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Project: Energy Policy and Environmental Technology: The Development of Natural Gas Turbine Technology in Power Generation

Research Team: Darren Unger, Howard J. Herzog, Richard Tabors and David Marks

Sponsor: CRIEPI

Year: 1999

Gas turbines have emerged as a strong force in the power generation market.  Gas and combined cycle power plants dominate new orders from electricity generators and have displayed a surge of market growth during the past decade.  This recent success followed the historical development of gas turbines from the military jet engine research, their emergence into the peak power market, and a gas turbine industry slump during which no gas turbines were ordered in the US.  The causes for the recent improvements and successes of gas turbines are analyzed so that lessons learned my benefit emerging and future energy technologies.

The new improvement of the past decade can be explained by the way four driving forces interacted to lead to gas turbine success.  The first major cause of gas turbine success was technological advancement.  The second key to success was natural gas availability, which made gas-fired power plants feasible.  The third driver was environmental policy, which led to increased regulation of plant emissions to the relative benefit of gas turbines over coal power plants.  Finally, electric restructuring played a large role in spurring the gas turbine market.

The success of gas turbine power generation can be explained by the convergence of technical R&D with fuel availability, environmental policy, and electric restructuring.  As a result, it can be seen that R&D alone does not ensure success; it requires favorable circumstances and policies as well.  This thesis develops a series of criteria for evaluating energy conversion R&D spending:

• It is important to have a sufficient basic research and technology base upon which to build.  The military aerospace industry provided this for gas turbines.

• Until the interaction occurs, R&D can be sustained by niche or alternative markets.  For gas turbines this included commercial aviation and the peak power market.

• While it is hard to predict the future, there needs to be at least a plausible scenario of the interaction of technological innovation, market forces and policy conditions that will make the technology attractive to a larger market.  As the 20th century comes to a close, these forces have converged for gas turbines.

Unger, D., "Energy Policy and Environmental Technology: The Development of Natural Gas Turbine Technology in Power Generation," M.I.T. Masters Thesis, (1999).

Unger, D. and H.J. Herzog, “Comparative Study on Energy R&D Performance: Gas Turbine Case Study”, August (1998). <PDF>