Communication Technology, DER-Grid Edge, Hydro, Renewable Energy, Smart Grid, Solar, Wind

The future of the grid as described by GE’s chief technology officer, Vera Silva

By Elizabeth Ingram

Leading a research and development team 1,200-strong, as well as an engineering team of about 2,200 people, is no small feat, but it’s one Vera Silva handles daily.

Silva is chief technology officer of GE Grid Solutions, which serves the electrical transmission and distribution industry, electricity generation and large industrial consumers. In this position, she leads business technology strategy and new product development across seven diverse business segments, from high-voltage direct current transmission to digital grid services management.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Silva at the recent DISTRIBUTECH conference and exhibition, and she shared with me great insights into trends driving transformation of the global energy landscape and how the grid will need to evolve, as well as her company’s approach to building the digital grid of the future and the technologies that will be key to pushing grid modernization.

Below are some highlights from that discussion, as well as a video interview with Silva conducted at DISTRIBUTECH.

Q: Tell me about some of the trends you see that are driving transformation of the global energy landscape, and how the grid will need to evolve.

Silva: I believe we are seeing specific trends associated with renewables. Renewables are growing through the development of utility scale solar photovoltaic farms and wind farms, as well as distributed resources. One of the key changes we see is that in many countries, more than 80% of the new resources are being connected to the distribution grid.

This is a complete change of paradigm. In the past, the grid role was about bringing power from centralized generation to the consumer. You would fit and forget the few distributed generation sources. But once you get to this volume of renewables connected to distribution, you have to take an active approach. This becomes a target for change. We have to be supporting the connection of new resources across all layers of the grid and demand growth with the electrification of heat and transport. Grid operators will need to orchestrate all these new resources to avoid constraints in the grid.

Due to this shift, distribution grid operators are moving from a past of reinforcing the maintenance of the assets to being responsible for operating a distribution system and facilitating the participation of decentralized resources in wholesale markets. To provide flexibility services to transmission system operators from resources connected to distribution, we will need a lot of new technology.

Take grid software, for example. We need more advanced software tools to support operation of the distribution grid, to follow through to digital substations and advanced automation applications and the new digital tools to monitor equipment. One of the changes ahead is the increase in grid observability that goes up to low voltage grids. Today if you ask a distribution system operator, they will say they have good visibility of what the grid looks like at higher voltage levels, but this is limited at lower voltage levels.

We had no smart meters in the past, so we had to rely on statistical forecasts of demand. But with quite a lot of solar photovoltaic generation connected to low-voltage systems, as well as battery storage and demand response storage, digitalization of low voltage is going to be a key aspect.

Q: Let’s talk a little bit about all the recent focus on battery storage and the greater need to provide grid services such as frequency regulation.

Silva: We already have very large storage available, and that is called pumped storage hydro. These resources play a key role to help to manage the variability of renewables. At the same time, decentralized battery storage can help to manage local grid constraints in the distribution system and provide very fast frequency regulation services.

The cost of batteries has been dropping, and users of the grid want to have more participation in their own energy management, and they see an opportunity to capture additional revenue streams by providing voltage and frequency regulation. This increases the stackable value of batteries, with the adequate market design and regulatory framework in place.

In the UK, for example, utility scale battery projects are being developed to support frequency regulation and system stability. These installations capture additional value from the capacity market. The UK presents an interesting case for storage supporting renewables integration.

One of the challenges for storage business models is the remuneration of flexibility services. The new European clean energy directive, which provides a guideline for market design, addresses the need to enhance remuneration of services.

Q: Let’s discuss GE’s approach to building the digital grid of the future, as well as the technologies that will be key to pushing grid modernization.

Silva: When I look at the approach to building the grid of the future, I look at the approach to building the grid of today. It has been a good motor of progress and we have reached reliability, sustainability in some technologies.

In the past there were fewer choices in terms of technologies and fewer players. The grid was built through a grand master plan based on engineering, cost-benefit analysis and finally covering the overall costs in the tariffs to consumers.

In the future it will be much more like a swarm approach. There are a lot of new players, and different expectations from consumers. But we still need reliability, sustainability and affordability.

The number of grid users in the form of devices connected to the system is growing exponentially, and new digital grid technologies and equipment are available. Companies that work in distribution or transmission need to be enablers for the connection of new grid users and drive the implementation of this technology. We need digital tools that enable seamless integration of grid layers and edge devices and enable new technologies and players to take an active role in supporting grid operations. We must ensure a higher degree of interoperability. This means being open to new technologies, being the big users of innovation around digital tools. Digital technology can support asset performance management and field maintenance teams. These can change the way we perform maintenance and reduce costs. The next generation of people doing the maintenance grew up with tablets and smart phones and virtual reality. They will expect to have these technologies supporting their work.

In the end, electricity system transformation will be driven by a combination of the right people around the table, having the right regulations and market design, and being active in integrating innovative technology into the system.

Given how the solutions and innovations are coming so fast, and because no solution fits all, we are working closely with our customers through joint innovation labs. In these innovation labs, we co-create new solutions with customers, for example, to test different technologies, to work on communications and architectures and tools to support the management of grid and hedge devices. With this approach, we can de-risk projects and enable faster adoption of solutions.

Q: So what needs to happen with the transmission and distribution system in the future?

Silva: Grid utility remuneration has been based on investments in grid infrastructure. There really wasn’t a scheme that allowed them to invest in “smart” solutions to “squeeze” more out of the capacity we already have on the grid. Grid security is based on asset redundancy, and today we use on average about 30% of the total installed grid capacity. But this is changing. In many countries, such as Ireland and the UK, ongoing regulation reviews aim at driving different schemes to combine the two.

There will be a need for a new grid infrastructure to connect renewables, to connect onshore and offshore wind projects and support the integration of distributed generation. We also will be using a lot of smart solutions to manage the grid and constraints to operate assets closer to their limits.

Interconnections between countries will also see an increase to facilitate the balancing of renewables over larger geographical areas and help to share resources between countries and states. Europe has plans to nearly double interconnections between countries in the next decade. New projects, including a project to connect Europe to northern Africa, are planned. At the same time, there are more ambitious visions of interconnection capacity coming from Asia into Europe.

Finally, as we connect more offshore wind, the Supergrid concept of meshed DC grids will drive a better use of offshore grid infrastructure. The supergrid North sea project looks at new concepts to help the connection of offshore wind from artificial islands to meshed DC grids.

The future grid will be more and more hybrid, with AC and DC grids operating in coordination.