GE boss on ‘remarkable’ rise of renewables

GE won the prestigious clean energy award the Zayed Future Energy Prize in Abu Dhabi last week.

The award was presented to GE vice-chairman John Rice during the opening ceremony of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

The judging panel said GE had won because of its “leadership in the wind and solar energy markets”.

The panel noted that GE’s wind business alone has to date commissioned 41.3 GW of total generating capacity and installed more than 30,000 wind turbines.

After receiving the accolade for Best Large Corporation, GE’s vice-chairman John Rice spoke to me about the company’s work in renewables and how it sits alongside its traditional core business sectors of gas and steam turbines.

Rice explained that renewables account for about 10 per cent of GE’s overall portfolio and is “one of the fastest-growing businesses we have. It’s wind, solar, hydro and we are also heavily involved in power electronics – the technology that moves the power and converts it.”

He said that the rise of renewables as a viable business case was “a remarkable thing. When we got into the wind business [in the early 2000’s] I was in China and there was not a lot of interest in wind – the view was that it was too expensive – and I remember having discussions and feeling a little bit frustrated.

“Ten years later, and the biggest market for wind is China – so in a relatively short period of time it has gone from nothing to the largest. That reinforces to me how this is changing and how quickly it can change.”

Rice said that long-term challenge of renewables’ variability “has created a natural limitation that now can be resolved when you can introduce hybrid applications”.

Hybrid – in combination with solar and wind – can achieve a cost of electricity that’s in the 10, or 11 or 12 cents range, which, when you’re replacing diesel in a remote location, is very attractive. It’s not quite grid scale but in smaller applications it’s a good solution and much more environmentally responsible.”

As more renewables have entered GE’s business, Rice says: “We have organised our energy businesses around the premise that you need a portfolio of solutions – it’s impossible to focus on one technology exclusively.

“Countries have to look at their requirements and balance everything from nuclear to gas and in some cases coal – because coal is still the fuel choice requirement for 50 per cent of the world’s population. So we support COP21 completely but we also believe that companies like ours can help to make coal be consumed in a more environmentally-responsible way.

“We look across nuclear, coal, gas and all forms of renewable power. And we find the right balance, which may be different for the Emirates than it is for Saudi Arabia, or Indonesia or other countries.”

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