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Turbines could ease summer power woes

LOS ANGELES — California, New York and other states scrambling to head off an expected summertime power crunch are looking toward the same turbines that power commercial jetliners.

The quest for medium-size power generators also is boosting business at General Electric, Rolls Royce and Pratt & Whitney, companies that otherwise build engines for Boeing jetliners.

At GE, for example, revenue for the division that transforms the turbines into power-generating engines has grown from $410 million when GE bought it in 1998 to an expected $2 billion this year.

The waiting list for a GE LM6000 generator has grown to a year since summer, company officials said.

Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney, which makes a "twin-pack" of two Boeing 737-derived generators, also has seen demand soar.

The California Energy Commission is promoting use of the engines as part of the state's plan to add 1,000 megawatts of power to be generated at peak demand times — 5-9 a.m. and 5-9 p.m. — this summer.

Other plants used to meet that goal run on diesel. Such "peaker" engines generate small amounts of power, roughly 50 megawatts each, and run for only a few hours at a time.

The turbines made by GE and the other companies burn natural gas instead of airplane fuel but otherwise are nearly identical to an airplane engine.

Some of the demand for the engines is due to the power crunch affecting California and spreading throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The New York Power Authority has ordered 11 GE generators that will be running in New York and Long Island by June. The authority expects to spend $500 million on the turbines, a cost that includes buying land and building the structures to house the engines, authority spokesman Mike Petralia said.

A Boeing 747 engine made by GE can cost $8 million to $10 million. A power generator made with most of the same parts but modified to produce electricity costs $15 million to $20 million, GE officials said.