Fire Power: GE Technology Turns Gas Flares Into Electricity

November 29, 2011

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Ridley Scott’s classic dystopian film Blade Runner famously opens on the skyline of Los Angeles in 2019, punctuated by a forest of hulking stacks belching fiery gas flares into the sky. Today, even the city’s biggest detractors would agree that Scott’s vision of the city will not come to pass. But the gas flares are a real global threat, wasting massive amounts of energy and pumping millions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere every year.

Drilling for oil releases gas and oil producers – particularly those in Russia, the Middle East and Africa – flare it off when there is no infrastructure to capture and sell it. According to a GE study published earlier this year, approximately 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas are wasted each year globally, generating some 400 million metric tons of CO2 emissions. This is roughly equivalent to all the gas used by U.S. households per year, or 23 percent of the total U.S. natural gas consumption.

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The climate impact of the flares is the same as the annual emissions from 77 million cars, or 34 percent of the U.S. car fleet. If converted to carbon credits at $15 per metric ton, the emissions would be worth $6 billion.

But there is an upside. Billions of dollars in wasted natural gas could be used to generate reliable, affordable electricity and yield billions more per year in increased global economic output.

GE engineers have already developed ways to capture this waste and turn it into clean power. “The technology to address the problem exists today and the policy reforms required are largely understood,” wrote Michael Farina of GE Energy, the author of the study.

For example, GE just announced a project to turn flare gas into clean energy in Nizhnevartovsk, in central Russia. The project will harvest natural gas from an oil processing plant that would be otherwise flared. The captured gas will fuel a GE Frame 9FA heavy duty gas turbine, which will power a GE steam turbine and associated generators to produce 400 megawatts of electricity.

Russia is a natural market for GE’s flare gas technology. The Russian government has indicated that it would start enforcing stiff gas flaring regulations. According a presidential decree, oil companies must utilize 95 percent of the natural gas they produce or face stiff penalties. The Reuters news agency quoted Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as saying that “oil companies that do not meet this requirement will pay huge fines.”

GE is also supplying Russia with 12 Jenbacher gas engines that will gerenate power from gas that used to be flared at an oil and gas production site in Western Siberia. Elsewhere, GE built a power plant using waste gas in Argentina, and plans for a power facility in Nigeria are under way.