Thursday, April 22, marks the 51st Earth Day, and governments, companies, as well as ordinary people concerned about the planet’s climate are taking part in events celebrating the birth of the modern environmental movement. The White House, for example, is hosting a Leaders Summit on Climate this week that will bring together representatives of 17 countries responsible for some 80% of global carbon emissions and also global gross domestic product (GDP), as well a business and civil society leaders, including Danielle Merfeld, vice president and chief technology officer at GE Renewable Energy. They will discuss ways to cut carbon emissions, new technologies that can help with decarbonization, helping vulnerable countries exposed to climate change, and other topics.
The way forward includes renewable energy and wind and solar energy are already an important part of the massive infrastructure plan currently being debated in Washington, D.C. Proposals include extending tax credits and building enough offshore wind turbines to capture 30 gigawatts of wind energy by 2030. That would be enough to power the equivalent of more than 10 million American homes and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 78 million metric tons. Meanwhile, countries around the world are mandating reductions in carbon emissions from power generation, and more than two dozen large U.S. utilities have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
Curbing coal use, which produces one-third of all carbon emissions worldwide, is another key priority. “There’s no doubt that the electricity sector is the lead horse in decarbonization,” said former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz recently at a Washington Post Live “The Future of Energy” event sponsored by GE. “The investor-owned utilities are heading toward 50% reductions in emissions in this decade and are prepared to pick up the pace even more in response to the president’s challenges.”
GE, whose technology supplies more than one-third of the world’s electricity, is taking on climate change by making sustainable energy generation a priority of its business and research. GE Renewable Energy, for instance, is working on huge wind power projects in Oklahoma and New Mexico that will each generate more than a gigawatt of power. Its offshore wind turbines and power transmission technology has been selected for projects in the North Sea and off the East Coast of the U.S. In Europe, Australia and other countries, it’s developing hydropower as another low-carbon alternative in a future powered by renewables. In Asia, GE is working toward replacing coal-powered generators with its latest turbines that use natural gas, which can produce as much as 60% less carbon than coal-fired power stations. And because the sun isn’t always shining nor the wind blowing, the company also is working to combine storage with renewables and help make wind and solar energy available on demand. One such project is proposed to go up in upstate New York.
Retooling the future of energy is going to be a group effort and GE’s got hundreds of engineers on the case. Here is a selection of the most recent projects involving GE that seek to help lower the world’s carbon emissions.
The Haliade-X offshore wind turbine was designed to evolve with the market, and evolve it has. The initial model produced 12 megawatts — and even at that level, a single rotation of the machine’s blades could generate the equivalent amount of power to supply one U.K. household for two days. But when engineers tested a Haliade-X prototype, they found it could be optimized to produce 13 MW. Now an even more powerful version will be rated at 14 MW — and it’s that machine that’s just been selected for Dogger Bank C, the third phase of the U.K.’s Dogger Bank wind farm. (At its 13-MW rating, the Haliade-X had previously been selected for the first two phases of the project.) When it’s completed in 2026, Dogger Bank is expected to be the largest offshore wind installation in the world.
Leading the way: “This unique project will both continue to build on the U.K.'s leadership in offshore wind and serve as a showcase for innovative technology that is helping to provide cleaner, renewable energy,” said John Lavelle, president and CEO of Offshore Wind at GE Renewable Energy. But the U.K. is not the only nation transforming its energy sector and using more wind power. (In December, wind generated 40% of British electricity, a new record.) Vineyard Wind, an 800-MW farm off the coast of Massachusetts, announced last December that it had selected GE Renewable Energy as the preferred turbine supplier for the project.
Top image: One blade for the Haliade-X measures 107 meter from end to end. Image credit: GE Renewable Energy.
GE Renewable Energy announced in April that it has been selected to provide more than 500 onshore wind turbines for a massive new installation in Oklahoma that is projected to produce 1,485 megawatts of renewable energy. It is expected to be the largest combined onshore wind project in GE’s history to date. The North Central Wind Energy Facilities are being developed by Invenergy — a leading, privately held global developer of sustainable energy projects — and American Electric Power (AEP).
