Fuel Flexibility

Transforming Local Windfalls into Global Trends

August 16, 2016 - By: Jeff Goldmeer, Gas Turbine Fuel Flexibility Manager

The use of fossil fuels for power generation, specifically natural gas, received a new boost with the 2015 announcement by Eni that it discovered a new supergiant gas field in the Mediterranean Sea. Initial estimates indicated that this field could have as much as 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. 

The deepwater deposit in the Zohr Prospect may hold 30 trillion cubic feet of gas, equivalent to 5.5 billion barrels of oil. Image credit: Eurasian Business Briefing

That’s a lot of natural gas. 

To put this into perspective, the US Energy Information Agency estimates that Egypt consumed approximately 1.96 quadrillion BTUs – or roughly 1.7 trillion cubic feet – of natural gas in 2012. So, at current rates of consumption, this would add roughly 15 years of supply to Egypt’s reserves.   

Details on the exact composition of the gas in the new field have not been released, so for now we don’t know if the field consists of mainly dry or wet gas. Wet natural gas contains a significant fraction of non-methane hydrocarbons – like ethane, propane, and butane. These other gases are sometimes labeled as natural gas liquids or NGLs. Conversely, dry gas contains little to none of these other hydrocarbons. This is important as these other gases are typically stripped from the natural gas for use in other applications.  

Why is this so important?

While we most typically think of gas turbines being fueled by traditional natural gas, they can also run on a wide range of alternative fuels. Since fuel costs are the largest annual expense for a power plant, developers and fuel suppliers have realized that having large, nearby quantities of ethane or propane is an opportunity to deliver electrical power at reduced cost. 

In the US, the increased availability of ethane and propane at reduced prices is creating new opportunities.  A number of companies have announced plans to build or have expanded existing facilities to be able to export ethane and/or other NGLs. For instance, earlier this year, INEOS exported 27,500m3 of US shale gas ethane, marking the first time that US shale gas has ever been imported into Europe. The import of shale gas will complement the reducing gas feed from the North Sea, and will be used in the production of plastics and/or petrochemicals.

The INEOS Intrepid, the world’s largest LNG multi-gas carrier, leaving the Marcus Hook terminal near Philadelphia, PA (US) carrying first shale shipment to Rafnes, Norway. Image credit: INEOS

The availability of ethane and NGLs is also driving interest in using these hydrocarbons in combination with natural gas for new power plants in the US. And the idea of using the non-methane components of natural gas for power generation is not limited to the United States. 

In 2013, the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA) announced a plan to convert a number of existing GE gas turbines to operate on liquefied propane gas (LPG), reducing fuel costs by 30%. The first shipment of LPG arrived on St. Croix in October 2015 to support commissioning of the gas turbines, which is expected to be completed later this year.  Once completed, these turbines will power the Richmond power station using propane and begin producing cleaner and cheaper electricity for customers. 

The Saudi Electric Company announcing that the Green Duba ISCC power project will use condensate as a power generation fuel is another good example of the use of alternative fuels.  (Although definitions vary, a condensate is generally an NGL recovered from a gas well.)  This announcement in early 2015 again showed the fuel capability of GE’s F-class gas turbines. 

What does this all boil down to?

The ability of gas turbines to effectively operate on newly available and abundant fuels could turn local windfalls into global trends—creating greater value for your customers. 

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Jeff Goldmeer is the Gas Turbine Fuel Flexibility Manager for GE Powers’ Gas Power Systems business.
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