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Journey into the unknown

GE celebrated a “new era” for the power industry in September as its new H System reached commercial operation at Baglan Bay. But these are difficult times in which to bring new technology to market, writes Siàƒ¢n Green.

GE Power Systems officially launched the commercial operation of Baglan Bay power station in Wales in September, marking it not only as a major milestone, but also as an “industry-changing” event. “As the most powerful, most efficient and cleanest combined cycle power plant in the world, the launch of this machine marks a major milestone for GE Power Systems and, we believe, the global power generation industry,” said John Rice, president and CEO of GE Power Systems.

Baglan Bay, near Port Talbot in south Wales, UK, is the commercial demonstration site for GE’s H System gas turbine technology ࢀ“ the first in the world capable of achieving 60 per cent thermal efficiency in combined cycle. And while its commercial operation is certainly a major milestone for GE, the impact that it will have on the industry may not be seen for several years.

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GE is under no illusions about the market for the H System and the current state of the power generation market in general. Although the company is expecting to see growth in parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, orders for power generation equipment will remain flat until 2005. It is predicting another year of decline in the USA, where reserve margins have reached 28 per cent, according to Rice.

Overall, the company expects that new orders for power generating equipment world-wide will total 50 GW in 2003 and the same in 2004. This year, GE Power Systems’ sales are expected to reach $18-19bn, down from $23bn last year.

In such a market, it is hard to see where a large, advanced gas turbine system such as the H will fit in ࢀ“ large, cash-rich utilities with significant load growth are the only likely customers, and there aren’t many of these around. In this sense, commercial operation of the H System has come at a bad time, but GE is philosophical. “We are prepared for this to take a while,” said Rice. “In some places it might be three to five years before we see any load growth but GE will stick with the technology and we are comfortable with this. We will have the technology when people need it.”

These tough market conditions, together with competition brought on by market liberalization, also mean that GE’s customers are setting tougher standards. Above all else, they demand reliable equipment, and as a result are more likely to pick proven technology over something as cutting-edge as the H System ࢀ“ even if it is at the expense of efficiency. The problems experienced by Alstom during the introduction of the GT24/26 machine are well documented and have also resulted in pressure from the insurance industry on reliability levels.

With this in mind, the 60 per cent thermal efficiency ‘milestone’ attained by the H has taken a back seat to the need to prove its reliability. In fact Baglan Bay cannot currently reach a thermal efficiency level of 60 per cent because the steam turbine is not configured for this, according to Del Williamson, president of Global Sales for GE Power Systems. “We would need a new steam turbine and we know how to do this,” said Williamson. “The gas turbine has run at the efficiency levels needed to achieve 60 per cent, though,” he notes.

The H System installed at Baglan Bay has undergone five months of validation and testing, during which time it generated an output of 530 MW for the UK grid ࢀ“ a world record for a single shaft combined cycle plant. The machine was instrumented with 7000 sensors and some 12 tera-bytes of data were collected and analysed. On conclusion of the tests, the instrumented components were removed and replaced with commercial non-instrumented components, and the system is now being restarted for full commercial operation.

One of the main challenges with the H System is the high firing temperature of 2600à‚°F (1400à‚°C) ࢀ“ some 400à‚°F higher than the melting point of most alloys. While this enables the machine to reach high efficiencies, it requires the use of steam cooling, and advanced materials and coatings. The testing process validated the H System’s closed loop steam cooling, and demonstrated the advanced materials under the high firing temperature, says Scott Donnelly of GE’s Global Research Center.

GE knows that it cannot afford to make mistakes in bringing the H to market. The company will therefore use Baglan Bay to validate the H, demonstrate its reliability and gain the acceptance of the industry. It is also naturally keen to point out the amount of testing that the H has undergone, not just at Baglan Bay but throughout the development process, which began in 1991, and the fact that much of the H System design is based on proven technology. The machine is, says GE, “the most thoroughly tested industrial gas turbine in GE’s history”.

Nevertheless, Rice seems acutely aware of GE’s own fallibility, and points out that commercial operation at Baglan Bay is not so much a destination or a result, but more part of a journey. “Now we have to convince ourselves to avoid complacency,” he said. “It helps for us to remember that the road to success is littered with the bodies of formerly great companies … Companies that had the best technology, best products, or were just the best at what they did.”