The energy transition to renewable electricity is gathering speed, with wind farms and solar panels popping up around the world. While renewables help us cut carbon, they have their own challenges. In the absence of grid-scale storage, what happens when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine? The good news is that there are people like Jim Walsh, general manager of the grid software business at GE Digital, who are working on the problem and helping grid operators make sure that our power doesn't go out. "This problem is way too big for paper and a pencil," Walsh says.
We recently sat down with Walsh and talked to him about software and its role in the energy transition. Here's an edited version of our conversation.
GE Reports: Why is GE Digital focusing on the energy transition to more renewable sources of energy?
Jim Walsh: Around the world, everybody is talking about decarbonization. Wind turbines, solar panels, batteries - they are obviously all very relevant. But what's starting to come to light now is the role of the grid. The energy transition is not just about making renewable electricity. It's being able to get it reliably and affordably from the point of creation to the point of consumption.
GER: How can software help?
JW: You can't just scrap the grid as it exists today. It can't happen. You need to transform the way that the grid operates, and the only way to transform the grid is through software.
GER: Can you explain it?
JW: First let me give you some background. The grid is sometimes referred to as the most complex machine ever created by humans, and we spent the last 100 years building it out. The grid was designed to push power from a big power plant someplace far away to the point where people need it. But that picture has changed. We now have intermittent generation from sources like wind farms and solar panels everywhere along the grid that only produce when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.
But there's one key feature of the grid that hasn't changed: Supply must always meet demand, or the system will fail. With all these renewables coming online, that's not easy anymore, and that's also where software comes in.
GER: Give us an example.
JW: There are two main roles our software can play. One is forecasting and the other is outage management. The grid is a large, interconnected system, and problems can cascade. If your generation assets are highly dependent on the weather, understanding weather patterns and what they mean for power production becomes very important. Similarly, if a tree falls on the power line, our software can help the grid operator very quickly pinpoint the problem and trigger the steps that are required to manage the outage and prevent it from cascading across the system.
GER: How do you get the data you need to see what's happening on the grid?
JW: Besides weather data, there are sensors on the grid that are generating tremendous amounts of information we can analyze. We are living through a data explosion. Say someone put a solar panel on their roof - the grid operator will want to know its status. What's it doing? Is it generating back out onto the grid? There's a whole host of questions that we have never had to be asked before. Software is the only way to deal with them, it's the glue that holds it all together.
GER: What other challenges are you seeing?
JW: Another one is the electrification of everything. Take electric vehicles. We talked about the variability in the supply of electricity, but demand patterns are also changing. We've got to help grid operators with all that change.
GER: What makes you excited about your work?
JW: We're taking on maybe the most existential threat that our generation faces in terms of global warming and the need for decarbonization. It's really exciting to be right in the middle of that with colleagues who have got a ton of experience and a lot of different perspectives. I come to work every day knowing that we've got a real opportunity to make a difference, and we've got to earn the right every day to make that difference. But boy, what a great mission. Whatever changes will come, we'll be ready.
Image and video credits: GE Reports