The Gas Turbine Diatribe
So, you say that renewable energy and fuel cells are a pipe dream and that it takes huge subsidies that you disdain to make it even marginally competitive with fossil fuels fired in modern combined cycle gas turbines, huh? Well, maybe it's something worth knowing that the gas turbine was one of the most subsidized technologies in history and, in many ways, still is. I really don't mind that though. In fact, I am a big fan of gas turbines and know if they replaced every steam turbine we could come close to doubling our fleet power plant efficiency. This would reduce SOx and NOx tremendously and buy time to reduce climate change effects and cut imports of foreign oil. They even make renewable energy sources more practical and competitive by providing a rapid and efficient method to supply power when renewables are not available rather having to keep a steam turbine on expensive hot standby operation. In fact, many technologies that we use daily have been similarly subsidized but we just don't know it but, nonetheless, they have they made our lives increasingly better. Why, the first modern era gas turbine when it was fired up in 1910 by Brown Bovari was a whole 3% or so efficient. A lot of people like yourself would probably say that it ought to have been junked right there in favor of the steam turbine which did not have near as many problems associated with it. But a few persevered and people like Sir Frank Whittle in Great Britain and Hans Von Ohain in Germany who got initially modest grants [subsidies] from their governments to work on this fledgling technology during World War II [30 years after Brown Bovari!] and by the end of the war and one hell of a lot of subsidization dollars later there were gas turbines that were about maybe18% efficient but able to power aircraft to new speeds for combat use. Those engines were of poor quality, low efficiency, high maintenance and suffered from many other problems--early experiments were almost uncontrollable! But people like Reinout Kroon from the U.S. and Lyulka, Klimov, Mikulin and Kutznetsov and Shvetsov from the Soviet Union all persevered. Not only did they persevere but by this time the U.S. Air Force began to invest huge amounts of money into the development of the jet engine so that we would have superiority during the cold war. Development of combat aircraft and their engines during the Korean War and later in Viet Nam drove performance to new heights. It did not come easy, it did not come cheaply. One major program worth noting has been the Integrated High Performance Turbine Engine Technology (IHPTET---or pronounced as "ipa-tet") program, which with its predecessors and with other programs, in some years pumped almost $1 billion annually in real dollars. They helped to develop the metallurgy, single crystal casting techniques, higher compression ratios and many other innovative aspects required for high performance efficiencies topping out now over 40% in simple cycle application and expected to go even higher through advanced technology programs--also run by the government subsidies. Add to that the incredible power of military procurement, another form of subsidy, to buy thousands (if not hundreds of thousands by now) of these engines for use in bombers, fighters, transports and helicopters. Only in this historical context can we see how the "market pull" was able to reduce the cost manyfold over the years. Some of us hope we can do the same for renewable forms of energy and fuel cells. Without these actions by government subsidization most of us would still be barfing our way across the Sierra Nevadas in slow, uncomfortable propeller-driven planes [remember the Convair 220- been there, done that]. It made all our lives better. Many of these earlier jet engines later found application as the first aeroderivative gas turbines employed by utilities first as peaking and emergency units such as the FT-4 immediately after the great power blackout of 1965. Then came such gas turbines as the LM1500, LM1600, LM2500, FT-8, LM6000 and dozens upon dozens more that have and are currently finding their way into utility and private power usage and are what has, unbeknown to most, technologically driven electric competition. Their combination of high efficiency, small physical size, small capacity in MW and low cost made it possible for more businesses to go to supplement grid generation to gain ultra-high reliability, high power quality and eventually, in some applications, even lower cost than grid-connected power. Their development led to the practical application of their larger relatives, the combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) that can top out as high as 60% and even holds the promise for future gasified biomass usage--a renewable fuel---or even hydrogen. But remember, the development path for CCGTs was not short or without problems [take hum from lean mixtures, for instance] or without (dare I tell you this again?)---subsidies. So, while you may denigrate my renewable energy sources and fuel cells for many reasons (some even very well deserved) don't tell me some story about how much renewables and fuel cells are subsidized with the presumption that what you hold up in comparison is some creation of a totally free market system which I seriously doubt exists.