General Electric Co. (NYSE:GE ) has developed  a new, 510-megawatt (MW), fast-ramp gas peaking plant – the first of its kind and destined to make integrating renewable energy far easier than it has been in the past.
The problem with renewable energy technologies is that they aren’t available all the time. The sun shines during the day, and wind is typically strongest at night, according to 2006 wind speed data maps from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, one of 10 U.S. Department of Energy labs vested in renewable energy and energy-efficiency research.
The NREL’s document, Western Wind and Solar Integration Study , contains a map reproduced by Bentek Energy (How Less Became More , page 22) showing this dramatic drop in wind speeds toward dawn. In fact, as the report shows, wind blows strongest from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., which perfectly offsets solar energy but hampers the traditional model for energy generation and delivery; power all the time, in designated amounts (demand management).
For plant owners and transmission grid regulators, integrating wind  and solar means quickly reducing (or increasing) the output of baseload power plants, which are not designed to speed up or slow down easily, or without incurring a fair amount of expensive wear-and-tear  on key systems.
The process  is damaging to coal - and oil-fired power plants, impossible with nuclear plants, and in all events creates unexpected and sometimes devastating system failures like brownouts or blackouts. It can also costs power plant owners dearly when they fail to anticipate the actual cost of generation while selling power on the open market.
This is what makes GE’s new fast-ramp peaking plant such a treasure. It is designed to work with renewable energy fluctuations, delivering a remarkable 61-percent efficiency  (the hallmark of baseload plants) as well as flexibility. It can go online at a rate of 50 MW per minute, meaning 10 minutes from a standstill to full power.
Developed from a hybrid between jet engine and gas turbine technology, the vast improvements GE has made on current gas peaking plants is surprising. Peaking plants, or peaker plants, are most often run on natural gas, which is every expensive and the best reason why peaking generation is usually reserved for periods of optimum energy demand , as during the hot days of summer. This is also why your AC costs you so much at times.
GE’s offering, called a FlexEfficiency 50 Combined Cycle Power Plant, is –at 510 MW – big enough to keep more than 350,000 average American homes cool in summer either in addition to, or instead of, baseload generation.
The new technology could save some power companies up to $2.6 million per year, GE says, through fuels savings of 6.4 million cubic meters of natural gas, and cut annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by more than 12,700 metric tons.
If carbon trading, or carbon taxes, ever become law in the U.S., the cost (per ton) will likely fall somewhere between $10 and $25, which means an additional savings of at least $125,000 per year.
The GE peaking plant, formally known as a cogeneration facility, is the end result of more than a half-billion dollars in research and development costs, and worth every penny as the renewable energy market poises for takeoff.
The best thing about the plant? It loads twice as fast as any peaking plant on the market. The worst? The peaker’s 50 hertz rating means it works in many parts of the world  except North America. GE is planning a 60-hertz version for this market at a later date.