A critical transition: The project will encompass three large wind farms located in the north-central part of the state — the 999-megawatt Traverse Wind Energy Center, the 287-megawatt Maverick Wind Energy Center and the 199-megawatt Sundance Wind Energy Center. Construction of the three installations, which will be owned and operated by AEP, is currently scheduled to be completed in early 2022. Right now, the U.S. generates about 8% of its utility-scale electricity from the wind. But as projects such as North Central and Western Wind Spirit, a 1,050 MW project in central New Mexico that will also be powered by GE turbines, come online, that figure will start to grow and become more impactful.
GE released a report in December detailing how natural gas can help power a lower-carbon future: With the output of renewables like wind and solar linked to the weather, gas turbines can step in quickly to keep the electric grid in balance. But natural gas isn’t the only fuel those turbines can process. They can also run on hydrogen, the universe’s most abundant element, which can yield zero CO2 emissions. And they can also run on a mixture of gas and hydrogen. Now a proof of that concept is rising on the banks of the Ohio River. GE is working on the first purpose-built power plant in the U.S. where a turbine from the company’s most advanced turbine fleet — the HA — will start burning a blend of natural gas and hydrogen and aims to transition to 100% hydrogen by 2030.
Elementally powerful: Scheduled to come online this fall, the 485-megawatt plant in Hannibal, Ohio — operated by Long Ridge Energy Terminal — should have enough capacity to light the equivalent of 400,000 U.S. homes. The technology is something GE has experience with: More than 75 GE gas turbines have already racked up over 6 million operating hours running on hydrogen or hydrogen-like fuels. “It’s something we can do today,” said GE Gas Power’s Brian Gutknecht. At first, hydrogen will constitute between 15-20% by volume in the gas stream going into the turbine in the Hannibal plant, which aims to increase that proportion over time until the machine runs solely on hydrogen in a decade or so — which would eliminate approximately up to 1.6 million tons of CO2 emissions annually.
Hydrogen may be plentiful, but it has some hurdles to overcome before it can be widely adopted. Learn more here about the technologies that will enable the hydrogen revolution.
How should fast-growing economies in Asia balance their rapidly expanding need for electricity with their goal of cutting emissions? Urban density and geography make large-scale wind and solar farms difficult in some areas, but Malaysia may have an answer. Southern Power Generation turned to GE Gas Power’s advanced turbines, which can spin natural gas into lower-carbon electricity. In February SPG became the first power producer in the world to use a pair of GE’s 9HA.02 turbines to generate electricity. And in March, GE announced it has secured another Malaysian order for two more turbines in the 9HA family.
Gas for growth: It’s welcome news for Malaysia, which is targeting a 45% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030. The SPG plant is located in Pasir Gudang, an industrial city at the southern tip of Malaysia’s peninsula, just a few miles from Singapore. In general, the carbon footprint of a natural gas power plant can be 60% lower than that of a coal plant, according to a recent report published by GE.
The hulking blue edifice of the Martin Drake Power Plant does not top most tourists’ to-do lists when they visit Colorado Springs, Colorado. But it could soon serve as a blueprint for energy providers seeking to cut their carbon footprint and bring more renewable energy online. Colorado Springs Utilities, which had planned to decommission the coal-burning plant in 2035, was able to accelerate its plans by more than a decade thanks to six innovative GE gas units the utility expects to turn on next year. Once the GE gas units are up and running, Springs Utilities, as it’s known locally, forecasts CO2 emissions will decline 80% by 2030 — a big win for the community. Another big win? The cost of power production should also fall as the utility shuts down the 40-year-old Drake plant, benefitting local customers.
Straight aero: The six innovative gas units at the center of this deal are the LM2500EXPRESS. They are so-called “aeroderative” turbines because their beating heart is technology GE originally developed for the CF6 jet engine. The units can ramp up very quickly — just like lifting Air Force One, which uses four CF6 engines — and can also quickly power down. The GE turbine’s ability to generate power on demand within minutes makes it an effective bridge for utilities seeking to move away from coal and use more wind and solar power — which is all part of GE’s larger gas and renewable power strategy. “As we take on more renewable power from wind or solar, there’s volatility,” says Thomas Cook, managing engineer for Colorado Springs Utilities operating engineering group. “We need to have units that are responsive and able to fill any gaps to ensure the reliability of our system is solid.”
