Microturbines are finding their niche

Hovering four meters above a closed airfield, former British military intelligence officer-turned entrepreneur, Richard Browning, is as close to a real-world Tony Stark (of “Iron Man” movie fame) as it gets. His arms face down at an acute angle, each strapped with two microturbines in addition to one on his back. Hot exhaust screams, propelling him upward. Movement of his arms to the left turns him right, and vice versa. He lands a few minutes later, out of gas.

As owner of Gravity Industries, Browning isn’t preparing for an existential threat to humanity as he would if this were the Marvel Universe. Nor is Gravity ever likely to be a market leader in microturbine sales. Capstone still holds this mantle (with more than 60% market share), followed by FlexEnergy. Combined, they make up 95% of the market, in terms of value. Mitsubishi Power is another microturbine innovator. And recent entrants include Bladon, Micro Turbine Technologies, UAV and Aurelia.

Richard Browning of Gravity Industries testing a unique application for microturbines.[/caption]

The consistent trend in the microturbine space is that the technology is growing more powerful, more fuel-versatile and more compact. This is leading to greater creativity, expanding the possible applications for these machines.

Microturbines are capturing some market share from reciprocating engines for combined heat & power (CHP), and are finding some opportunities in distributed energy generation. Additional niches include waste-to-power, hybrid fuel cells, pumps in natural gas fields, propelling small boats, refrigeration, telecommunications, range extenders for electric vehicles and for military vehicle fleets in remote locations.

Annual unit production of microturbines. Courtesy of Forecast International.[/caption]

Market trends

In the short term, the microturbine market is expected to suffer slightly through 2020, then recover to a steady annual total of approximately $70 to $80 million through 2029, according to Forecast International.

Unit production will suffer this year. But Forecast International projects a jump from the range of 600 to 750 per year to between 900 and 1,050 from 2021 to 2029. This leap is partly attributed to two European companies, Bladon and Micro Turbine Technologies (MTT), entering the market.

Bladon’s niche is telecommunications. Its clients include providers of cellular service in remote areas, such as parts of Africa and Australia. Its 12 kW MTG series microturbine runs on natural gas and can be monitored remotely. The company claims to reduce site visits by 90% and fuel costs by 30% compared to diesel counterparts. The microturbine is quiet, registering under 65 dB. It complies with stringent European standards for diesel engines.According to data from Forecast International, Bladon should produce around 2,400 units through 2029, making up about $33.36 million in production value over that period. That equates to a market share of 4.67%.

Bladon MTG series microturbine.[/caption]

MTT’s EnerTwin produces 3.2 kW of electricity for home and business application. It has heat as the primary output and electrical power secondary. MTT said it can operate as a stand-alone system, in a cluster of several systems, or in combination with one or more conventional boilers. The system currently runs on natural gas. However, new applications are under development that would demand the use of new fuels. The EnerTwin is currently being certified for use with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for use in areas without natural gas infrastructure, for example.

Forecast International predicts that MTT should sell around 2,450 units through 2029. That adds up to $19.6 million in value and a 2.74% share of the microturbine pie.

Aurelia, a Finnish company backed by university research, claims to have developed the most efficient microturbine to date (more than 40%). The A400 combines multi-spool and recuperated/intercooled features. Aurelia’s main target markets are small and medium-sized commercial and industrial end users that require electrical power and heat for their processes, as well as those who require steam or cooling.

Mitsubishi Power, formerly known as Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems, is also making major advances in microturbine technology. Its Megamie concept combines a microturbine and solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) to produce 250 kW using natural gas, biogas or hydrogen. The first commercial Megamie unit was installed in Tokyo in 2019 and powers numerous shops and offices.

The basic concept works well, but cost remains a barrier. The company plans to increase cell output density, enhance material quality, simplify production processes and collaborate with business partners to optimize the supply chain. A 1000 kW is in the planning stages.

Meanwhile UAV Turbines military-grade Micro-Turbogenerator System is aimed at on-demand electrical power generation. Its machines range from 3 kW to 40 kW and address the problem of generating electricity on-the-go and in high altitudes (the higher the altitude, the thinner the air, the lower the power efficiency).

“Mobility is becoming a significant motivating factor for our military; to be portable and nimble in the battlefield,” said Fred Frigerio, UAVT’s Senior Vice President of Engineering. “They are interested in things that can be handled by two, three or four guys in a truck or a Jeep.”

