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A Light in the Dark: GE Turbine Helps Power Cogeneration Plant at Princeton through Blackout

Hurricane Sandy’s winds uprooted lives and wiped out power lines from Delaware to Massachusetts, breaking branches, knocking down trees, and driving a devastating ocean surge. In New Jersey, which took the brunt of the storm’s fury and saw the largest blackout of all the states impacted, more than 2.6 million outages to homes and businesses were reported.

In the heart of this widespread darkness, though, there was an area where the lights stayed on. The Princeton University cogeneration plant kicked into action when the electricity from the local power grid went out.

The Princeton plant is using a GE “aeroderivative” turbine (it has a modified supersonic fighter jet engine inside.) It began operating in 1996 and on a normal day it is supplying all the steam and half of the electricity to the university community of approximately 12,000 people. (The other half still comes from PSE&G, the local utility.)

Fighter Power: GE’s LM1600 aeroderivative gas turbine is based on technology developed for the F404 supersonic fighter jet engine (above). These engines power some 4,000 F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets.

During the storm, when the utility stopped transmitting electricity to the substation that regularly powers the campus, the Princeton plant’s three-person crew sprang into action. They stepped up the facility’s electrical generation and shut down power to a small number of lower-use areas like administrative spaces.

While hundreds of campus maintenance workers were repairing storm damage, three shifts of plant personnel worked through the storm and its aftermath, keeping the electricity flowing throughout the campus while much of the surrounding community remained without power because they had to rely on local utility companies.

“We originally built the cogeneration plant to reduce campus energy bills and provide reliable utilities,” says Ted Borer, energy plant manager at Princeton. “Its ability to serve the campus in ‘island’ mode made all the difference during the hurricane.”

At the heart of the cogeneration plant is a GE aeroderivative LM1600 gas turbine. Think of the turbine and others in its family as jet engines afraid of heights. GE engineers have built upon the company’s aviation roots and modified the jet engine technology to generate electricity. Instead of pushing a plane, the gas turbine spins a shaft that is attached to a generator. That unit produces the electricity.

But before the hot exhaust can escape, it is marshaled to do more work—heating water to produce steam for the campus’s heating and air conditioning systems.

Plant personnel worked without leaving campus for 56 hours during and after Sandy, according to a report from campus news. They rotated between operating the system, ensuring the campus load didn’t exceed capacity, conducting maintenance to prevent problems and sleeping when they could.

By that Wednesday night, two days after Sandy struck, PSE&G had electricity flowing to Princeton again and the next morning saw power fully restored to the campus.

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