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The Real Point Break: Where The World’s Largest Gas Turbines Prove Their Mettle

In parts of the world like the US and Brazil where electric current oscillates at 60 Hz, there’s no larger and more efficient gas turbine than a machine GE calls 7HA. So efficient, in fact, that when it swallows and burns 3.3 tons of air mixed with natural gas – equivalent to 23 tanker trucks – out comes a mere 6.3 fluid ounces of pollution, a volume slightly larger than a half- can of soda.

This is just one finding from three months of intense trials held at GE Power’s $250 million testing center in Greenville, South Carolina, where a team of approximately 200 engineers pushed a version of the turbine labeled 7HA.01 well beyond the level of normal operation to pass validation testing. When the rigorous examination ended in November, the turbine, nicknamed Harriet by GE employees, passed with flying colors.

Overall, validation tests rate the reliability of the latest technology to make it easier for projects using the machines to secure financing, insurance and trust among customers making the critical decision to buy the huge turbines.

The off-grid, full-speed, full-load test bed used 4,500 sensors as engineers pushed the machine to operate in stressful conditions, such as running the turbine at 110 percent of its rated speed, mimicking a power surge in Mexico or extreme heat in Saudi Arabia. The turbine was tested operating at ambient temperatures ranging from minus 37 Celsius (minus 35 Fahrenheit) to 85 Celsius (185 Fahrenheit) — far beyond what it would encounter in service.

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GE Power’s off-grid, full-speed, full-load test bed used 4,500 sensors as engineers pushed the machine to operate in stressful conditions, such as running the turbine at 110 percent of its rated speed. Image credit: GE Power

Because the test bed is not connected to the grid, engineers can do things that might otherwise destabilize or damage the power network, such as replicating severe grid instability caused by the oversupply of power.

Jonathan Truitt, 7HA.01 product manager, says a crucial part of the testing was a new Axial Fuel Staging (AFS) fuel injection technology that included 3D printed parts. The result was better performance and lower emissions than previous combustion technology.

The testing facility is so demanding that GE needed to supplement existing infrastructure in the city of Greenville to support it. GE built a dedicated gasworks to store 180,000 gallons of liquefied natural gas to feed the test bed, and North America’s largest railroad turntable to maneuver the turbines inside it.

In 200 hours of testing, engineers collected nearly 5 terabytes of data. That’s more than all the data generated by 500 GE 7F.03 turbines operating in the field for one year, Truitt says.

When used in a combined cycle power plant configuration that couples one gas turbine with one steam turbine, the 7HA.01 produces nearly 420 megawatts (MW) of electricity — the equivalent power needed to supply more than 400,000 US homes. Another popular configuration, pairing two 7HA.01 turbines with one steam turbine, produces more than 840 MW of power.

Harriet’s combined cycle efficiency exceeds 61 percent— the Holy Grail in the industry. Turning such a large percentage of fuel into energy can significantly lower power production costs.

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Harriet’s combined cycle efficiency exceeds 61 percent— the Holy Grail in the industry. Turning such a large percentage of fuel into energy can significantly lower power production costs. Image credit: GE Power

The unit also achieved a “turndown rate” of less than 25 percent of its full capacity while staying within emissions standards (versus an industry standard of 45 percent). Low turndown rate is critical because it allows operators to reduce output during off-peak hours, helping to save significant operating costs. It also gives them the flexibility to ramp back up quickly without having to stop and restart the turbine.

The unit also showed it can start and provide full power in less than 10 minutes (compared to a standard of 15-20 minutes), giving operators added flexibility to quickly meet changing grid demand. All this is important for incorporating into the grid intermittent renewable sources of energy like wind and solar power.

The testing is done in three phases. Validation puts the turbine through its normal operations and tests its efficiency and reliability. The demonstration stage studies the machine’s fuel and load flexibility, and pushes the turbine beyond its limits. The growth phase is used to try out new parts that may be used in subsequent turbines coming off the production line. “We blew away the target goals for the 7HA.01 in the validation and demonstration phases,” Truitt says. “Now, we’re taking what we’ve learned and modifying the test stand equipment and engine so we can really push the limits.”

Truitt says subsequent tests will use GE’s next-generation combustion system, which has been in development for years, and explore the limitations of the turbine compressor, the part that squeezes the air inside the machine. “We’re going to go well beyond what we specified for the machine for — we’re going to push much more flow through it, fire it at higher temperatures, ramp it faster, start it up quicker. We’re going to push it to its limits to see where those limits truly are.”

The huge HA turbines come in two varieties. The 7HA is engineered for countries such as the US and parts of Asia where electric current oscillates at 60 Hz. The 9HA, which passed validation in 2014, is used in regions operating at 50 Hz, such as Europe and most of the Middle East. The first 9HA will begin commercial operation in France next year while the first 7HA gas turbines are expected to begin commercial operation in both the US and Japan in 2017.

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A 7HA.01 turbine during assembly in Greenville. Image credit: GE Power

The Harriet turbines combine materials developed by GE scientists for supersonic jet engines and other advanced technology — such as aerodynamic blades made from single-crystal alloys and thermal barrier coatings. GE calls this sharing of knowledge between businesses the “GE Store.”

To date, 23 HA units have been ordered among 78 that have been technically selected* for use in power plants being planned globally. GE spent more than $1 billion developing the new turbines.

*A technical selection is one of the first steps in developing a new power plant. It means that if the power plant is constructed and commissioned, it will use GE gas turbines. Following technical selection, a developer will proceed with securing financing, permitting and more.

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