Black Start – Introduction
Since its introduction toward the end of World War II in jet aircraft, the applications of gas (combustion) turbines have been myriad. Some uses have been successful, others have not. In most cases, the failures were not because of ill-conceived applications. More often it was a case where they were “ideas whose times had not yet come.”
Note: For the most part herein, I will refer to these types of prime movers as gas turbines, even though some only burn liquid fuels. Also, some in the industry use the term combustion turbines, but my GE experience makes me prefer the word gas.
Gas turbine applications in some industries were tried in earnest but never came to fruition. For instance, even though the Union Pacific Railroad gave gas turbine locomotives a good look by ordering a fleet of units from ALCO with GE engines in the late 1940s to propel cargo and passenger trains. However, high-frequency whining from the compressors limited their use to “open spaces” of the far western United States or Canada. Out in the plane states and mountains ranges, air-borne noise was less of an irritant to far away townships. What if compressor noise attenuation had been made an engineering design priority, using inlet silencing, would turbo-powered trains then been allowed to pass through more densely populated city areas?
Automobiles were another potential application in the 1950s and 1960s. A British company named Rover tried gas turbines in sedans and commercial vehicles. What if the Rover Jet One car had been victorious in road racing? Suppose the Rover BRM race car actually won the 24 Hours Le Mans race in 1965, defeating the Ferraris and Porsches instead of finishing a respectable tenth? Certainly gains in reducing fuel consumption made the Rover race cars more efficient when regenerators were installed in the turbine exhaust. Regeneration was used to recover the exhaust heat to pre-heat compressed air entering the combustor. Here’s another scenario: Suppose the Granatelli-designed Studebaker gas turbine car, piloted by the famous racer Parnelli Jones, had actually won the Indianapolis 500 in 1967, instead of slipping to fourth place due to a minor gearbox component failure? Had this part not failed, having nothing to do with the gas turbine power plant and the turbine car taken the checkered flag, would turbine- powered vehicles (trucks and other long-distance carriers) become popular for cross-country transportation? In racing they say: “what wins on Sunday, sells on Monday!”
Air travel was another thing in the 1950s. Former Pan American Airways CEO, Juan Trippe, favored jet-powered commercial airplanes and did much to propel a reluctant transportation industry. Trippe envisioned non-stop, international air travel. He forced the industry away from turbo-prop aircraft. This act of “arm twisting,” along with the fear of European competition, made companies like Boeing, Lockheed, General Electric and Pratt-Whitney develop jet engines for commercial aviation. Decades later, after the advent of such innovative aircraft as the Boeing 747 and the supersonic Concorde, the traveling public thinks nothing of hopping cross-continent airplane and even nonstop from New York to Beijing, a 14 hour trip. The gas turbine (jet) has been an obvious commercial aviation success story.
Note: I got to fly on one of the first Pan American 747 from Hong Kong to Tokyo in 1971. What a thrill that was. I had just spent 5 months installing two GE gas turbine PPP north of Saigon, Vietnam. It was a treat to fly on the maiden flight in the Far East.
It took a couple of decades for gas turbine electric power generation to come into its own. Perhaps no event in history has had more impact on emergency electric power generation by gas turbines as The Great Northeast Blackout of November 1965.
Fig. I-1: Dark Days – Transmission Lines Suddenly “Darkened” During a Blackout
Gas turbines with “black start” capability were in high demand for a decade thereafter. The bottom fell out in the USA, however, with the Arab Oil Embargo of the winter of 1973 and 1974. These two events form bookends for the history books for the highpoint era for gas turbine emergency power installations. For the next ten years, however, island countries of the Caribbean were not deterred. In the middle of the decade, the 20 megawatt GE frame 5 package power plant became very popular for its rating and quick response to needs of a region plagued by frequent hurricanes. The Bahamas, Virgin Islands, Aruba, Curacao and other islands placed orders with GE, Westinghouse and others. Oil-producting countries like Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico, ordered hundreds of GE frame 5 and Westinghouse 251 units.
The impact of the gas turbine on power generation in the USA took another decade to recover. It wasn’t until the advent of co-generation (co-gen) power plants in the early 1980s that gas turbines made a comeback as an alternative power sources. Co-gen plants were constructed next door to “steam hosts” like paper mills, salt plants and other industrial facilities. Combined-cycle (CC) plants became popular as well as in the 1990s. The electricity that was simultaneously produced was more of a byproduct in co-gen applications than a primary raison d’etre. Furthermore, as efficiencies improved for combined-cycle plants of the 1990s, reaching targets above 50 percent, so gas turbines became the method of choice for many electric utility companies and industrial plants. Siting for nuclear power, as well as coal-burning plants, took far longer to be realized, as compared to gas turbine generation. Nowadays, the reference has changed from co-generation to combined heat and power (CHP).
So we come to these questions when we consider the gas turbine as a prime mover. What if can be a fun game to play, as follows:
• What if… the problem of compressor noise had been resolved, permitting trains to operate in cities, would gas turbines have become common prime movers for trains?
• What if… Rover gas turbine cars of the early 1950s proved to be a viable means of day-to-day transportation in England, would we all be driving turbine cars today?
• What if… the Northeast Blackout of 1965 had been averted? Would GE and others have abandoned research and development of the gas turbine?
• What if… the Rover BRM turbine-powered car won the 24-hour race at 1965 LeMans, would enduro-type cars be all gas turbine powered today?
• What if… Andy Granatelli’s gas turbine car actually won the Indy 500 in 1967? Would Indy-car engines be all gas turbines today? I repeat here the adage in racing: “What wins on Sunday, sells on Monday.”
• What if… the Arab-Israeli war had not resulted in the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 – 1974? Would the OPEC countries have had far less influence on oil consuming countries today?
Sometimes forces more powerful than just “good ideas” come into play. However, it is still fun to play What if…