and then reassembling a power plant the size of a train car — one that can deliver power to thousands of homes — in less than 48 hours? This isn’t a theoretical exercise. A team in Veresegház, Hungary, in the countryside outside of Budapest, recently showed that it’s possible to break down, transport, rebuild and power up a power plant capable of supplying 9,000 European homes in less than 48 hours — a lightning-fast accomplishment in an industry where speed is usually measured in months.
Perhaps as notable is that the gas turbine package, called TM2500, isn’t a science experiment. The first version has been in commercial use since 2000 and there are more than 300 in operation around the world today. “We get power to where it is needed very quickly,” says Nam Tran, GE product-line leader for the technology. “Because of all that speed, we can answer any demand that might come up. In emergencies, you don’t have time to build and ship.”
But calling the TM2500 a mobile power plant doesn’t quite capture its essence. The current edition of the unit is essentially a GE CF6 jet engine in a box. It bristles with power, enabling it to deliver grid-level electricity very quickly, similar to how a Boeing 747 — bearing four CF6 engines — is rapidly pushed to the max at takeoff. And like a jet plane that’s just landed, the TM2500 is also quick to power down. As an aeroderivative — tech derived from aeronautics — the TM2500 echoes the compact, modular form of jet turbines, allowing it to be disassembled and loaded onto a couple of tractor-trailers or shipped in a cargo plane.
At Veresegház, 10 workers took just 8 hours to disassemble and store the TM2500. In another 19 hours, they unloaded and rebuilt the unit and readied it for safety checks. Those prechecks took about 3 hours before the unit could be powered on. Total time from start to finish (not counting an overnight break for sleep): 30 hours and 39 minutes.
While the Hungary effort took place under ideal conditions, it reflects the relative speed the power plant can be installed in actual conditions. Its compact, portable nature allows it to be shipped in a single cargo plane or by truck and has repeatedly enabled the TM2500 to be a crucial workhorse in some dire situations. Mexican officials deployed the TM2500 to work around parts of the grid too damaged to be quickly repaired after a hurricane slammed the Mexican state of Baja California in 2014. It took just two weeks to get the units to Mexico and get the grid powered up. By contrast, a traditional power plant would take three to six months to get up and running under ideal conditions, according to Tran. And just recently, after Hurricane Dorian leveled large portions of two of its islands, the Bahamas ordered a TM2500 to help in its recovery.
Providing emergency power isn’t the only use for the GE turbine. The plant also meets industrial demand for powerful and portable energy where there isn’t suitable infrastructure, or even any grid at all. The technology is finding use in Indonesia, a nation of some 18,000 islands, for example. GE deployed them several years ago in Lombok, an island next to Bali. The robust machines not only supply the local tourist and pearl industries, but also helped locals power through a devastating earthquake that struck the area in 2018.
While the TM2500 has a reputation for quick deployment, the recent effort at GE’s plant in Hungary was a formal proof-of-concept to show customers, that the TM2500 can be systematically broken down and rebuilt in less than a weekend. “Because of that speed, we have an answer to any kind of problem that comes up,” adds Tran.
Collectively, TM2500 units have logged more than 6 million continuous operating hours in 27 countries. Even as the current CF6 version of the power plant has proven to be a speed demon, Tran says the company is planning ways to decrease installation time and use less equipment to generate the same power for the next generation of plants. “We haven’t been complacent,” he says. “We have kept pushing the bounds of every iteration.”