Turbine engines may power state
LOS ANGELES _ California, New York and other states scrambling to head off an expected summertime power crunch are looking toward the same turbines that power commercial jetliners.
The quest for medium-sized power generators also is boosting business at General Electric,
Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney, companies that otherwise build engines for Boeing jetliners.
At GE, for example, revenue for the division that transforms the turbines into power-generating engines has grown from $410 million when GE bought it in 1998 to an expected $2 billion this year.
The waiting list for a GE LM6000 generator has grown to a year since summer, company officials said.
Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney, which makes a “twin-pack” of two Boeing 737-derived generators, also has seen demand soar.
“We are looking at building over 100 this year, as opposed to a couple dozen a few years ago,” spokesman Mark Sullivan said.
From 1998 to 2000, revenues in Pratt’s power systems division more than doubled, Sullivan said.
The California Energy Commission is promoting use of the engines as part of the state’s plan to add1,000 megawatts of power to be generated at peak demand times _ 5-9 a.m. and 5-9 p.m. _ this summer.
Other plants used to meet that goal run on diesel. Such “peaker” engines generate small amounts of power, roughly 50 megawatts each, and run for only a few hours at a time.
The turbines made by GE and the other companies burn natural gas instead of airplane fuel but otherwise are nearly identical to an airplane engine.
“They take the front fan off, but the generator looks the same,” said Rick Kennedy, spokesman for GE Aircraft Engines.
Some of the demand for the engines is due to the power crunch affecting California and spreading throughout the Pacific Northwest.
But recent hot summers in the East and Midwest that have strained power supplies also have made them popular with utilities and other power generators in those regions.
“We have seen quite a demand for these kinds of units,” said Peter Gibson, vice president of sales for Rolls-Royce. “Demand out West is just one of the things we have seen. A lot of independent producers are looking for power immediately.”
The New York Power Authority has ordered 11 GE generators that will be running in New York and Long Island by June. The authority expects to spend $500 million on the turbines, a cost that includes buying land and building the structures to house the engines, authority spokesman Mike Petralia said.
“Not an inexpensive task,” he said.
A Boeing 747 engine made by GE can cost $8 to $10 million. A power generator made with most of the same parts but modified to produce electricity costs $15 million to $20 million, GE officials said.
The turbines’ advantage is that they can be brought online quickly.
Building large power plants can take two to five years, but New York’s power needs, like those in California, are more pressing, Petralia said.
The looming summer deadline makes the jet-engine turbines more attractive.
“These can be done fairly quickly, by the standards of engineering,” Petralia said.
In California, energy officials predict demand at the hours of greatest use will outstrip supply from May through September by as much as 6,815 megawatts _ nearly seven times the energy needed to power a city the size of Seattle.
Gov. Gray Davis is trying to avoid blackouts by speeding the construction of plants to provide an additional 5,000 megawatts of power by summer. One-fifth of that amount is expected to come from the so-called peaker plants that burn only when demand is highest.
“It can sure fill this role very well,” said Bob Nelson, superintendent of thermal generation for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which is buying a GE generator. “The best indication that people think it could help the energy crisis is that the machinery is getting difficult to get nationwide.”
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