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What are Digital Energy solutions?

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When we think of General Electric (GE), consumers envision better lights and kitchen appliances. Businesses think of industrial applications, such as jet engines and massive generating turbines. At Total Energy USA, Luke Clemente, General Manager for GE Digital Energy, chaired a panel on “Grid Resilience for Severe Weather and Reliability”. In an interview after the panel, Clemente explained why GE has been looking to Digital Energy solutions for the last 20 years.

Digital Energy focuses on transmission and distribution of electrical power from the release of an electron at the generator, through the step-up transformer, on to the HV transition grid, step-down transformer, and through the distribution grid to the (smart)meter. The focus is on both the hardware and software of the grid.

A century ago, the early power grid was all electromechanical. Manual switches have now been replaced with digital relays and advanced software for managing the grid. Distribution management systems, energy management for transmission, outage management, and geospatial systems are the key software platforms used on the grid, although not yet universal or integrated. GE has a companywide initiative for industrial internet and big data movement, which is core to digital energy. As the cost of communication and sensor technology falls, data gathering capabilities are being deployed. Smart grid 2.0 will involve learning to work with the massive data sets which can be generated by sensors throughout massive grids. Grid insight helps customers extract data to drive efficiency and reliability.

Having a market place that works by sending price signals without disclosing the underlying data will be important, since electrical utilities are no longer vertically integrated. Perhaps the role of government is to be sure these markets are functioning. The beauty of the smart grid is that consumers can have access to pricing information and be able to act on the data. Technology in the industrial space has allowed a good tradeoff between effort and reward for demand response and controlling energy usage. Even before digitalization, heavy energy using industrials applied a manual effort to optimize energy usage. Modern digitalization makes energy optimization more effective and efficient.

Innovation in the residential space is coming and eventually there will be an App for the “set and forget” crowd. Most people don’t want to spend effort. GE is pioneering smart appliances that can help minimize cost by optimizing to run at a lower cost time with manual overrides. Shifting electrical usage out of peak periods is not only cost effective for consumers, it also reduces the need for a utility to fire up less optimal, high carbon generation sources.

Energy is one of the oldest components of the industrial revolution, changing lives since the 2nd half of the 18th century. A key enabler for the industrial revolution was the replacement of human and animal energy with machines, which required a power source. Until the 1970s, America had a stable, regulated industry, with successful post-WW2 build out of the grid as we know it now. In the last 7-10 years, with the deployment of the smart grid, rapid change is taking place. Deregulation is also giving benefits, including distributed renewables, and changes in the fuel mix which brings the benefits of lower carbon emissions. Another benefit is that US electrical rates are some of the most competitive in the world.

Reliability is a continuing issue with deregulation, as utilities struggle with recovery from major storms. Digital solutions will help. Nstar, an eastern electric utility, invested in fault protection, isolation and restoration technology. During Sandy, they had 50% of their customers restored within an hour. Technology also allows monitoring for early warning of device failure, allowing preventive maintenance to minimize outages. Digital investments have huge potential to make improvements for consumers. The digital grid enhances capabilities to address carbon challenges. Clemente predicts innovations such as renewables and second generation electric vehicles will continue to take off.

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