In June 2016, a power plant just outside Bouchain, a town in the north of France, had its moment in the sun when it broke the Guinness world record for fuel efficiency. Not only did the plant’s newly installed GE gas turbine hit a net efficiency rate of 62.2 percent, but the turbine could also ramp up to full power within a half an hour, an important factor for utilities bringing on the grid electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar farms.
But as any engineer can tell you, there’s a difference between running a piece of equipment in perfect conditions and running it in the real world. The turbine — called 9HA.01 — and its variations still had to prove itself in different environments to meet the needs of customers in France, Russia, Pakistan, Japan, Texas and elsewhere.
But the wait is over. All of the HA turbines have kept pace with their record-breaking cousin in France. “Last week, the 10-plus operating HA turbines collectively completed 30,000 hours of continuous operation — the equivalent of roughly three and a half years of [power] production,” says Guy DeLeonardo, general manager of gas turbine products for GE Power. “We showed that the machine is living up to the high expectations set by the French world record.”
DeLeonardo says it’s important that power plants with HA turbines have surpassed 62 percent efficiency in the field. Gross efficiency, a higher number sometimes referenced during sales pitches, doesn’t account for all the auxiliary power it takes to operate the power plant. GE’s net efficiency — which better defines the output a customer can sell — won the Guinness World Record at 62.22 percent in 2016. DeLeonardo’s team says that today the number is closer to 64 percent net efficiency and that it could reach 65 percent by the early 2020s. Each percentage point of efficiency translates to tens of millions of dollars for customers.
The new turbines also continue to surpass other industry benchmarks, DeLeonardo says. The Bouchain plant, for example, runs more reliably than its competitors, functioning 99.5 percent of the time as opposed to the industry norm of 97 percent. That small distinction can make a big difference at power plants that could lose millions of dollars every time they go offline for even just a few hours.
They also produce fewer carbon emissions. For a 1,000-megawatt power plant using HA turbines, the annual estimated emissions savings compared with an older coal-fired plant of the same size is the equivalent of removing more than 800,000 U.S. cars from the road.
That effect is magnified by the HA turbines’ ability to play well with renewable energy. When neither sun nor wind is available for power, the nimble HA turbines enable gas plants to quickly pick up the slack. “Think grid stability,” DeLeonardo explains. “The power flow will not be affected by a cloud because you can hit the button and the lights stay on.”
The size of the turbine is also helping keep money in utilities’ pockets. Since the HA is the largest operating turbine available, power plants can replace two older turbines with a single HA turbine which, like buying in bulk at Sam’s Club, helps reduce the cost per kilowatt of capacity. Turnkey costs with using the HA gas turbine can be as low as $400 per kilowatt, compared with $600 per kilowatt for plants that use smaller gas turbines.
All of these factors came into play in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas last month, where two HA plants located between Houston and Dallas are generating 2,200 megawatts of power. The storm knocked out power transmission, leaving 300,000 homes without power at its worst point. Despite the erratic patterns of supply and demand that ensued, the plants were able to operate at full capacity and provide readily available and affordable energy. It’s a tiny consolation prize amid overwhelming destruction and loss. Nevertheless, sometimes small blessing go a long way during trying times.