With its Energiewende, Germany raised the bar in terms of setting the pace for renewable energy policies. In fact, the country aims to generate up to 60 per cent of electricity from renewables by 2035, demonstrating a dramatic shift towards clean energy in Europe’s largest economy. It was with Germany’s ambitious renewables targets in mind that I first started thinking about building a hybrid plant in the country’s capital, Berlin, on the site of GE’s first German foothold.
The hybrid power plant was originally just an idea, dreamt up, like a lot of good ideas, over dinner with partners and colleagues. However, whereas many far-fetched ideas are forgotten by morning, we quickly realised that this one was different. The concept came from the idea that the energy supply of the future will require a synchronization of conventional and renewable energy in order to minimise fluctuations. Germany’s continued success as the world’s largest energy laboratory and market for innovation is because it has created an environment where ideas like this can be turned into reality.
From idea to reality
Despite being dreamt up from within the vast walls of GE, at the beginning of the project it was a little like working for a start-up still operating on seed capital. We had no resources and everything had to be done from scratch. We had to acquire the funding, develop the business plan and form the new team. Despite this, the entire project only took a little over a year from concept to execution, with the plant commencing operation in May 2015.
The Hybrid Power Plant uses traditional photovoltaics with flexible GE Jenbacher Combined Heat and Power (CHP) technology and an innovative battery solution. In contrast with traditional energy generating solutions, where vast amounts of heat energy is wasted, CHP captures the usable heat that is produced in the process, which is used to heat up hot water for households. The plant also addresses one of the key challenges around renewables – storage. It uses an intelligent energy connections system which allows for the storage of surplus power in batteries. This offers the possibility of feeding that energy back into the plant network. The target is to consume around 80% of the solar energy produced and store 20% to iron out the base load.
The power plant is the world’s first roof-mounted solar power system to operate at 1,500 volts. The high operating voltage means that through the same amount of cable, there will be more electricity transmitted. In another words, for the same amount of power output, the amount of material used for the power electronics can be reduced, making the process even more cost-effective.
It is also the first time that Silicon Carbide, the new material set to revolutionize power electronics, has been used. Silicon Carbide (SiC) takes properties inherent to diamonds, one of the toughest materials in the world, and combines them with the properties of silicon. It’s similar to the technology found inside every computer and smart phone. The results are powerful. For example, SiC can shrink the size of a one megawatt inverter, which can supply 500 homes, by 35%. The material also allows an increase of 1% in power conversion efficiency, compared to today’s standards. While GE scientists have been studying the material for over 50 years, this is the first prototype of the SiC inverter put into operation - something which I am extremely proud of.
The “GE Store”
Although it felt like a start-up mentality at the very beginning, we of course took advantage of the vast expertise global expertise of GE. Leveraging the power of the GE Store, many of the assets and technologies come from different GE businesses. For example, GE Power provided the Jenbacher J312 gas engine, the power switch came from GE’s Industrial Solutions Business and the skid and battery converters from GE’s Power Conversion Business. The plant is a living example of how GE shares knowledge and combines assets in order to drive forward a more eco-friendly future for energy generation.
Projects such as the hybrid plant stress the importance of CHP systems in the future energy generation landscape. It demonstrates that decentralised solutions and bridging technologies can operate in close proximity to consumers. Even more importantly, the project highlights how the symbiosis of conventional and renewable energy generation equipment supports an avoidance of GHG emissions, more independence from energy markets, and greater cost efficiency.
It’s how at GE Power Conversion we are working towards the electrification of business infrastructure preparing customers for tomorrow’s energy landscape.
Watch the video to see how GE's hybrid power plant is pioneering the energy transition.