The National Academy of Engineering named electrification as the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century. Started by Thomas Edison in the 1880s, the U.S. electrical grid is so massive today that the 6 million miles of transmission and distribution lines that link power plants to consumers could span the globe more than 200 times at the equator.
But size is not enough. The grid will also need “smarts” to improve efficiency and reliability, manage the millions of electric vehicles that will start plugging in soon, and integrate a growing number of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. These sources are scattered around the country, often away from urban centers and existing transmission infrastructure, and their output fluctuates with changes in the weather.
Together, these challenges will require new technologies that build on the existing network. “Modernizing our electric grid is a project long overdue,” said former U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. “If Thomas Edison were alive today, he might be surprised at how similar our electric grid is to when the first lines were laid a century ago.”
GE’s Digital Energy business is already playing an active part in developing solutions to make the grid more intelligent and resilient. The business is also taking part in a vibrant debate about navigating the best path forward.
For example, last fall Digital Energy’s President and CEO Bob Gilligan advised the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s large study on “The Future of the Electric Grid.” The study found that the new “distributed and intermittent” energy sources such as wind and solar will present the grid with “unprecedented technological challenges” and that “new regulatory approaches may be required to encourage the adoption of innovative network technologies.”
Some of these technologies already exist today. For example, Gilligan’s Digital Energy provides utilities with advanced automation solutions to improve grid visibility and control.
In May 2011, GE acquired the Ireland-based FMC-Tech, a leading provider of real-time power line monitoring technology. The investment in FMC-Tech was part a $200 million innovation challenge, co-funded with four other venture capital firms, designed to “bring the grid into the 21st century.”
Other “smart” energy projects that GE is developing include better battery systems for energy storage, and smart meters that allow consumers to improve the management of their energy use and respond to changes in prices. Studies show that when combined with technologies such as smart appliances, smart thermostats and home energy displays, savings can jump to an average of 25 percent.
Spot on: This “Powering the Grid” infographic lays out ideas submitted during the $200 million ecomagination challenge.
Gilligan said that “while revolutionary energy technologies are developed each day, the way we apply them to modernize and nurture our electrical infrastructure is really more of an evolution than a revolution.”
“With increased reliability, efficiency and sustainability, we’ll be able to power traditional economic growth and be ready for the next generation of life-changing technology,” Gilligan said. “We can do it by taking measured, affordable evolutionary steps. However, we, as a country, must act today.”