Renewable energy is growing at great speed. By 2040, according to the International Energy Agency, wind and solar are expected to add 74% of net new generation capacity around the world. But what if they could expand even faster? What if you could store megawatts generated on a windy and sunny Sunday, when the power may not be needed, and release it on Monday morning as factories open for business? Add in smart software that acts as a traffic cop and sends power — either on the grid when demand is high or stores it in big batteries — and you can get closer to making renewables available on demand, regardless of the weather or the time of the day.
The next frontier: That’s the idea behind a big, new solar project in upstate New York. GE Renewable Energy announced in March it has been selected to build what is expected to become the largest hybrid solar energy storage system in the state. The owner and operator, Convergent Energy + Power, will place the system at three rural locations near Lake Ontario. It is planned to be capable of handling 123 megawatt-hours of energy, enough to supply the equivalent of 5,400 U.S. homes. “Hybrid is the next frontier in renewables,” says Mike Bowman, chief technology officer of GE’s Renewable Hybrids business. “It’s a paradigm change driven by technology development and market development.” Bowman says GE is in a position “to make a huge impact and be a leader in the space." “We’ve got the right horsepower, the right people, the capabilities, the connections and the brand. We’re excited about it.”
Australia’s grid is at a crossroads. The country has relied on coal to generate its power for decades, but as coal is cycled out, the country needs other sources of energy to replace it. It plans to build 26 to 50 gigawatts of new wind and solar facilities and — to smooth out swings in renewable generation caused by the weather — add another 19 GW of power plants that run on natural gas and batteries that can step in when the wind stops blowing. One powerful energy storage solution involves pumped-storage hydropower.
The water under the hill: Pumped-storage hydro utilizes a relatively simple setup: two connected lakes, one elevated above the other, and a set of turbines, generators and pumps that shuttle water between them. In favorable conditions, excess energy from wind and solar farms can turn the giant pumps and push water up to the higher reservoir. When demand on the grid spikes, the operators can open the gates, and gravity will take the water downhill through turbines and generate more electrons for the grid. “You’re creating a giant battery that you can literally use on a rainy day,” says Martin Kennedy, head of sales for hydropower at GE Renewable Energy in Australia. With two new agreements signed last year, GE Renewable Energy and Australia are diving headfirst into a future driven by pumped hydro.
Conceived by the utility giant RWE, the Sofia offshore wind farm is expected to generate 1.4 gigawatts off the coast of England when it comes online in the middle of the decade. GE Renewable Energy’s Grid Solutions division struck a deal last fall, together with Sembcorp Marine, to bring electricity onshore from Sofia through a 220-kilometer-long subsea cable. In September, GE and Sembcorp signed the full contract for the transmission system, which includes both the offshore converter platform and onshore converter station.
Castle in the sea: Bringing electricity onshore involves huge, impregnable offshore fortresses called converter stations, which stand in the middle of the sea, pool the electricity generated by the dispersed turbines, and package it for transmission via an undersea cable. GE has plans to build one of the most powerful and most remote offshore converter stations in the world, an ambitious undertaking that relies on expertise the company has gained over the years at its research park in Stafford, England. The heart of the station will be a system of valves to convert the alternating current from the turbines to high voltage direct current (HVDC) for efficient transport; the brain of it will be sophisticated digital controls that give operators a comprehensive view of the entire system.
As we mentioned above, sources of renewable energy like wind and solar farms are expected to add the majority of net new generation capacity over the next decades. But that also means that when winds die down and the sun sets other resources will need to step up to make sure there’s always enough power on the grid to meet demand. Last fall, GE Gas Power published a report on how natural gas and the latest generation of gas turbines can be just the solution that renewables need to ease their growth. “Think of the gas turbines as a shock absorber that’s balancing the demand on the grid,” says Brian Gutknecht, marketing leader at GE Gas Power. “I have demand that’s varying, I’ve got supply from renewables that’s varying, and the gas turbine that’s in between balancing constantly: up and down.” Another cool thing about those gas turbines? Gas isn’t the only fuel they’ll burn.
Mix and match: Switching from coal to gas can reduce emissions by up to 60%, but that’s just the beginning. Another big switch could be from gas to hydrogen. The most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen could yield zero CO2 emissions. GE’s gas turbines need only minor modifications to use hydrogen in combination with natural gas or on its own. The 485-megawatt plant in Hannibal, Ohio, for instance (see above), will start burning a blend of natural gas and hydrogen, and aims to transition to 100% hydrogen by 2030.