Growing Role of Gas Turbines in Power Generation

GE developed the first jet engine in the United States in 1942, based on the Whittle jet engine that had been developed in Great Britain. Jet engines are a form of gas turbines, and it was only logical that an industrial, heavy-duty version would be developed.

The role of gas turbines has changed significantly since GE shipped its first industrial gas turbines in 1950; however, at the time, GE’s big financial bet was on Appliance Park, in Louisville, Kentucky, opening in 1951.

The Gas Turbine Department was established in the early 1950s as Ralph Cordiner, GE’s president, implemented his decentralization policy, eventually creating over 100 departments.

Each department was responsible for its business, with the Department General Manager acting as president of his business. While most decisions were made by the Department General Manager, it was necessary for him to obtain financing for major capital expenditures from the company’s board.

General Electric had always been conservative when making investments, insisting that investments were fully utilized.

For example, when the refrigerator department was moved from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Appliance Park, the DC Motor department moved from Lynn, Massachusetts, to occupy the space vacated by the refrigerator department.

The space in Lynn, formally occupied by DC Motors, was taken over by the Small Jet Engine department.

My first job as a manufacturing engineer after returning from active duty in the Navy, was to complete the installation of the shaft-line, that made shafts on which armature windings and commutators were mounted, for the new Kinematic, DC motor line.

GE’s conservative financial strategy contributed to the Gas Turbine Department’s strategy of licensing foreign manufacturers to build GE gas turbines.

The gas turbines of the ‘60s and early ‘70s were used around the world, primarily for driving pumps and compressors, and for local generation of electricity. Their role as an important method for generating electricity by utilities came later, though even during the ‘60s they provided about a quarter of America’s electricity.

Gas turbines even played a brief role powering Union Pacific locomotives for about fifteen years during the 1950s and 1960s.

A good example of how these early gas turbines were utilized was Aluminum Bahrain (ALBA). These Frame 3 and 5 units generated electricity for the aluminum plant, where bauxite is converted to aluminum using large amounts of electricity.

ARAMCO, in Saudi Arabia was a big user of these early gas turbine designs for driving pumps and compressors and generating electricity.

GE established its first physical plant in the Mideast when it established Middle East Engineering Limited, in Bahrain, in 1973. Bahrain was a new country and hadn’t yet establish its Companies Act, so it was necessary for me to meet with the Amir, Shaikh Isa bin Salman al Khalifa, to obtain a charter from him to establish MEEL.

MEEL Plant, Under Construction 1973, Photo By D. Dears
MEEL Plant, Under Construction 1973, Photo By D. Dears

In around the mid-1960s, GE licensed John Brown Engineering, Clydebank Scotland, and Nuovo Pignne, Florence, Italy, to make gas turbines of GE design, primarily for export to countries other than the US.

The gas turbine department was able to obtain royalties for the units sold by these foreign manufacturers, while increasing its capacity for building GE gas turbines without having to make large capital investments in the United States. The foreign manufacturers also increased GE’s ability to capture additional business where they had a presence that GE lacked.

The strategy was very effective, and increased GE’s worldwide market share.

While single cycle, or simple cycle, gas turbines began to be largely used for peaking purposes, and some base load generation by utilities in the 1960s, the first GE combined cycle 21 MW unit was installed at the Wolverine Cooperative in 1968.

A single cycle unit has a single gas turbine, driving a generator.

In its basic configuration, a natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) unit consist of a gas turbine driving a generator, with the exhaust gas from the gas turbine used to generate steam for powering a steam turbine that drives another generator. These units have efficiencies of around 65%.

This marked the true beginning of using gas turbines as a major base load source for generating electricity.

Around the same time, aero-derivative designs, based on jet engines, were introduced. These units were used for peaking purposes and for marine installations. Today, an aero-derivative design used by a utility, can be brought on-line in around fifteen minutes, which has become essential for backing up unreliable wind power.

Due to government regulations, natural gas wasn’t widely available for use for power generation until around the 1990s. Then around 2005, the price of natural gas skyrocketed, briefly making NGCC units a costly proposition, though the percentage of total electricity output from natural gas increased as new NGCC units built prior to the spike in natural gas prices came on-line.

But with the advent of fracking, the price of natural gas has come down dramatically, making NGCC units extremely cost effective.

History of Electricity Generation by Fuel Type, from EIA
History of Electricity Generation by Fuel Type, from EIA

Meanwhile, NGCC units were becoming larger. From the initial 21 MW, NGCC Wolverine unit in 1968, size increased steadily to around 100 MW by 1980, and 428 MW today. For comparison, a typical nuclear power plant is rated around 1,000 MW.

While this history has focused on GE, other players have also been involved. Siemens, that developed its gas turbine line in Europe, and then acquired the Westinghouse gas turbine business, is a major worldwide competitor. Mitsubishi is also a strong competitor for utility applications.

Other gas turbine manufactures, such as Solar, make somewhat smaller units for distributed power generation, and for driving pumps and compressors.

The gas turbine has been a terrific success story.

Today, however, there are areas in the United States where natural gas pipelines lack sufficient capacity to ensure that NGCC power plants will always be available.

Natural gas is used for home heating, and regulations dictate that homes get priority when there are inadequate supplies of natural gas due to a lack of pipeline capacity.

It’s entirely possible that NGCC power plants will have to be shut down if there is an unusually cold winter, especially in the Northeast. The closure of coal-fired power plants is exacerbating this problem.

Gas turbines still emit CO2, and it is only a matter of time before governments take actions curtailing their use.

For example, Europe has already tried to impose fees on airplanes powered by jet engines, due to their CO2 emissions.

The Sierra Club has declared war on natural gas.

While governments haven’t yet imposed penalties on natural gas power generation, because they are needed to replace coal-fired power plants that are being shut down, it’s inevitable, so long as governments believe CO2 cause global warming, for governments to impose regulations affecting gas turbine power plants.


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4 Replies to “Growing Role of Gas Turbines in Power Generation”

  1. Donn,

    I don’t think the 65% efficiency you mentioned is correct. I think the state of the art is right around 60% for now.

    Looks like 60.75% thermal efficiency was the world record as of sometime in 2011.

    On a tangentially-related note, I believe Dr. Per Peterson at UC-Berkeley is working on a very innovative design involving a fluoride salt-cooled reactor, powered with TRISO nuclear fuel, with plans to co-fire natural gas into a non-nuclear portion of the power generation cycle to boost efficiency and provide some peaking ability. That design is surely at least 11-13 years away from generating any power though, considering all of today’s regulatory processes and the best-case pipe dream scenarios for any of those to be improved.


    • Thanks for your comment and information.
      The published thermal efficiency numbers vary, but the 60.75% is probably better than my generalized 65%.