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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.

Content Discussion

Thomas Lord's picture
Thomas Lord
JOel: I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis. It just proves that ALL subsidies should be explicit - helps track the costs better. However, most of my concern on economic analysis regarding renewables is the reliability of the power for meeting on-demand power needs. If the renewables are not available for on-peak demand, then the same gas or coal fired systems will still be required to meet those demands. This, in my mind, means that the grid has to build multiple redundant systems. That is the cost structure I worry about. I have seen the Latin American systems with >35% hydro based generation finding they can not afford the carrying costs of the generation necessary to provide back up for the marginal rain years.

If renewables hit 10-15% in a region in the US, will the grid be able to meet a peak that occurs on very hot, muggy, parially overcast, calm day? I would prefer to have the grid costs and structures designed to avoid what would be a political and regulatory disaster.

Thomas Casten's picture
Thomas Casten
This welcome and usefull history of gas turbine efficiency has larger implications for a paradigm shift to decentralized energy. The most efficient turbines are the aeroderivatives in the 50 megawatt size range. Deploy them in a combined cycle and combined heat and power mode, recycling the waste heat and efficiencies reach over 90%. The economic efficiency can reach 100% as follows:

Campus thermal systems requiring cycling boilers produce thermal energy with 75% to 80% seasonal efficiency. For every million Btu's of heat recovered from a gas turbine CHP plant, 1.25 MMBtu's of boiler fuel are saved. Use the roughly 1,000 degree F exhaust to produce high pressure steam, extract more electricity with a back pressure steam turbine (combined cycle) and then recover 4000 Btu's per kWh of gas turbine generation to avoid 5,000 Btu/s of boiler fuel. If the transaction credits the electric generation with the avoided fuel, the economic heat rate drops into the 4,000 to 4,500 Btu/kWh range.

The many obsolete laws that were originally designed to speed electrification by creating monopoly protection work to hold back these on-site applications and thus hold back further efficiecy gains. Sadly, the same barriers make deployment of renewable energy more costly and lead to the need for price increases or subsidies versus conventional generation.

Policies that open up all decentralized energy will cause an ncrease in fossil efficiency and will increase deployment of renewable and recycled energy. This is a place where the pure economic types and pure environmental types should come together in joint support of decentralized energy.

Ken's picture
Thank you for helping put into perspective some of the issues surrounding subsidies for natural gas and renewable energy.

Readers interested in a comparison of subsidies for nuclear, wind, and solar power should download

It is highly doubtful that we would have any nuclear power today if it were not for early massive subsidies for its development.

Using just one example from this REPP report, consider the first 25 years of life for these power generation technologies:

Nuclear 1947 - 1971 $76 Billion in subsidies Wind and Solar 1975 - 1999 $5.6 Billion in subsidies

(non-military spending in levelized 1999 dollars).

Even with these small levels of subsidies, it is remarkable that wind power is as cheap as it is -- in Colorado new wind farms appear to be coming in at 2.5 to 3 cents per kWh in 15 year contracts.

Had wind and solar power received the same levels of subsidies as nuclear over their respectative first 25 years, perhaps wind and solar would be if not "too cheap to measure", at least cheap enough to resolve issues about electricity storage or backup for when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow.

Joel Gordes's picture
Joel Gordes
Dear All,

let me first off say how overwhelmed I am to the reaction to waht began as a verbal diatribe at a conference speaker and a later request by a member of the audience to write it up. It is defintely not my best work but does make a point on the importane of learning the history of energy which, like the technology itself, i find fascinating.

To Mr. Young, thank you for the reference to the Rocky Mountain Institute web site and their strategy on how we may move forward with fuel cells. Oddly enough, today I met with a small group including Amory Lovins to discuss just that question prior to his speech at a climate change conference in Hartford, CT. The fuel cell industry shows much promise but, like most technologies, the transition will not come overnight. It will take much work and overcoming many technical and financial barriers before fuel cells are ready for prime time even in the much touted [and I am one of the "touters"] niche markets for premium power.