In addition, UAV has demonstrated the Monarch 5 turboshaft engine, which powers a Northrop light fighter jet. It can now run on natural gas, extending its potential into ground emergency and standby power generation for both onsite and remote areas. UAV has been courting clients such as FEMA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. These quiet generators can produce up to about 30 kW.

Market leaders

Despite all of these new kids on the block, Capstone and FlexEnergy are expected to maintain their dominance in the coming decade. Capstone’s microturbine technology has newfound applications in the marine sector (work boats, cargo ships, commercial vessels and luxury yachts) and as range extenders for electric vehicles (transit buses, class 7 and 8 work trucks). It has found success with a scalable microturbine architecture. Need more power? Stack another Capstone C-series onto the last. They can operate on a variety of gaseous or liquid fuels including natural gas, associated gas, LPG/propane, flare gas, landfill gas, digester gas, diesel, aviation fuel and kerosene.

The company offers microturbines ranging from 30 kW to 1 MW in electric power output, which can be deployed in arrays up to 10 MWs. The Signature Series product line was developed based on a C200 (200 kW) engine and can be configured into 1,000 kW, 800 kW and 600 kW packaged solutions. An added benefit of the technology is the ability to capture the exhaust and use it to make hot water, steam, chilled water, and in some cases directly in a process. The C1000S has been deployed at places such as an Italian food manufacturing facility, a waste water treatment plant in Pennsylvania and a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in California.

Capstone sells between 400 to 700 microturbines annually, with its most popular being the C65 and the C200, by total megawatt sold. The C250 (250 kW) is under development.

The U.S. and Europe remain primary markets for CHP and oil and gas midstream projects. But the company has noticed an uptick of adoption in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The company is expected to sell 3,840 microturbine units through 2029, accounting for a $520.57 million production value and 72.8% market share for that period, according to Forecast International.

Like many manufacturers, costs are expected to drop as volumes increase. Collaboration opportunities are also opening up. Capstone is working with a company named 247Solar to create a zero-emission solar-powered microturbine. Another partnership with Germany’s B+K aims to utilize wood waste to generate superheated air to create a renewable, thermal powered microturbine. Additionally, Capstone is partnering with the New York Power Authority and Brenmiller Energy on a thermal energy storage project for Purchase College, State University of New York.

“Our microturbine will directly pipe low emission exhaust gas into a Brenmiller bGen zero carbon thermal storage unit so it can extract and store the heat until it is needed,” said Darren Jamison, Capstone Turbine President and Chief Executive Officer. “The system represents an alternative to battery storage with potentially greater discharge durations,”

A C200R microturbine will be utilized in a CHP application to support Purchase College’s physical education building, displacing the aging district heating loop in the central heating plant and providing baseload electricity. This is projected to save the college about $100,000 per year while reducing the facility’s carbon footprint.

Capstone sees the younger generation’s demand for clean energy as a window to greater profits in the future.

It is not alone in this sentiment. FlexEnergy, which bills itself as a clean-tech company, focuses on the creation of energy with near-zero emissions. It acquired the Energy Systems business of Ingersoll-Rand in 2011 and by extension, its MT250 microturbine product line. It now offers a family of systems that operates on a range of fuels.

The company’s bread and butter remains oil and gas, its largest market since 2015. Its most popular unit is the 333 kW Flex Turbine series GT 333S. It converts flare and waste gases and tank vapors from oil and gas operations into electric power. The company has doubled its output of machines over the past five years. According to data from Forecast International, FlexEnergy is expected to sell 407 units through 2029, making up a $123.9 million production value, while accounting for 17.3% of the market.

Doug Baltzer, Chief Commercial Officer at FlexEnergy said that after oil & gas comes the manufacturing sector. To boost sales, he said that local utilities can play a big role by supporting on-site generation, among other factors.

“The equipment needed to satisfy utility interconnections is the toughest barrier for us to grow sales and keep costs down,” said Baltzer. “Our ability to handle a wide range of new fuels such as synthetic natural gas could boost growth in new markets.”

Challenges remain

Innovation in battery storage and renewables represent a competitive challenge to microturbine OEMs. Batteries remain expensive, but costs are dropping steadily. The microturbine market also has also been strong in areas that produce flare gas or stranded gas. With shale play production slashed in light of the fall in oil prices, immediate demand there may suffer.

“In many cases, renewables are less expensive in terms of levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) than their turbine counterparts,” said Carter Palmer of Forecast International. “The use of turbines for peak demand (i.e., supplementing renewables) is still an attractive option.” He believes microturbines will ultimately keep their niche and are well-positioned to expand it. ■