The New Power Generation: These Engines Are Strong Enough to Move Mountains

February 24, 2014

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In the movie Fitzcarraldo, a music-obsessed Irishman played by Klaus Kinski successfully lifts a 300-ton steamboat across a Peruvian mountain range to build an opera house in the jungle. A Peruvian gas company recently completed a similar feat in the reverse direction, albeit with much less whimsy and a lot more planning.

The company, Transportadora de Gas del Peru (TgP), built a 700-mile long pipeline that carries natural gas from the Cusco region in the middle of the jungle in east Peru across the jagged mountain ranges of the Andes and down to Peru’s capital Lima on the Pacific coast.

The pipeline peaks at more than 13,400 feet (4,090 meters) - almost as high as the Matterhorn in the Alps. This umbilical cord supplies 80 percent of Peru’s energy, including the fuel to generate half of Peru’s electricity.

TgP is using 12 GE Waukesha gas engines to pump natural gas from the wells in Cusco, compress it and push it over the mountains. “The industry has been changed by this product,” says Edilberto Amaya, transmission manager at TgP. “Instead of using diesel or petroleum, we are currently using natural gas. It benefits us, first, because natural gas is clean, environmentally friendly and ecological. In addition, it’s cheaper.”

Ricardo Pereira, TgP’s general manager, says that the pipeline allowed Peruvian consumers of electricity to save more than $16 million from its installation in 2004 through 2012.

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A dozen GE Waukesha engines push natural gas up 13,000 feet though a 700-mile long pipeline across the Andes in Peru. The vital pipeline supplies the country with 80 percent of its energy needs.

The engines are running alone in the wilderness, disconnected from the rigid skeleton of the power grid. They are an example of a new dynamic power movement enabled by the growing availability of natural gas.

The shift from centralized power to localized electricity generation and distribution is transforming the energy landscape. So much so that GE has launched a new business in the space yesterday.

Called Distributed Power, the unit will bring together GE’s best technologies already operating in the field. They include the Waukesha and Jenbacher gas engines, and the so-called “aeroderivates,” a family of nimble gas turbines built around jet engine technology. The turbines have many applications and some serve as mobile power plants that can be quickly deployed in remote areas, such as the Algerian desert. GE will also invest $1.4 billion in new distributed power technology, research and services.

“The proliferation of distributed power systems is benefiting people and industries around the world because power is crucial to improving the quality of life and economic development,” said Lorraine Bolsinger, leader of the new Distributed Power business. “Our opportunity is greatest in emerging economies where large-scale power generation projects can be harder to finance and slower to develop than smaller, modular distributed power systems needed to serve rapid economic growth.”

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To be sure, GE is not turning its back on the grid. But many people will simply never be connected to it. In Kenya, for example, only between 16 to 18 percent of residents have access to electricity. This leaves some 35 million Kenyans dependent on kerosene, candles, and wood. That’s not the stuff that will set the economy on fire. Switching to distributed electricity generation is a quick and powerful solution similar to when parts of India, China and Africa embraced cell phones and leap-frogged telephone landlines a decade ago.

GE’s Jenbacher engines, for example, are already making electricity from biogas produced from garbage, cheese whey, and even discarded school lunches (see graphic above). They power a Cambodian rice mill, a Guinness brewery and a plant making anti-malarial equipment in Nigeria, and a town in the Philippines destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan last year.

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One of the structures that survived Typhoon Haiyan’s 150 mph winds was a green container that housed a Jenbacher in Bogo City in the Philippines. It became a place where locals came to recharge their phones, access the Internet, and get updates about their families.  Credit: Dan McDougall

Distributed power technology has also many applications in the developed world. Germany, for example, will lose as much as a fifth of its lifeblood electricity over the next decade as the country pulls the plug on nuclear reactors. A process called Energiewende will replace nuclear power with a combination of electricity from natural gas and renewables.

Bavaria’s town of Rosenheim, population 61,000, is getting ready. It is using five Jenbachers to produce a fifth of its heat and 40 percent of its electricity. They also help the locals to incorporate renewables into the grid. “Let me tell you, living in Germany, the sun isn’t out all the time,” says Scott Nolen, product line leader for power generating gas engines at GE Power & Water. “With this engine, you can really have that flexibility, to be able to start up, meet the demand and then shut down quickly without wasting a lot of fuel when the sun does come out.”

Nolen says that clusters of Jenbachers could generate over 100 megawatts of power and achieve power and thermal efficiency approaching 90 percent. “This is why distributed power is so attractive,” he says. “You have the capability to supply the engines all over the place where people need heat and power and get maximum efficiency out of every precious hydrocarbon molecule you have to burn.”

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This image shows a typical GE mobile power plant installation. This Algerian plant includes four TM2500 aeroderivative turbines. They can generate more than 70 megawatts of power.