Each one weighs nearly 400 tons, as much as two really big blue whales. Each one will cover thousands of miles by sea and land from the place of their birth in Belfort, France, to the farming town of Bhikki in Pakistan’s Punjab province. They are still fairly unknown, but once they reach their destination, they will affect millions of lives.
The giants that will be making their way to Asia are a pair of GE’s air-cooled 9HA gas turbines, the largest and most efficient gas turbines on the planet today. They’re capable of delivering greater than 61 percent efficiency – once the power-generation equivalent of running a four-minute mile – when used in a combined cycle configuration with steam turbines. They will become the beating heart of the Bhikki Combined Cycle Power electricity generation plant that’s being built by China’s Harbin Electric International for Punjab government’s Quaid-e-Azam Thermal Power Ltd. utility.
The new power plant will be a key weapon in Pakistan’s arsenal to roll back crippling electricity shortages that have plagued the country for years. “After a while you just have to find ways to work around the load-shedding,” says Muniza Junaid, a biosciences research associate who works at a leading Pakistani university. “It’s ironic. On the one hand, I work in one of the most advanced laboratories in the country, but on the other I can’t even heat up my dinner or run my washing machine when I want to.”
“Load-shedding” is the term locals commonly use to refer to electricity shortages. For many Pakistanis it’s a critical piece of information that determines how they plan their days, just like the weather forecast in the U.S. or Europe. Load-shedding gets ubiquitous in the sweltering summer heat, when power shortages often exceed 12 hours a day. “I don’t think you can understand what that’s like unless you’ve experienced it for yourself,” Muniza says.
Here’s what it looks like in numbers: Pakistan’s peak demand and supply gap hovers around 5 gigawatts, enough power to serve some 30 million local homes. The World Bank reported in its 2013 Enterprise Survey that more than 45 percent of local businesses identified electricity shortages as the main obstacle to doing business. The estimated value lost due to power outages tops 22 percent of annual sales.
No wonder fixing the power shortage is one of the top government priorities and a key to boosting the economy and improving the quality of life. The Bhikki plant will be the first power installation to use the turbines in the Middle East, and one of Pakistan’s most efficient. “Everything about this project is going to be larger than life – the world’s largest gas turbine, powering one of the region’s most efficient power plants, generating electricity for millions of households, as well as industry,” says Sardar Haider Khan, the local lead for GE Power & Water’s power generation products business.
The 9HA is the result of a $2 billion investment by Power & Water. It uses technology originally developed for supersonic jet engines. GE refers to this practice of sharing knowledge among different businesses the GE Store.
The turbine can reach full load in a mere 10 minutes – just a little longer than a plane getting ready to take off – and also offers the flexibility to run on a range of gas and liquid fuels. This is critical for fuel-importing countries such as Pakistan.
The two units at Bhikki will be operated on imported “re-gasified” liquefied natural gas (RLNG), but will be able to use substitute fuels if price or availability of RLNG starts to fluctuate.
Together, they will add more than 1.1 GW to the national grid by 2017 – the equivalent power needed to supply more than six million Pakistani homes. And that is a feat worthy of giants.