The biggest change impacting energy infrastructure around the world is the growth of renewable energy resources, including distributed sources such as solar photovoltaics. At the transmission level, the result of this expansion will mean that electrical grids will take on an increasingly important role in balancing power flows across broader regions, with faster and more dynamic power exchanges taking place during fast solar transition times such as sunrises and sunsets.

Digital Grid and the Environment

​Juan M. de Bedout, Ph.D. | GE Power

How can digital innovation affect grid infrastructure and by extension the environment?

The biggest change impacting energy infrastructure around the world is the growth of renewable energy resources, including distributed sources such as solar photovoltaics.   At the transmission level, the result of this expansion will mean that electrical grids will take on an increasingly important role in balancing power flows across broader regions, with faster and more dynamic power exchanges taking place during fast solar transition times such as sunrises and sunsets.  At the distribution level, the need for voltage regulation will become more important as the penetration level of distributed generation resources such as PV grows, and protection systems will need to be updated with more sophisticated systems that can manage multi-directional power flows.  

Transforming the energy mix in this fashion will require significant investment in infrastructure.  To make the transformation economical, it is essential to target a smarter, more aggressive operation of the grid that pushes closer to physical limits, thereby maximizing the utilization of the infrastructure that is already in place.  This calls for richer and faster intelligence throughout the grid at all levels, ranging from the controls and protection that sit on generation and substation resources at the edge of the power system, up through the energy management systems in utility operation centers that orchestrate how power is delivered across the grid. The smart pairing of emerging digital technologies with the conventional physical and digital tools already available in the grid has the potential to make existing infrastructure much more capable of accepting the oncoming renewable energy blitz, with more modest growth of the physical wires infrastructure.


How are advancements in computing power impacting renewable energy usage?

As mentioned before, a richer intelligence is needed at all levels of the grid to economically absorb higher levels of renewable energy.  A great example is with the renewable energy resources themselves.  Over the years, as wind energy has become a more significant presence in the energy mix, electric utilities have demanded increasingly sophisticated features in wind turbines connecting to their grids, including the ability to stay connected through voltage sags and swells, voltage regulation functionality, frequency supporting functions including synthetic inertia, curtailment functions and black start functionality, just to name a few.  In the last decade alone, as the number of these features grew, the computational power of a GE Wind turbine controller has grown 15X, taking advantage of the rapid decline of the cost of computation to deliver this rich new portfolio of features that improve the turbine’s energy capture as well as its ability to support the grid.  The same trend is true everywhere else throughout the digital fabric of the grid.  Over the same decade, a standard substation controller computational capability has grown 30X, allowing for the deployment of advanced protection functionality and remote monitoring, diagnostics and prognostics capabilities. And the computational burden of a standard EMS system has grown by over 3X in the last decade, owing to a larger number of assets under control as distributed energy resources become more common, along with a richer expectation for contingency analyses that prepare the grid for possible faults throughout the network.


What digital tools do you think are most important for helping realize renewable energy resource adoption targets?

There are several key digital tools that can be used to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy resources, including: 

  • Utilizing “smart” renewables with grid support functions such as voltage regulation, frequency support, curtailment, down reserves, synthetic inertia and black start;

  • Incorporating the use of renewable energy forecasting in tools used to plan and operate generation resources;

  • Broadening the power balancing areas over larger regions, and improving inter-area coordination;

  • Upgrading the conventional thermal generation fleet to have more flexibility;

  • Using energy storage and demand response to compensate for wind and solar variability; and

  • Taking advantage of the flexibility available in distributed energy resources to provide local compensation for power and voltage variability.

At GE, we have been focused on investing in these technologies, particularly the development of advanced grid support functions in wind and solar energy offerings, the growth of more flexible offerings in gas turbine and reciprocating engines, the use of utilities operations platforms (EMS, MMS, DMS, DERMS) and microgrid controllers to better see and coordinate renewable resources. Emerging variability compensation tools (i.e. energy storage, hybrid-electric gas turbines, and demand response systems) have also been utilized successfully. These tools change how power grids are operated and are enabled by the digital fabric, which extends from the controls on generation and grid assets up through utility operations.


