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Debora Frodl: Data Driving the Future of Clean Tech

Debora Frodl Ge
October 06, 2014
Clean tech may conjure images of electric vehicles and solar-powered homes, but it’s no longer just about stand-alone hardware technologies you can plug into the grid or drive on the road.

Clean tech is increasingly about IT-enabled distributed and fully integrated energy systems that have the potential to transform lives around the world — as well as the prosperity and productivity of countries across the globe.

We are in the midst of a movement from rooftop solar to integrated building energy management systems; from high-efficiency jet engines to software-enabled jet engines that operate within a network optimized through Industrial Internet technologies; from large, central-station power plants to integrated networks of central and distributed power technologies linked together and harmonized through virtual power plants.

The way customers use energy is changing, as well. Data and analytics are providing intelligence that enables more efficient and informed decisions. This is opening a whole new world of smart, transparent energy use — leading to smart buildings and zero-energy facilities.

While this transformation has been in the works for some time, we’ve reached a tipping point as all of the pieces come together. In the past decade, we’ve seen advances in data and analytics, energy storage, the competitiveness of renewables and the availability of software platforms that enable low-cost information exchange.

PowerUp the Industrial Internet

The biggest game changer involves data analytics. With the decline in computing costs, the expansion in the communications backbone, improving database technologies and an increasing ability to manipulate “big” data sets, we are now able to collect, share, understand and get intelligence from information on a scale not possible before.

Big Data can be applied in all facets of our lives and the economy. At GE, we have embarked upon an effort to apply Big Data and analytics to the industrial economy — an initiative we call the Industrial Internet.

The Industrial Internet is about combing hardware and software to make industrial machines smarter. In terms of clean energy, this means all energy equipment is becoming more efficient by combining hardware and software, which translates into fuel and water savings.

For example. GE has developed a wind turbine that combines hardware and software to optimize wind generation, reduce downtime and provide uninterrupted power to the electricity system when it is needed most. The software layer, called PowerUp, boosts wind turbine output by up to 5 percent.

Just by adding a digital layer, we get more clean power.

The Next Wave of Renewable Energy

We believe that we are a decade away from cost-competitive renewable energy without incentives, powered by innovations in both hardware and software. The cost of renewable energy technologies is already falling, while the number of renewable technologies deployed is increasing substantially.

In terms of its share of global power capacity, wind energy is the fastest-growing energy source. Wind power has entered the mainstream of the global electricity market in less than a decade. From 2005 to 1013, the cost of wind power was cut in half, to $50/MWh, amid a five-fold increase in wind power installed around the world, to 318 GW.

Advances in solar photovoltaic technologies have been even more dramatic. Solar prices have fallen from $4-$5/watt in 2005 to less than $1/watt today, as global installed capacity has grown from less than 5 GW to nearly 150 GW.

Innovations are largely behind the drop in renewable energy costs. For example, improvements in blade designs and control systems have lifted wind turbine capacity factors (or annual energy output) from the 30 percent range to the 50 percent range. If we add a software layer on top, we gain another 5 percent.

A pipeline of innovations — a combination of hardware and software —promises to further push down renewable energy costs and increase reliability and efficiencies. Beyond new blade designs and innovative tower designs, innovations will also include new approaches to integrated renewable into the grid and the application of advanced analytics that improve renewable resource forecasting accuracy.

As these innovations are applied and renewable energy costs continue to decline, renewable energy will increasingly become the technology of choice for economic reasons around the world.

Distributing the Power

An important part of the clean tech story is the rise in distributed power, a broad category that ranges from solar photovoltaic to gas-fueled reciprocating engines that we might not think of as clean tech. Distributed power is providing electricity where it wasn’t available before or displacing a less environmentally sustainable power source.

Distributed power technologies are more widely available, more efficient and less costly than they were just a decade ago. They are also able to overcome the constraints that typically inhibit the development of large capital projects and transmission and distribution lines.

GE recently created a stand-alone Distributed Power business to ensure our customers can take full advantage of the opportunity. The portfolio of distributed power technologies includes diesel and gas reciprocating engines, gas turbines, fuel cells, solar panels and small wind turbines.

Over the last decade, distributed power has been on the ascent. From 2000 to 2012, distributed power’s share of global capacity additions nearly doubled, from 21 percent to 39 percent. Investment in distributed power increased five-fold to $150 billion, while annual distributed power capacity additions grew from 47 GW to 142 GW per year.

GE expects annual distributed power capacity additions to grow to 200 GW by 2020, an average annual growth rate of 4.4 percent, as investment climbs to $206 billion.

The Power of Integrated Energy Systems

While distributed power is on the rise, central generation technologies are not going away. This is leading to a new era in which central power stations co-exist with distributed power technologies. This new, integrated system will provide a range of services that couldn’t be provided by either alone.

That shows the power of the Industrial Internet in transforming clean tech, because software helps renewables operate more effectively within power systems. Hardware and software work together within the context of an integrated electricity network.

Systems will also play a key role in the next generation of renewable energy technologies. Wind turbines are transforming from hardware-only machines to an encapsulated system of technologies — wind turbine components, software and batteries.  The wind turbines are communicating each other and with the surrounding energy network via the Industrial Internet.

The emergence of integrated energy systems across the spectrum of energy technologies has significant implications for clean tech:

  • Clean tech is more effective when combined within systems. Wind, solar and distributed power technologies work better with batteries. Efficient lighting and appliances are more effective within the context of building-level systems that optimize across the facility.

  • The systems approach increases the potential contribution of clean tech. Renewables can be more effectively combined with conventional energy technologies when operated from a systems perspective. Wind power integration is less challenging within the context of broad and balanced electricity systems.

  • Clean tech synergies emerge from the growth in integrated energy systems. The transformation of the power system into a “hybrid” network of central and distributed generators enables each technology to fit within the integrated system in the most appropriate size and location.

The movement from balkanized, non-integrated technologies into a variety of energy systems — at the technology, facility and network level — opens the door to tremendous opportunity for clean technologies. The idea of integrating across hardware and software ensures that each technology provides value based on its specific characteristics.

We are seeing the emergence of integrated energy systems today. The continued growth of these systems — and deeper integration across technologies — is the wave of the future. The trends that are driving clean tech today are going to propel renewables, energy efficiency and alternative transportation technologies even further in the next decade.

Debora Frodl is Executive Director of GE Ecomagination.