Dr. Michael Weinhold, CTO of Siemens Energy Management Division, speaks to Alicia Buller about the future of global electricity and the rise of ‘flex-umers’
It’s clear to see why Dr Michael Weinhold is chief technology officer at Germany’s largest industrial engineering firm.
The irrepressibly bright CTO says he’s been fascinated by electrical energy ‘since he was a boy’. With 25 years service at the company, he’s passionate about innovation and can often be found inventing new systems and products. He’s since won internal awards for ‘Inventor of the Year’.
In 2012, Siemens divested its solar businesses, however, it maintained renewable energy support systems that fall under its energy management division. Today given the rapid drop of solar PV and wind prices around the world, the firm is once again pushing for the supplying of clean energy solutions and taking more care of complete ownership of solar photovoltaic power plants.
Siemens, which is separated into industry, energy, healthcare and infrastructure and cities divisions, employs around 372,000 people worldwide and reported global revenue of around €83 billion in 2017.
In this exclusive interview, Weinhold talks about the future of global electric energy and sustainable power.
Can you outline how you see the role of electrical energy within the future energy system?
Electrical energy is the most important form of energy in our everyday lives.
We can no longer think of any infrastructure running without electrical energy – whether it’s our smartphones or our computers.
If you look at the world’s electrical energy usage already and why we’ll need more to come, it’s because electrical energy systems allow for a vast integration of renewables. It’s also easy to transmit and distribute this energy into our infrastructures, campuses, industries and private homes. If you look at the application, you see that electrical energy enhances the efficiency.
Some applications are now converting or transforming into full electrical energy based applications. It’s unique – no other energy carrier allows this versatility and flexibility.
Electrical energy offers the unique opportunity to turn our infrastructures into sustainable infrastructures. That’s what fascinates me. There’s innovation going on in all of our products and solutions.
What are the challenges for growing electrical energy?
The sustainability of the electricity grid is important because electrical energy will be transmitted through conductors and grids.
As we are seeing more and more renewable [energy projects], the grids are essential. They are the glue between the complexity [of the systems]. Without the grids, we cannot obtain an efficient energy system. But the hardware, conductors and transformers are not enough. It’s also about sensor connectivity and the data analytics because renewables (such as wind) are variable by nature.
There needs to be an alignment between the generation of the electricity grids and the usage of electrical energy. The big word now when it comes to electricity systems is ‘flexibility’.
So technology and energy are going to become very intertwined in future?
This has actually happened within the last 30 years. When I trained as an electrical engineer, we were looking at mostly dispatchable conventional power plants and passive power consumers. Nowadays, many industries, campuses and private houses are hosting their own renewable power plants and increasingly we see battery storage as well.
We are moving from a world of consumers to a world of prosumers. The new buzzword is ‘flex –umers’. It’s now about pulling over system efficiencies.
We are moving from a world of consumers to a world of prosumers. The new buzzword is ‘flex –umers’. It’s now about pulling over system efficiencies
What we are seeing now, which is also reflected in the business model innovation through IOT platforms, is stakeholders who are integrated into the bigger system. We see increased coupling from the electricity sector into heating and cooling sectors into other infrastructures like mobility and electric cars. The electrical energysystem is right in the centre of this transformation to sustainable infrastructures.
How far away is a world where electrical energy for all devices is connected intelligently?
This world is developing as we are speaking. You experience it yourself if you have a smartphone and a new car, the two may coordinate with each other. My car does.
For example, when I start my car, my smartphone tells me what way I have to go and how long it will take. We are getting more and more assistance in our daily lives even though we may not realise it.
The iPhone was introduced in 2007 so it’s not like we’ve had it for several decades. In just 10 years, we have experienced a massive increase in “assisted“ smartness and we’re taking to it as if it has been there forever. We may not be conscious of it but this integration is happening.
What’s your process for innovation?
I am often doing innovation workshops with customers, universities and research centres in order to see what’s coming up. I always tell them to challenge me and surprise me.
It’s our task as an industry, together with our partners, to convert [ideas] into existing deployable products and systems. Being an inventor means being outside of your lab and being with the user of your technology. It also means going to the think tanks and research centres to get inspired.
Being an inventor means being outside of your lab and being with the user of your technology.
In Siemens we work in a very networked fashion, we have regular meetings across our divisions. We coordinate all very closely. This also adds to the power of Siemens because we can pull synergies from what we see around the world.
Every Siemens colleague around the world has seen something and has knowledge. The task of the innovator is to be open and tap into this knowledge of the people.
You sound very passionate about what you do…
Yes. My motto is ‘No surprise is a surprise’. Within our energy world, there is always some interesting data point or idea being generated around the world so I’m always on the lookout for surprises.
As engineers and innovators, it’s not about figuring out how systems don’t work; it’s about figuring out how it works and how to improve it.
I think it’s important that every single person is creative and can be an innovator and can make a difference.
How many people do you manage?
I have 16 direct reports. But you can think of me as a person living in a network of expertise inside and outside Siemens. You innovate nowadays in networks. It is really about making an impact and that is difficult to do by yourself.
When I have an idea I always like to discuss it with teams internal and external to Siemens. I’m not the person who works in a lab behind closed doors. That’s not me. I also [spend a lot of time] outside doing research with our customers and finding out how we can improve.
Are you positive humanity will come up with enough ideas to solve any challenges we might have?
Yes. Yes we will. It’s about making it happen. That’s the good news. A lot of needed technologies are already there, and they will get permanently improved.
Do we need to move faster on implementing the technologies?
Yes, it’s about implementation. It’s also about thinking within an overarching country system. For example, we can push renewable energy from the grids from the areas where we have them abundantly and very cost efficiently into other centres very securely and very resiliently.
Again, the electricity grids are very important so we are pushing forward with power electronics in this field and our HVDC technologies. We are helping our customers digitalise substations to make them run more efficiently.
How do you see the mix of renewable energy playing out?
The renewable energy sectors which are important are hydro, wind and solar energy.
There will be a massive increase in renewable power plants. Hydro, of course, is a matter of geological formation in a country. Like some countries are flush with hydro, think of Quebec or Norway, and others have no hydro, like Dubai for example. But Dubai has a huge solar potential and they’re just building an 800MW PV power plant.
We’ll also see a massive furthering up of wind power plants slowly, and therefore the grids are necessary.
Efficient and flexible conventional power plants are also necessary because in many regions you’ll have times where there is not enough wind or solar input.
What per cent of renewable energy does the planet need to achieve?
According to various studies, 100 per cent renewables is not needed for a sustainable energy system. But we do need a substantial amount of renewables, around 80 per cent in the electricity sector.
The electricity sector plays an essential role – not only integrating renewable energies but also in helping other infrastructures to decarbonise. For example, power to heat, power to cooling, power to process heat and power to synthetic fuels.
If you look into what we are doing, we are working on sustainability. We are focused on raising efficiency, energy system efficiencies, renewables and decreasing carbon footprint. We’re always looking into competitive solutions. It’s about making things better, not just different.
We are analysing energy systems around the world to derive what’s the best and fastest approach. It’s not about a single optimisation of energy systems, it means thinking in the context of countries or even continents because we can build electricity systems spanning continents.