What types of investments are you seeing in grid infrastructure?

The market trends are different in developed economies and developing ones.   In mature grids, while total energy demand is either flat or growing slowly, as mentioned before the generation mix is changing quickly with renewable energy resources coming online at a furious pace.  Many of these grids have problems with transmission congestion, where constraints in power flow capacity are limiting consumer access to low cost electricity and costing rate payers many billions of dollars every year.  Congestion also makes it more costly for new renewable energy resources to connect to the grid, requiring either transmission upgrades or an acceptance of high curtailment rates.  And hence grid investments in mature economies continue to grow; in the United States alone, the Edison Electric Institute forecasts that $880 Billion of new investments in transmission and distribution grid infrastructure will be needed through 2030.

In developing economies where demand is growing more quickly, both generation and power delivery infrastructure are being expanded to keep up.  In China, a strong grid with HVAC and HVDC paths is being built up to support the industrial appetite of the country.  In India, the power grid is now being run as one large synchronous interconnection, merging both HVAC and HVDC paths to support a demand that hovers near grid capacity.  In both of these countries, the adoption of renewable energy is a national priority and accelerating at an impressive rate, driving further investment in grid infrastructure.


What advancements in energy storage do you think will change the game for renewables?

Energy storage is becoming a more compelling resource as prices drop.  Over the last decade, the cost of storage at the cell level has dropped 10X, from over $2000/KWh in 2008 to less than $300/KWh today.  We can expect further technology advancements to continue improving the cost point of storage, and hence the appeal of batteries as flexible distributed energy resources will accelerate.

Energy storage is a terrific companion for renewable energy.  There are many ways in which energy storage can help make renewable energy easier to integrate into the grid, including the provision of frequency regulation services, compensating for variability to make renewable production predictable over defined timeframes, shifting the solar production profile to best align with demand and market prices, and peak shaving to defer infrastructure capacity growth, to name just a few.  Storage can also be used to make conventional resources that compensate for renewable energy variability more economical; a great example is GE’s recent introduction of the hybrid gas turbine which pairs batteries with a gas turbine peaker that work together to allow the gas turbine to shut down instead of idling during off-peak times by having the battery standing ready in case of a sudden need for power.  The result is a peaker that can participate in the market 24/7 with lower fuel costs and lower emissions.


Juan M. de Bedout, Ph.D.
Chief Technology Officer
Grid Solutions business, GE Power

Juan is the Chief Technology Officer for GE Power’s Grid Solutions business, leading a team of 3,600 engineers in over 20 countries around the world.  Grid Solutions is GE’s electricity transmission and distribution business, a $6B division serving electric utilities, system operators, independent power producers and energy services companies.  The business has a complete portfolio of products, solutions and services for these customers, including high voltage power transformers, air insulated and gas insulated switchgear, high voltage and medium voltage protection relays, substation automation solutions, turnkey AC substations, and High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) solutions, as well as a thorough suite of software for the management of transmission systems, distribution systems and electricity markets.  Under Juan’s leadership, the engineering team is responsible for designing and producing world-class products and solutions for Grid Solutions’ customers.

Prior to this role, Juan served as the Technology Director for the Electrical Technologies & Systems organization at GE Global Research, reporting to the Senior Vice President of GE Global Research. In this role, he led a global team of approximately 550 scientists and engineers, responsible for advanced technology development in the areas of semiconductor devices and packaging, electronics, electrical power conversion, controls and signal processing, in support of GE’s Energy, Oil & Gas, Aviation, Transportation and Healthcare businesses.

An avid Boilermaker through and through, Juan obtained all of his degrees from Purdue, starting with a B.S.M.E degree in 1994, followed by an M.S.M.E. degree in 1996, and finishing with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in 2000. Juan was born in Medellín, Colombia, South America.


The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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