World Wide Energy Grid: Siemens CTO reveals next paradigm for a low-carbon world

11 Oct 2017

Dr Michael Weinhold, CTO of Siemens’ Energy Management Division. Image: Luke Maxwell

Siemens’ Dr Michael Weinhold tells John Kennedy how the decarbonisation of the world’s energy systems requires a swift transition to a system that will be more decentralised, digitised and highly automated.

The CTO of Siemens’ Energy Management Division, Dr Michael Weinhold, is pretty fired up by the potential of what he refers to as the World Wide Energy Grid.

He is not trying to be droll with a play on World Wide Web, he is speaking with conviction about the onset of a world where a broad mix of energy sources, distributed energy systems and a plethora of grids joined by interconnectors will make real-time energy trading and sourcing a reality for generations to come.

Siemens is following a strategy whereby the decarbonisation of the global energy system is driving us to a new energy paradigm.

‘Electrical energy is key for our modern society and for a sustainable world’

The German engineering and technology giant believes that the transition will need to be swift and deliberate. This will be necessary to facilitate a continued load growth, a changing mix of generation sources and the need to avoid poor investments or market imbalance.

The end result will be an energy system that will be more decentralised, digitised and highly automated.

Dr Weinhold was on a visit to Dublin recently to learn what challenges and opportunities Ireland is experiencing in its low-carbon transition, and to bring his understanding of what innovations are currently being progressed to support Ireland’s decarbonised future.

Weinhold has held several energy-related CTO positions in Siemens and has received several honours, such as Inventor of the Year and Top Innovator. He also holds the rank of chief key expert.

The global energy revolution

“The electricity system is in the middle of tremendous change,” Dr Weinhold said.

“We see more and more renewables that need to be integrated. Like here in Ireland, wind power plants, photovoltaic solar power plants have to work hand in hand with conventional power stations and they all connect to the grid. On the load side, we have new infrastructures connecting, like the electric car.

“If you analyse energy systems, you will see that the usage of electrical energy is key to reach sustainable infrastructures, so we will see the rising importance of electrical energy in the next two decades. It’s good to be an electrical engineer these days.”

Dr Weinhold’s Energy Management Division is active all over the world and every region is different.

“Every region has an energy history, resources available or not, an industrial base or not, and a strategy on how to move forward. That is what we analyse, for example. Together with our clients, we develop roadmaps and get into the realisation phase. There is no blueprint for all. Every given energy system requires special attention.”

The variety of problems and solutions therefore requires special attention to R&D.

“Within Siemens, we work in an integrated fashion. Overall, around 10pc of our workforce is dedicated to R&D and that’s tremendous brainpower. What does that brainpower or swarm intelligence come up with? One innovation I really love is our HVDC Plus technology. This is a real breakthrough. Before that, we needed bulky transformers; magnetics and filters were being used, and now we can generate a nice wave form out of the silicon and up to a very high rating beyond a gigawatt. That’s what I am proud of.”

The future of distributed energy systems

One of the big changes on the horizon for electricity generation is the onset of distributed energy systems that will enable towns, factories and even homes to sell energy back to the grid.

“One major change – with respect to the time when I was educated as an engineer in the 1980s – now there are a lot of possibilities to produce electricity on the premises of residential homeowners or supermarkets by using photovoltaics, for example.

“We should not forget that most end usage goes into space heating or space cooling – in many countries, more than a third of the overall end usage of energy. As we turn our houses more and more efficient and as we strive for sustainable infrastructure, we will see that electrical energy will be used more and more, and to a higher share of those infrastructures; for example, heat pumps or direct electric heating and infrared lighting.

“Mobility is an example where we are changing infrastructure from combustion engine to hybrid engines, and maybe full electric mobility, and so electrical energy will be in the centre of the energy system of the future and actually, it already is.

“You cannot operate a modern society without electrical energy; it is not possible and we will use more of it. If we talk about digitalisation, it also requires lots of energy, especially if you think about the data centres of today.

“Electrical energy is key for our modern society and for a sustainable world.”

Engineering a renewable future

Ireland is currently on tenterhooks awaiting the outcome of a drawn-out court battle over planning permission for the go-ahead of a major Apple data centre in Athenry, Galway, which will be 100pc powered by renewables.

In addition, Microsoft recently revealed how it will use energy from a wind farm in Kerry to power its data centres in Dublin.

I ask Dr Weinhold if 100pc renewable energy is entirely possible for the needs of modern industry and the digital world.

He diplomatically points out that the global energy grid of the very near future will require a myriad of sources of energy and for Earth to really harness renewables to their full potential with clever engineering.

“You can do it but not without the molecules being produced by renewables. The reason is that the majority of renewable power will come from solar and wind power plants. Of course, if you are blessed with hydro, you will use hydro. Biomass is a very local topic. We don’t have enough plants to power the planet on biomass alone so it will be a hydro, wind, solar.

“Solar is variable in nature so we do have to bridge at extended times when there is no (or not much) intake. This can only be done by fuels that we would have to produce from renewables, such as power to gas, producing hydrogen out of electrical engines, splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen, and storing away the hydrogen and using it later for bridging those gaps. The technology is there, the storage facilities are there and the technologies for re-electrification, either by gas turbines or fuel cells. As we are producing more and more in countries where there is not much hydro, we will see power to gas kick in.

“Another way will be by building interconnectors. These allow us to transmit electricity from places where there is good potential to others, and make use of different conditions and seasons; if you go north-south, for example. To go 100pc renewable requires molecules to do renewables and a transmission grid,” he concluded.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years