Taking Power Where it's Never Been Before

By Ricky Buch, GE Power Commercial Director, Energy Access & Renewable Hybrid Power

February 13, 2018

GE’s new commercial about bringing electricity to rural parts of the world touches on a subject I’m very passionate about. My first exposure to the problem of energy access was while working on a graduate school consulting project with GE Healthcare. Our goal was to help monitor clinic processes to improve maternal and neonatal outcomes, since giving birth in some countries remains a dangerous affair. What caught me by surprise was that one of the biggest obstacles was a lack of access to electricity. While in countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia, I met with several women who had walked for days to the nearest clinic for a prenatal screening, and would find out that the clinic had been without power for the past several days, and therefore the staff could not complete any screening.

That one project with GE Healthcare was the reason I decided to join GE – I saw how the company was trying to tackle a socially significant problem, trying to develop solutions that would literally save lives. Upon joining, I have been keen to find a path for GE to develop a solution for energy access, to address the problems that I had witnessed firsthand in rural parts of Asia and Africa. I also knew that these solutions would need to be commercially viable, because generating a profit would allow us to develop product enhancements as well as additional products and services.

Our most recent assessment of the off-grid space started in late December 2015. During ourinvestigation, we encountered Global Himalayan Expeditions (GHE). I found their model of deploying solar-storage DC microgrids to be interesting; perhaps more importantly, GHE focused on ensuring that the communities which they electrified had the skills to continue supporting the systems. That was why we decided to partner with them and help deploy 10 DC microgrids in remote villages in Ladakh, India.

As our partnership with GHE progressed, we also began to investigate how GE could scale its efforts around energy access. We built a mission-based team, comprised of individuals across the company that are passionate about addressing this problem, to validate the market opportunity and develop product prototypes. Our internal startup used agile processes to make sure we really were solving the problem. What has resulted is a portfolio of renewable hybrid systems – prefabricated, standardized, scalable microgrids that can provide sustainable and reliable power to remote communities.

Our renewable hybrid systems consist of a containerized solar-battery-generator system that is easy to deploy, prioritizes clean low-cost renewable energy, and can provide enough power for productive uses –power for commercial and municipal applications beyond residential loads such as lighting or mobile phonecharging. We have used several pilots in India and Africa to refine the product and ensure that it can perform in remote and demanding environments. In addition, its digital capabilities allow us to monitor these systems around-the-clock to ensure that power is available when the community wants it. These systems can also find applications in more developed countries, such as a 30kW solar-hybrid system that we deployed in the Northern Territories of Australia, powering a training facility for an Aboriginal community.

Today there are more than 1 billion people without access to electricity; another 2 billion or so have insufficient access.  All governments seek to provide their citizens with adequate electricity; however, there are myriad obstacles that make the traditional way of providing electricity –namely, large power plants which deliver power through complex transmission and distribution systems –difficult to implement at the speed required in these countries. Recent trends in the energy space around decarbonization, decentralization, and digitization are opening up new ways to provide reliable electricity. Our renewable hybrid system, designed for off-grid communities, is at the nexus of these trends: it is a distributed, scalable, renewable-powered system that is digitally connected and can provide affordable power to different communities in these fast-growing countries.

My career at GE has allowed me to work on several different internal startups. This one has meant the most to me, because of the challenge we are addressing: accelerating progress towards universal access to electricity, providing an essential service that will allow people to build better and more fulfilling lives. It has allowed me to connect with like-minded passionate people across the company, to travel to beautiful locations, and to strengthen my technical and commercial skills. I am proud of the progress we have made; if anything, being with the people that we are seeking to serve has only made our resolve stronger.

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