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At the Heart of Electrification, Backbone of the Energy Transition

By focusing on electrification, GE Vernova makes its contribution to the decarbonization of our societies. In this interview, Philippe Piron, Chief Executive Officer of GE Vernova's Electrification Systems businesses, discusses the projects and initiatives that mobilize his company in this direction.

To support the decarbonization and global energy transition, GE Vernova is accelerating the development of its electrification activities. Tell us more.

GE Vernova's electrification activities, within its Energy division, consist of several assets covering a significant portion of the electrical industry: Grid Solutions, specializing in systems and equipment for electrical transmission and distribution networks; Power Conversion, which develops energy conversion systems to decarbonize energy-intensive industries; Solar & Storage Solutions, providing energy storage systems and solar inverters. Our mission is, therefore, to contribute to electrifying the world in order to enable its decarbonization.

Decarbonizing is not limited to producing clean and sustainable electrical energy. It also involves evacuating this energy from low-carbon production sources (nuclear, hydro, onshore or offshore wind, solar), transmitting it on a continental or national scale, then distributing it regionally, and finally managing it at the local level of an industrial district (steel complexes, mining, refining, data centers, etc.) to store and/or convert it into other forms of energy (thermal, mechanical, chemical, radiative) useful for companies' final applications. Developing electric propulsion engines for ships or liquefied natural gas (LNG) compression, shifting process industries from blast furnaces to electric furnaces, and producing minerals and hydrogen via electrolysis are some of our contributions to decarbonization.

Today, one of the major challenges in electrification lies in the expansion, strengthening, and modernization of electrical networks - commonly referred to as the grid. According to the International Energy Agency, more than 50% of global electrical investments will be dedicated to the electrical grid by 2030. The grid has become the backbone of the energy transition. Without a grid, there can be no transmission of clean and sustainable energy from production points to consumption points. One of the cardinal objectives of Grid Solutions is to accelerate the integration of renewables through high-voltage transmission systems (525,000 volts), flexible transmission systems that can compensate for the instabilities created by intermittent renewable energies, and modernized and digitized substations, including high-voltage substations, which are key nodes in the electrical grid, enabling the switching and disconnection of the current.

More specifically, in what areas do you operate?

To give you an initial overview: we have over 16,000 collaborators worldwide, including 4,000 engineers dedicated to electrical engineering. We have 34 industrial production sites and over 20 R&D centers worldwide. Our activity is structured around five business lines:

  • Grid Systems Integration, dedicated to major engineering projects such as High-Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) projects (these enable connectivity of offshore wind farms and long-distance transfer of high power onshore or underwater), Flexible Alternating Current Transmission Systems (FACTS) - which provide compensation solutions and stabilize the frequency and voltage of the electrical signal - and turnkey equipment sets for substations.
  • Power Transmission, dedicated to high-voltage equipment such as circuit breakers, air-insulated switchgears, gas-insulated switchgears, power transformers, and instrumentation transformers.
  • Grid Automation, dedicated to relays, gateways, energy management systems that enable protection, control, surveillance, and communication on the network at the microsecond level. Grid Automation also offers advanced automation and control solutions, including Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, advanced distribution management systems (ADMS), enhancing network efficiency, reliability, and responsiveness.
  • Power Conversion, creating systems and power electronics solutions (frequency/variable speed drive systems and automation) in the areas of marine (propulsion, energy distribution), oil and gas (electrification offshore platforms, steam crackers and LNG plants, replacement steam and gas turbines by high-speed electric motors, etc.), electro-intensive (metallurgy, mines, telecoms). Power Conversion also works to average network stability and high voltage by providing synchronous capacitors and compensators synchronous statics recreating inertia missing from renewable energy sources. Power Conversion is also a supplier of systems to the nuclear industry (fission power plants, tokamaks for fusion).
  • Solar & Storage Solutions designs and supplies inverters relaying photovoltaic energy to the network in alternating current and stationary battery systems allowing short and medium-term energy storage and injection of current contributing to the stability of certain networks.

With this portfolio, what needs do you answer?

We contribute in particular to:

  • Rapid expansion, interconnection on a continental scale, and the integration of renewable sources within the electric grid;
  • The flexibility, stability and resilience of networks that were not initially designed to compensate for disturbances created by the intermittences, the lack of natural inertia of renewables, and the growth in bidirectional current flows (resale of current by individuals, unstable predictability of needs);
  • The digitalization of the grid in order to operate the supervision of networks more efficiently;
  • Microgrids, connected or not to the national/regional network, offering increasing energy independence to major industrial players with local energy sources.

At the same time, the sectors covered are the sector electricity (energy producers, transmission, or distribution network managers) but also independent developers or private equity players who invest in energy infrastructure (wind and solar farms, grid stability service providers), and finally all major electro-intensive industries (marine, rail, steel, hydrometallurgy, mining, petro­chemicals, data centers).

Most countries are targeting carbon neutrality by 2050. What are the main challenges and obstacles that persist?

The grid remains one of the main challenges since it was designed nearly a century ago to integrate fossil fuels. Today, it is both a bottleneck in the face of growing demand and a fragile infrastructure due to the vastly different characteristics of renewable energies in the energy mix. The capacity to sustainably store energy in very large quantities to support the global electrification of various uses is another challenge.

The production of hydrogen (green through electrolysis, blue through methane reforming with CO2 capture solutions, turquoise via methane pyrolysis, white through native deposit exploration) is becoming a necessity, requiring specific means for its rapid scale-up (medium/high-voltage microgrids dedicated to high-power electrolyzers or furnaces, optimized compressors for its storage or transfer).

What are some examples of projects and interventions that are carried out by your business?

We recently announced the signing of an agreement with the Dutch-German network operator TenneT for five HVDC contracts (10 GW) in the North Sea. This program aims to accelerate the energy security of Europe and put it on the path to becoming the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050.

We have also recently commissioned our flexible static synchronous compensator solution for Eurotunnel. This solution provides the rapid voltage support required by Eurotunnel to operate 16 trains simultaneously in the Channel Tunnel, equivalent to 1,000 trains per day.

Additionally, we have secured a contract for three 380 kV Gas-Insulated Substations (GIS) T155 for the world's largest project for a hydrogen plant generated entirely by renewable energy (wind and solar). This project is located in the future smart city of Neom in Saudi Arabia. These substations will ensure a reliable and uninterrupted electricity supply to the hydrogen plant, which aims to produce over 600 tons of decarbonized hydrogen per day by the end of 2026, as well as to its wind and photovoltaic parks.

To meet these challenges and carry out these projects, human capital is key. Tell us more.

In a time of accelerated growth in our reference markets, our employees are our top priority. We are seeking individuals capable of addressing the challenges of the energy industry transition. This entails having strong technical knowledge and experience in fields such as electrical engineering, systems engineering, software engineering, and project management. Our sectors are in constant evolution, with new technologies, regulations, and emerging market dynamics. Being adaptable, willing to continuously learn to develop expertise in various customer domains, and being able to innovate are essential for thriving in this rapidly changing environment. We are actively recruiting, primarily in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States, and India.

The global energy sector is experiencing an exciting period. We have a key role to play in the transition and energy security. We are electrifying the world to decarbonize our future.

This article has been translated from the French with permission of La Jaune et la Rouge Magazine. The original article in French is available here.