The Global Grid Outlook for 2019 and Beyond: Q&A with GE Grid Solution’s CTO

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All hands are needed on deck when it comes to the future power generation needs of the world. And all hands should be digitized and ready to pitch in to help each other.

These are some of the thoughts of Vera Silva, who is chief technology officer at GE’s Grid Solutions business. Silver sat down recently to answer some Power Engineering questions over the biggest challenges looming both in the generation sector and throughout the grid.

1)      Digitization is the one thing that both conventional and renewable players agree on. We’re already seeing the impact in smart grid and grid edge technologies. What role do you see it playing in power plants over the next year specifically?

“About 70 percent of the U.S. grid’s transmission lines and power transformers are over 25 years old and the average power plant is over 30 years old. Aging infrastructure coupled with the integration of distributed energy resources (DERs) at the distribution level will require significantly more advanced grid applications like lifecycle asset performance management (APM) and grid services to optimize asset operation, maintenance and replacement. The rise of digital solutions calls for the entire value chain–from generation to consumption–to be optimized to operate more efficiently and economically.

“Over the next year, large, centrally-located power plants will be supplemented with new, renewable energy sources connected throughout the transmission & distribution system. We’ve already seen some impacts in smart grid and grid edge technologies, but as we move towards a growing network of interconnected grids, we’ll begin to see a new digital grid of the future emerge. In turn, smart sensors and advanced software and control will soon play a vital role in providing greater efficiency, reliability, and cost-effectiveness for grid operators, owners, and consumers.”

2)      What piece of the power generation mix is more likely to enhance digitization than others?

“The changing generation mix has been one of the most visible trends across the globe. Renewables are growing and poised to enhance digitization significantly. Over the past five years, U.S. generation sourced from non-hydro renewables (particularly wind and solar) has nearly doubled, from around five percent in 2012 to almost 10 percent in 2017 according to Deloitte. The rise of solar PV and wind power in places like Europe, Mexico, India and China are bringing an unprecedented importance to the flexible operation of power systems in order to keep the lights on. While we’re seeing an increase in renewable sources, nuclear, coal and gas-fired technologies will remain an important component of the electric power mix in certain geographies as they give back-up capacity and flexibility.

“The future power generation mix is moving towards a diversified one comprised of all fuels and technologies, and this mix will gradually shift towards distributed renewables as their cost competitiveness continues to improve. With the help of digital technologies along with other technology innovations, the future grid will also evolve to meet this change by effectively integrating diverse electricity sources from both fossil fuels and renewables. The convergence of cheaper renewable energy technologies, digital applications and the rising role of electricity, as a key vector to reach carbon neutrality, is a crucial vector for change. Low carbon electricity will be essential for meeting many of the world’s sustainable development goals.”

3)      EVs seem to be on the rise, yet GM drops the Chevy Volt. Will infrastructure rise enough over the next year or so to make EV adoption ever more feasible? Please give examples of projects.

“One powerful trend driving the global energy landscape transformation is the growth of electrification. According to the IEA, electricity will play a key role as a vector of decarbonization transportation. This in turn will lead to the mass adoption of electric vehicles. In fact, EV sales are projected to rise 27-fold by 2030 from 1.1 million today, leading to dramatic cost decline for battery packs that will ultimately result in cheaper stationary storage applications according to Bloomberg’s NEO Outlook 2018. This will drive an increase in electricity demand and require a grid infrastructure that follows. Infrastructure to upport this growth won’t happen overnight, but rather rise gradually. There are currently projects in progress to manage the accelerating EV adoption, such as the California Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Project (CALeVIP) which aims to install sufficient charging infrastructure to support the state’s goal of up to 1.5 million plug-in EVs by 2025. This trend is also observed in Europe with large utilities such as Enel and EDF launching ambitious electric mobility plans and new businesses for the next decade.”

4)      What are the major HVDC projects around the world coming to fruition? And in the U.S.?

“The North Sea serves as the largest area of offshore wind, and HVDC technology is increasingly being used to bring that power onshore. Because of that, we’ve seen the most activity in Europe, with interconnector projects in the United Kingdom, Scotland, Norway, Belgium, France, Italy and Germany. Germany is currently leading in this offshore application and GE has further demonstrated this through our DolWin3 project. There are also some pending projects in the UK, U.S. and Asia. In the U.S. in particular, we see existing HVDC installations being upgraded as well as some new projects emerging in the Northeast for both interconnector projects and offshore wind. Lastly, South Korea is also an area where a number of new HVDC projects are coming to fruition.”

5)      Renewables seem to have a transmission challenge domestically. Speak on that and how it might be resolved in the near future.

“HVDC technology is one solution to resolving domestic renewables transmission challenges Over the next few years, deployment of this technology will be important to connecting new wind and solar resources to the grid as well as supporting their integration by efficiently moving them over long distances. HVDC systems in conjunction with flexible AC transmission systems (FACTS) and synchronous condensers are key technologies enabling greater grid stability. As more cities look to convert to clean energy sources, we’ll need to have transmission systems in place that are capable of carrying electricity over long distances. These technologies will allow major population centers far from the source to easily make the transition to renewables. In Europe HVDC is playing an increasingly important role to reinforce cross border interconnection helping to balance generation and demand over larger areas enabling a better share of resources and smoothing wind and solar intermittency.”

6)      Microgrids certainly seem to be the answer to resiliency, although a very expensive one. Where will the investment in global microgrids (especially in developing areas) come from and why?

“Microgrid systems can be used to optimize the dispatch of electricity on demand and improve resiliency. They also allow better utilization of local resources such as small-scale photovoltaic panels or wind mills. They enable a combined energy optimization on a territory to aggregate and allow local flexibility in the areas of demand response or storage. Microgrid systems work to improve grid resiliency and energy availability to deliver electrification of critical infrastructure to remote communities.”

7)      Everyone wants electric power everywhere. Renewables are exciting for some, while others need it whether it’s the sun, wind or gas and rocks beneath the surface. Might global electrification be a door to keep all sources viable, including coal and nuclear?

“Absolutely. The existing electricity system will continue to shift from one that is based on centralized generation – with transmission and distribution moving electricity to consumers – to an integrated and hybridized network that orchestrates distributed, digitally-enhanced, and low carbon technologies providing reliable, affordable and sustainable electric power. This will include energy technologies across the spectrum including renewable energy, gas turbines, steam turbines, nuclear, among others.

“As recently as 2000, Europe and North America accounted for more than 40 percent of global energy demand and developing economies in Asia for around 20 percent, according to the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2018. However, rising incomes coupled with population growth in urban areas in developing economies will completely reverse this situation, pushing energy demand up by more than a quarter by 2040. As energy demand grows, every possible mix of generation will be needed to support global electrification.”

Vera Silva is a panelist at DistribuTECH’s Power Women Networking Breakfast, set to take place in New Orleans on February 6. 

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