Grid-connected solar and wind installations are becoming increasingly common, but they come with a problem: Existing coal and natural gas power plants have a hard time quickly scaling production up or down to accommodate the fluctuations in availability of sunshine and wind, which leads to a lot of wasted energy. GE's FlexEfficiency 50, a 510-megawatt natural gas power plant, changes all that.
The plant can ramp up energy production at over 50 megawatts a minute (twice the rate of industry benchmarks), and can power up to 600,000 E.U. homes. It's also comparable in price to standard combined cycle natural gas power plants.
The FlexEfficiency plant's innovative design is, perhaps surprisingly, inspired by GE's jet engines. For decades, jet engines have been built with nickel-based super alloys, which are designed to withstand high temperatures (this increases efficiency) and quickly cycle on and off. But historically, natural gas power plants have used less-efficient steel components, explains Paul Browning, vice president of GE Thermal Products. Now GE is taking that jet-engine construction and using it in a power plant—a change that has dramatically increased efficiency and flexibility.
Why does it matter that a fossil fuel-fired power plant is so efficient? The FlexEfficiency plant is designed to work with renewables—meaning it can produce power quickly when solar and wind production is low, and it can quickly scale down production when renewables are available.
Don't look for the FlexEfficiency plant in the U.S. anytime soon—the first iteration of the technology is designed for countries operating at the 50 Hz power frequency. This includes Europe, China, India, Africa, Australia, parts of the Middle East, and most of Asia—but not the U.S. Eventually, the U.S. will get its own 60 Hz version of the plant. "This will have great applicability in the U.S.," says Browning.
The FlexEfficiency 50 will start rolling out in 2014.