EurActiv - Letters to the Editor


In response to the interview with Mr Gilligan of GE:

“Assumption”: (definition – Concise Oxford Dictionary) – thing assumed, take for granted, arrogance.

Mr Gilligan in his interview has assumed that his experience and knowledge of the USA and its power networks applies to Europe. He is correct that there was large-scale construction of power networks in Europe post-WW2. However, his assumptions with respect to the design life of network equipment are those of an equipment manufacturer wishing to sell more equipment.

Gilligan did not explain the ageing mechanism by which, for example, transformers only have a lifespan of 30 (or 40 years). Such devices have few moving parts. Changing their oil from time to time is about all that needs to be done to keep them going ad infinitum. However, I can appreciate that from an equipment supplier point of view this is a sub-optimal situation.

Moving on to network connections, underground cable laid in the early part of the 20th century (i.e. before 1910) continues to form part of many networks and shows little sign of failure. I know this as a simple matter of fact since I have issued permits-to-work to jointers to work on such cables. Irritating how reality gets in the way of a good story (we need to replace half our networks – which half would that be Mr Gilligan?)

In the case of network automation, Gilligan is clearly confused (or is perhaps intentionally confusing). Power networks from time to time suffer from faults and thus have protection systems whose purpose is to isolate the faulty section of network as quickly as possible (to prevent damage to the network).

A secondary consideration is to maintain power supplies to users. Most DNOs (distribution network operators) have increased levels of network automation to rapidly re-configure a given section of faulty network to maintain supplies. There is one DNO that did not follow this path and instead designed and built a network that auto-isolated faults – whilst automatically maintaining power supplies. I know this – because I worked on that network. Such a network, once built, offers little in the way of new sales to companies such as GE.

On the issue of power flows due to embedded renewables. At 400kV and 132kV there is no problem. These network layers can carry power in any direction (perhaps things are different in the US?). With respect to distribution networks, and again, referring to my own experience, a network (sadly there is only one) exists which is indifferent to the direction of power flows at any network layer.

Euro distribution networks could be re-configured (at modest cost) to accommodate multi-directional power flows. However, given the interview comments, Mr Gilligan does not seem very interested in ‘modest cost’ developments.

Mr Gilligan correctly notes that the intermittency of renewables’ power output is an issue. Such variability causes voltage control problems. There are straightforward solutions to this. PWR is involved in testing equipment which eliminates the problem of power and voltage variability and would like to sell loads of this equipment to DNOs (thus admitting PWR’s self-interest up-front).

In the case of Gilligan’s waffle on open standards. GE might support the principle but in practice GE’s actions suggest otherwise. DNOs use things called Distribution Management Systems (DMS). GE is a supplier of these. It is quasi-impossible for a DNO to move from one supplier of a DMS to another. Furthermore, it is impossible for a DNO to add to an existing DMS, third party applications. This is because the DMS supplier is ‘reluctant’ to provide interface information.

I’m not pointing the finger only at GE all suppliers of DMSs aim for supplier-lock-in. Open standards? Don’t make me laugh.

Other issues: Gilligan implies that wind lacks the scale of steam or gas turbines. True on a one-to-one basis (500MW steam turbo-alternator vs 6MW wind turbine). Untrue if you compare on the basis of sites. Fiddlers’ Ferry power station in the UK has an output of 2000MW. The Gwyn-ty-Mor wind farm off the coast of North Wales will be 500MW. There are other off-shore farms of similar size.

Finishing with that old chestnut, smart meters, the roll out of smart meters has two core objectives: provide a way to give households a monthly bill [and] offer the same group a display showing up-to-date energy usage. British Gas is already doing this. They give away the home display, whose cost has been estimated at 20 euros, and get the householders to self-read their meter once a month (and send the data by Internet or mobile to BG). This is a long way from the $500 hoped for by Gilligan. Indeed, his vision of smart meters is only relevant for homes that have: renewable generation or devices such as air-source or ground-source heat pumps.

When I see interviews like this with ‘US Captains of Industry’ I am reminded of the comment by another well-known US citizen, P.T.Barnum, “there’s a sucker born every minute”: this fits well with one of the COD’s definitions of “assumption” given at the beginning of this letter.

Mike Parr


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