Sometimes in life there are certain things we tend to ignore. Typically because they are always there…but when they are not we quickly pay attention. At GE, we always think back to Edison and the light bulb invention. My career started in our GE Lighting business so it was something I thought about a lot. In the story of this breakthrough invention we focus a great deal on how Edison strengthened the filament to create light for a sustained period of time. However, rarely do we reflect on the innovations that came before this as the world moved from candle light to electrically-generated light – we rarely reflect on the electricity part.
“In the late 1870s, Edison had claimed that he would light up the world with his incandescent lights. The first step in his plan to do so? Create what amounted to a square mile showroom on the Lower East Side [New York]: An electrical grid that supplied direct current to a chunk of the city thanks to energy generated inside a new power station at 257 Pearl Street. It would supply power to some of the most important businesses in the city, crucially, including the old New York Times building—smart, considering the paper would inevitably cover the mind-boggling development!”
As I travel the globe, especially now as a leader of GE’s Electrification business, known as Energy Connections, I marvel at how people are still working to evolve the way they transport electrons to people that need them the most. It’s hard to believe that in 2017, 1.2 billion people still don’t have access to electricity. In one corner of the globe you see tangled webs of wires connecting power from diesel generators to buildings. In another corner of the globe you see how High-Voltage Direct Current (or HVDC) is moving 700kV+(!) of power over 500+ miles so countries can tap into wind and hydro power in remote locations.
Because the needs of our customers vary so greatly, GE has numerous businesses that operate within what we call our Energy Value Network (EVN). Working together we help with power generation from GE Power & GE Renewable Energy, and we help connect this power to the people and places that need it most through our team at GE Energy Connections. All supported with essential technologies and software capabilities leveraged from our GE Global Research Center and GE Digital teams. With each handoff, you begin to have greater appreciation for dancing electrons making their way to those light bulbs we assume work when we flip the switch each morning in our homes, offices and schools.
With the EVN, we focus on three big themes that are transforming the way electricity moves in perhaps the most revolutionary ways since those early days of Edison and the other energy pioneers.
Jeff Immelt famously pivoted GE to be the world’s digital industrial, and he’s so right -- here’s why in the context of energy. My friend Jerome Pecresse at GE Renewable Energy can make 19 wind turbines practically appear out of thin air, it’s quite a magic trick. To qualify that, their Digital Wind Farm boosted power output of E.ON’s US fleet of wind turbines by 4%. Same assets, digitally optimized to crank out more power. Throughout GE’s portfolio we’re helping customers in the cloud and at the edge. We’ve helped early adopters of GE’s connected controls achieve productivity increases of over 20% and overall performance increases of over 7%. Customers who aren’t accessing this potential are leaving power (and money) blowing in the wind.
Over a billion people lack access to electricity today and for more than half of them, the conventional grid may not be the best way to get them power. Watching Steve Bolze's team at GE Power light up an ancient Himalayan Village was moving. Microgrids at a small scale like this, or at a much larger scale as my team did in Nice, France, with the world’s first smart solar district that can completely unplug, or “island,” from the Grid if needed offer glimpses into new grid models that have profound impacts on the business models of utilities today. We’ll need to move with greater urgency and greater connection than ever before to help our customers succeed in this rapidly changing environment and bring the benefits of this success to the people they power.
Lastly, the trend to decarbonize. Power outages caused by severe weather events cost the global economy about $200 billion a year and these events are increasing. At GE we believe climate change is real and we need to do all we can to meet global energy demand sustainably. The financial costs are real as is the risk for inaction. Recently GE Power and Energy Connections announced the world’s first hybrid electric gas turbine that can cut emissions by 60%. This tech also solves a unique challenge that comes from adding more renewables to the grid. Since the sun doesn’t shine all the time, gas turbines have had to keep spinning even though they were not generating any power for the grid—they were needed just in case. This new system adds a unique battery component and control system so that power can quickly be added to the grid if needed while a gas turbine comes online to meet power needs. This means the turbine isn’t spinning idly—and needlessly—saving cost, reducing emissions and water. This model has implications for any region that is looking to incorporate more renewables onto the grid.
The potential for transformation is right in front of us. The passionate teams at GE recognize this inflection point in our industry and are taking control of it, and co-creating the way forward alongside our customers.