To Mr. Lord, I could ot agree more with the nature of the subsidization as well as its length and if EnergyPulse would be so kind, I have netered another paper that partially addresses the dangers of subsidization. It was the wrong type of uncontrolled subsidization that really ruined the solar domestic hot water industry in this country through lack of standards and price targets to obtain the subsidies which lead to losss of consumer confidence even before the effects of the Reagan Administration took effect. Reagan really did it in, though. On the "reliability" of renewables, let me first say that it may be more proper to call tis "availability" as the "realibility" or its ability to function due to physical condition remains high BUT it may still not be "available" due to lack of sunlight, wind, waves, etc. Sure, this can be a problem in the most extenuating circumstances BUT we can plan for this as well and I do note that one great attribute of the gas turbine is that it can go from zero to full power in about 10 minutes [really less in some cases] and since a simple cycle GT is quite inexpensive in capital costs, it can be used when neccessary as a back up. Also, let us never forget that a gas turbine, itself, can run on renewable fuels and it may come abnout that gasified biomass-fired gas turbines or hybrid fuel-cell/gas turbine could become common in the future.

Mr. Casten. Sir I am honored and humbled that ypou would comment on this piece. Thank you. I agree with with all that you say on the use and efficiency of the aeroderivative gasturbines and their use in combined ehat and power applications. Actually, I am in the process of working toward our State's deficit reduction by emplying 1) conservation and load management in all State, municipal and stae funded buildings followed by CHP where-ever it can be incorporated. The money for deficit reduction would come up front from ESCo-type financing. I will also add that decentalized energy makes our energy security more robust than a centralized system--a topic I have already written on in these pages.

Mr. Regelson, the REPP article you cite by Marshall Goldberg is excellent as have been most all of the REPP publications. The subsidization issue will continue to be tossed around by both sides on the issue and so i think it behooves us to carefully look at the development paths of many technolvoies--energy and others--before we treat with disdain the subsidization that has made them possible--then again, there should be a point after which legitimate commercialization is able to take over. For this reason a defined "exit strategy" to the subsidization should be provided on the front end. As Mr. Regelsen implies, nuclear had no such strategy as witnessed y the continuing waste problem. As for those those who contiually mouth that the waste "problem" is "just" a poltical problem, i suggest oyu become a politican and try solving it.

Best to all, Joel N. Gordes

****Septimus ****van der Linden's picture
****Septimus ****van der Linden
Septimus van der Linden Brulin Associates May14/2003 Joel, from a verbal diatribe as a cnference speaker to a written account --not bad at all ! Very often some facts (historic) might be misplaced. First of all on the issues of "subsidies"-- there is not much that is not subsidized to-day , even the food that we eat and crops we export.

June 27 this year will be 100years ago when a young Norwegian engineer wrote the following in his diary: "I have made the world's first gas turbine which has given positive(excess) power!" Brown Boveri wanting to find an alternative to the steam turbine installed the first Industrial (commercial) gas turbine of 4 MW 17% efficiency in 1939, in a bomb shelter in town of Neuschatel in Switzerland (what did they know about the looming W.W 2) It was also 1939 when the German Heinkel HE 178 became the world's first jet powered aircraft(700km/hr).

Rolls Royce were the first to apply aero gas turbines for power generation--The 10 MW JT 3 of P&W installed by Worthington in Holyoke Mass. was a salvation to help get the grid going again during the 1965 blackout, which spurred the FT4 into prominence for the next 15 /20 years following that blackout.

Gas Turbines will be with us for another 30 years or more as cleaner low cost energy is mandated , improvements and developments will continue with spin-off's from NASA--DOE --DoD--FAA--subsidized /?--yes--but for a better quality of life as well. We should not sell Industry short --companies do have large R&D programs that invest heavily in GT Technology--this comes from their bottom line and not "funny money"

Thomas Casten has a point about CHP utilizing gas turbines--we need to correct some perspective--the 50 MW Aeroderivatives with high efficiency(LM 6000 and RR Trent), do not have exhaust gasses of 1000*F to produce high pressure high temp steam--these are more in the order of 780/840 * F. The frame machines with lower efficiency have more exhaust energy to recover.

