A Recap of ABB’s Automation and Power World 2012

abb showI learned something new today. The George Brown Convention Center in Houston is huge! Seriously, it’s ginormous. I know this because I practically walked the entire two miles around the whole thing looking for the door. Once I approached the loading center, I figured it was time to ask for help. Shout out to the member of the cleaning staff who helped me find my way, and spends his days walking around the mammoth. He’s considering getting a pedometer. I encourage it.

But in the short time I’ve been here at ABB’s Automation and Power World I’ve learned many other things of greater relevance to the renewable industry.

On the Solar Side
In the upcoming issue of Solar Power World (which should be out in May) I worked on a piece called The State Of The Solar Inverter, for which I interviewed solar-system installers to get their take on these devices. One complaint I heard often was how it’s difficult to determine the true system size the inverter is rated for. Part of this is due to fluctuations in temperature and elevation. One ABB solar inverter specialist compared it to an airport runway. “Some airports have to make the runway longer to accommodate for different altitudes.” Engineers working on a solar system must also make adjustments in relation to these aspects. A greater issue is that the U.S. has different grid codes than much of the world (we must think we’re special). So a 60-Hz model in Europe may only be 50 Hz here. You can solve this problem in two ways: use software such as the kind ABB offers to configure to U.S. requirements, or take it up with the “man.”

GTM Research also did a fantastic presentation on the state and future of the U.S. Solar Market. It was a great recap for those unfamiliar with the solar industry, and a review of how all the pieces fit for those who are. The company notes that solar has grown significantly in the U.S. in the last few years, but it’s still a small piece of the nation’s electric pie. Still, GTM Research forecasts that in three or four years the U.S. will be first or second in the world solar market. To be exact, the U.S. solar market is expected to grow through 2016, at which point it will be about 15% of the world market. One point I thought was especially interesting is that Germany has one of the top solar markets, but the U.S. has more sunlight. This just goes to show the success of solar is heavily reliant on incentives and subsidies. We could use some more of those here.

A Bit on Wind
Acciona’s CEO Joe Baker (who actually has some history working with ABB) gave an interesting take on the PTC. He doesn’t expect it to be renewed until after the November elections (a shame renewable support doesn’t exactly seem to be bipartisan anymore), and his guess is the credit will only be renewed for about a year. Ideally, he would like to see an extension for two to four years, but he caught my attention when he said if it doesn’t get renewed, it may not be the worst thing on the planet. Though it will mean a loss of jobs and a hard time for companies, a lack of a PTC will expedite consolidation but the market will push on. Still, he encourages wind industry support. “This is a business worth investing in,” he says. But how long to keep a PTC around is a hard question to answer. He’d also like to see a federal RPS. “The government needs to propose a goal, debate on numbers, and then just pick one and go with it.”

On All Things Renewable
I also got to sit in a session on smart grids (say that three times fast). One ABB representative discussed challenges of connecting solar and wind projects to the grid due to their variability. According to the speaker, improvements on this front are all about communication. Keeping up monitoring and diagnostics helps, as well as IEC 61850 and its “goose logic.” The standard for design of electrical substation automation uses a control model mechanism (Generic Object Oriented Substation Events) in which any format of data is grouped into a data set and transmitted within a super-short time period. This assures specified transmission speed and reliability. Technology is also expected to trend toward self-healing power grids that respond to threats, material failures, and other destabilizing influences by preventing or containing the spread of disturbances.

Battery storage is also an important aspect when considering renewable power sources on the grid. Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) can smooth out dips so that the combined output plus the storage is relatively constant. BESS can also utilize generation peaks by storing excess power, then using it during peak demands. BESS can also improve grid stability through ramping. For instance, if a renewable project (or any really) comes offline, BESS can change the output and therefore provide time to start backup generators. In the presentation I saw, a BESS in a 40 to 50-ft shipping container could generate about 1 MW for 15 minutes. This in itself sounds like a large unit, but it’s nothing compared to the 40-some MW BESS ABB has up in Alaska. The thing takes up a warehouse!

ABB chooses to use lithium-ion batteries because they offer several advantages. These are highly efficient with low loss rate. Also, this type of battery has long cycle life (a cycle is one charge and discharge). A BESS can have tens of hundreds of these on a daily basis so it’s important the system can handle it. Lithium-ion batteries also require minimal maintenance and have many manufacturers so cost will likely decrease in the future. Drawbacks of these batteries include complex battery monitoring systems and designing carefully while considering satefy and thermal requirements.

About ABB
Overall, I couldn’t be more impressed with ABB and its event. From sit-down breakfast, lunch, and dinner to segmented seminars to high-tech ways to share information with other attendees, my first experience at this show was a great one. As you can see above, I learned a ton, even about the company itself. ABB’s new CEO Joe Hogan has over twenty years of experience at GE, but with the looks and enthusiasm of a 23-year-old. ABB employees stated they’ve rarely seen the company’s first American CEO without a smile. In his keynote, he even lightened things up by recalling how when he told his parents about the new position they asked if it was a candy company. But Hogan has a lot of other things to smile about. North America is ABB’s largest market. Six out of the eight companies ABB has acquired are American, including the newest Baldor Electric Company. Hogan attributes such success to an engineering culture and willingness to try new things. In an era where meeting power demand poses challenges (think of everything you plug in to charge at night that you didn’t five years ago), it’s companies like ABB who will help boost the nation’s economy and enable it to re-industrialize and increase its power generation potential.


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