Henry Ford’s Model T looks like no car on the road today and the Wright Flyer has been rightfully retired in the Smithsonian. And yet another piece of technology that predates them both—the electric grid—still looks like a network that its designer, Thomas Edison, would recognize.
Edison, who also founded GE, built the first grid in 1882 on Pearl Street in downtown Manhattan. Now GE engineers such as Ganesh Bell, chief digital officer for GE Power, are giving it a major makeover. “Edison’s one-directional electricity value chain, wherein electrons flow from generation through transmission and distribution to consumers, has served our industry well for a century,” Bell says. “But the design of the electricity industry is sure to look very different in the next century, and likely will do so within the next five years.”
Bell says that the key enablers of these changes will be software, data analytics, the Industrial Internet, which will pull data from the grid into the cloud, and even artificial intelligence. They will allow utilities to generate and distribute power more efficiently and also significantly reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
In fact, in June, GE Power rolled out the world’s first Digital Power Plant for Steam, a set of digital technologies that can dramatically reduce heat-trapping emissions by improving the operations and efficiency of coal-fired power plants. GE says it could help eliminate 500 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions if deployed at all existing coal-fired power plants globally. That’s the same as removing 120 million cars from the road—or every tenth car in the world—or covering Earth with a carbon-trapping forest the size of Europe. GE Reports sat down with Bell and asked him about electricity’s digital future.
GE Reports: Why did you develop the Digital Power Plant for Steam?
Ganesh Bell: When we digitized the wind farm last year, we allowed operators to build the most efficient wind farm and then run it in the most optimal fashion. The DPP for Steam is similar.
Our customers are ultimately in the business of generating and transmitting electrons. They are interested in doing it in the most reliable, effective and productive way from a mix of different fuel sources. But they are also facing a lot of challenges ranging from reducing emissions to plant longevity and fuel price. Our software is helping them to find the best solution and the best mix.
GER: How so?
GB: The average utility can generate power in many different ways, using wind, natural gas, coal or nuclear fuel. But the mix is different in every market, based on demand, regulations, fuel availability and other conditions. Our software will help our customers optimize all of their power generation options, select the best combination and make sure they hit their marks. In Europe, for example, they have to comply with very strict emissions.
GER: Why is coal still so important? Aren’t we trying to get rid of it?
GB: Coal is still a big part of the picture, whether you like it or not. People don’t like to talk about it, but the majority of power generation in many parts of the world is still from coal and it’s not going away. Here’s the challenge: Our customers have sunk a lot of money in coal-fired plants and they expect to run them for decades. But in the post-COP21 world, they may not be able to because they won’t comply. We’re now giving them more options to run their assets by rejuvenating their operations with software.
GER: Give me an example.
GB: Take something simple like coal. Its quality varies in different parts of the world but also batch from batch. You have to optimize the power plant for the particular type you have. Today, you set the parameters once and you forget it. But our system is continuously learning and optimizing. This kind of technology is not available today. We figured that just this part of the Digital Power Plant for Steam could reduce fuel consumption by 4,400 tons of coal per year with the same megawatt of output in a single steam power plant.
GER: Does it matter who built the power plant?
GB: No. It doesn’t. It doesn’t matter whether the power plant has machines built by GE, Siemens or Skoda. The software is fully technology-agnostic. In fact, we can extend it beyond coal to plants burning other kinds of fuel like biomass and oil.
GER: What is the big picture here?
GB: Like I said, smart utilities are moving from power generation to optimizing their entire energy mix based on the fuel source. Already the power in your home can include electrons from coal, nuclear power as well as wind, depending on demand, weather, regulations and a number of other factors. We started by optimizing turbines at the asset level, then we moved to power plants across the fleet, and now the next logical step is optimizing all of power generation.
GER: How will you do that?
GB: That’s why GE developed Predix, the cloud-based operating system for the Industrial Internet. The Digital Power Plant for Steam, for gas, the Digital Wind Farm—all of these solutions are built on the same Predix platform. With Predix, you now have an enterprise-wide view of all generation and all data in a single secure cloud. That gives you new, interesting opportunities to solve hard problems.
GER: Like what?
GB: In Europe, for example, Predix allows you to manage how you integrate renewables better into the mix. It gives you new demand flexibility and helps you compensate quickly with traditional fuel sources when the wind stops blowing. We can now make all kinds of power coexist and work together.