Hope this contribute to your "diatribe" Sincerely--Septimus van der Linden

Joel Gordes's picture
Joel Gordes
Dear Septimus,

Thanks so much for the additional information and corrections and I think we all ought to crack open a bottle of champaign and toast the 100th anniversary of the operation of the first gas turbine with a net energy gain on this June 27th. I assume the young Norwegian engineer" was Brown Boveri and I will correct the date on that. I also appreciate the other high points you metion such as the 1965 Northeast Blackout and the subsequent use of the venerable aeroderivative FT4 for Black Start and peaker capabilities.

Best, Joel N. Gordes

Joel Gordes's picture
Joel Gordes
Dear James,

Sorry you took offense from my simple statement about a lack of an exit strategy for the nuclear industry and none was directly or personally meant. However, my own experience here in Connecticut has much to do with the debacle of the Millstone plants and the treatment of whistleblowers, most of whom still strongly believe in nuclear technology, by management who were eager to cut corners in a technology where you can't cut corners. I vaguely remember a Parade Magazine article that interviewed Adm. Hyman Rickover where he told the commercial nuclear industry to "shape up or ship out" and that was not a confidence-builder for me either.

Finally, there is the question of proliferation of nuclear weapons that gets us back into the "bomb" connection that James says had such a negative impact on the nuclear industry. I believe he is correct in his assumption of the negative connotations and, as a counter, many pro-nuclear advocates have said it was impossible to use separated reactor-grade plutonium for a bomb. A Sep/Oct 1995 issue [Vol. XXIV, #8] of the newsletter of the Center for Defense Information recounts that in 1962 the US DOE successfully tested a bomb made of such material that was roughly the yield of the Hiroshima device. While safeguards of such materials may have vastly improved with Homeland Defense efforts, the connection is still there in most peoples' minds. The nuclear industry, rather than compain about irrational fears by the public and politicians, must continue to police its own industry to prevent future confidence-eroding Millstone occurrances and become better communicators than they have been in the past.

Best, Joel N. Gordes

****Septimus ****van der Linden's picture
****Septimus ****van der Linden
6/10/03 Dear Joel, So it is almost a month since I visited this article, thanks for your comments, as a matter of fact I will be travelling on June 27 to Copenhagen, Demark, (Champagne will be in order) where on June the 30th I will deliver a keynote talk on GT's --"the future 30 years" at the ECOS 2003 International Conference on Efficiency,Costs, Optimization, Simulation and Environmental Impact of Energy Systems.( quite a mouthful). The young Norwegian engineer was Aegidius Elling born in 1861, he graduated from Christiania Technical College in 1881 and became a successful mechanical engineer, and filed his first gas turbine patent in 1884.

Mr Brown (an Englishman) and Mr Boveri (an Italian) formed a company in Baden Switzerland in order to win a contract from the City for a hydro powerplant. They fooled around with the Holzwarth explosion gas turbine, using a two stage Curtis turbine during the period 1909/13, with some considerable success.

Their TurboCompressor--axial compressor and turbine expander was the key element in the Houdry process applied to Refineries in the US from 1937 onwards. The Marcus Hook Refinery in PA retired their unit( actually produced 2 MW of excess power after meeting the Process air requirements) 50 years later in 1987 and installed a modern 50 MW gas turbine from Brown Boveri to burn waste (hydrogen) gas in a cogeneration system.

Incidently when BBC applied the "test"combustor used during shop tests, they ended up with the First 4MW Industrial power generating gas turbine I had previously mentioned.The Neuschatel site is a Historical Landmark in Mechanical Engineering dedicated by the ASME in 1985.

Gas Turbines, the History, the Current Status and the Future is and will remain fascinating. Sincerely , Septimus van der Linden (

Joel Gordes's picture
Joel Gordes
Hi Septimus,

I have just returned form a week long conference in Austin and am just catching up this morning. I will be with you symbolicly raising a glass on high to toast the gas turbine and all its early pioneers. Much thanks for filling me in on details of its development as we all [people reading these posts] learn from each others' experience. I only wish I could be there to hear your speech and I am sure many of us would love to see it if you would care to share it.

Best, Joel N. Gordes