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Innovation & Technology Leadership in the Energy Sector – Issues & Strategies From GE’s Jeffrey Imme

The topics of energy conservation, green initiatives, global warming, renewable energy, and environmental responsibility are popular today, but not much has changed in terms of governmental policy in the energy sector in a long time. Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman and CEO of GE, explained during a recent MIT School of Engineering lecture that he took a course in 1981 called Energy Policy and the curriculum is exactly the same today in 2007.

This passivity, Immelt explains, is a direct result of a lag between “market signals and time horizons, as well as societal expectation that energy is a God-given right.” It is a fact that the dynamics of the energy market is changing as the cost of energy continues to spiral upward, and the primary sources of hydrocarbons become less secure. The National Academies and other reputable scientific organizations also provide strong evidence on the risk of adverse climate change from global warming caused in part by growing greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions.

Sensitivity about global warming, energy costs, and concern for the environment is likely to rise after Al Gore and a United Nations science panel received the Nobel Peace Prize this month for their work on the issue. Furthermore, there is growing scientific consensus over the role that manmade greenhouse-gas emissions play in climate change. How much such coveted award to a former US VP influences the removal of political barriers to action remain to be seen.

To address the GHG problem, energy efficiency has emerged as the most prevalent strategy used by FT500 companies (the largest 500 companies globally by market capitalization, as published by the Financial Times) across sectors to reduce their GHG emissions according the latest issue of the Carbon Disclosure Project Report 2007.

This has created opportunities for leading international companies focused on energy efficiency products and services, e.g., Schneider Electric, to provide solutions that help to limit energy consumption and its impact on the environment. An integrated energy management system can save up to 45%, says Ron Zimmer, Executive Director of CABA, a not-for-profit industry association that promotes advanced technologies for the automation of buildings and homes.

Energy Source Options

The choices available to relieve the world’s energy problem disconcert policy makers and executives. Securing new supplies of fossil fuels-is not easy or inexpensive-and present geopolitical issues, while new technologies offering alternative sources of energy come with significant levels of uncertainty. According to John P. Holdren, Professor of Environmental Policy and Director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University there are many issues and unanswered questions with energy sources:

Coal, Tar Sands, Oil Shale-Not enough atmosphere? This refers to the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb without intolerable consequences the emissions from mobilizing and burning these immense fossil-fuel resources, above all the carbon dioxide.

  • Biofuels-Not enough land? Growing biofuels must compete for land and water with production of food, fiber, and chemical feedstocks, as well as with the essential environmental service functions of lightly exploited and unexploited ecosystems.
  • Wind and Hydropower-Not enough acceptable sites? Wind and hydro are most economical in places where the respective resources are highly concentrated and near load centers; not only do costs tend to go up as increasing scale of use drives society to less attractive sites, but many of the best sites are prized for other purposes and may be placed off limits by politics.
  • Solar Photovoltaics-Not enough money? Despite decades of remarkable progress in cost reduction, solar photovoltaic arrays remain several times more expensive than fossil-fueled, nuclear, and wind electricity generation for grid-connected applications. How much cheaper photovoltaics can get-and how much costlier their competition might get-remain unclear.
  • Nuclear Fission-Too unforgiving? Nuclear fission is unforgiving of error in design and operation of reactors, reprocessing plants, fuel-fabrication facilities, and waste transport and disposal-and unforgiving of malice by those who would attack the facilities for economic and public-health impact or divert the technology and materials for making nuclear weapons.
  • Nuclear Fusion-Too difficult? After more than 50 years of effort and the expenditure of perhaps 30 billion current U.S. dollars in fusion R&D worldwide, the best-performing devices aimed at harnessing for power production the process that powers the stars and hydrogen bombs still require more energy to run than they produce.
  • Hydrogen-Only an energy carrier, not a source. Chemically unbound hydrogen does not exist in significant quantities on Earth, and extracting it from the forms in which it is most abundantly found-water and hydrocarbons-costs more energy than chemical reactions of the resulting hydrogen can yield.
  • Ocean Energy-Too costly and too disruptive? Harnessing tides by damming estuaries is both costly and highly disruptive environmentally. Turbines in tidal straits and devices for harnessing wave energy must be both inexpensive and robust in the hostile marine environment; the needed combination may be unattainable.
  • Improving Energy-End-Use Efficiency-Not enough education? Increasing the efficiency with which energy is converted into the goods and services that people want-comfort, mobility, lighting, air-conditioning, the powering of industrial processes, and so on-is equivalent to an energy source, because kilowatt-hours or gallons of fuel saved in one application can be used for another.
    What Has Changed?

In view that governmental policy has been at a stand still-and alternative sources of energy have inherent challenges, Immelt offered his view on what changed in the last 25 years to assess market opportunities better:

  • Demand for energy is on the rise with globalization moving towards full throttle, e.g., China, India, et cetera.
  • Standard of living will increase 100 fold in most developing countries in the next 50 years, fueling further demand.
  • Environmental thinking is now mainstream and is no longer a left wing agenda.
  • Pricing of energy will continue to rise and stay high.
  • In 1980, 80% of oil and gas supply was controlled by the big oil companies. Today, 80% of the oil and gas supply is controlled by national companies.
  • Supply of hydrocarbons is still plentiful, but much less secure and difficult to obtain.
  • Hundreds of energy and environmental bills in the US and Europe are pending legislative approval.
  • Investment horizon is different now and companies can make money.

Now is the time for technology and innovation to pay off great dividends.

So, given the changing and dynamic world we live in, what does the investment horizon look like for the energy sector today? Immelt believes that green = green ($), that the economics are compelling, and that it is wise for companies to be ahead of inevitable regulation.

Despite the inherent challenges with energy sources, Immelt is confident that GE’s vast investment in new energy ventures can produce attractive returns for many decades. GE is focused on innovation and driving cost out of technologies to make them marketable. For example, take 30%-50% out of the cost of coal gasification, or take silicon cost out of solar panels. To that end, GE is looking for opportunities to partner with companies big and small for R&D, manufacturing, and distribution opportunities.

Five Growth Strategies

To establish a leadership position in the market, GE will bet broadly on different technologies and fuel sources, rather than focusing on a few options. “For GE, we view energy as a green light special,” says Immelt, and “our strategy is to be big in big markets.” Therefore, GE one of the largest energy infrastructure players hopes to capitalize on new opportunities through a five-point strategic agenda.

  1. Leverage technical breadth: Bet broadly in different energy sources. Improvement of hydrocarbon technologies and energy conservation are key opportunities.
  2. Build a renewable portfolio: GE invested so far $900 million in wind, solar, biomass, and other technologies in the last 5 years. This investment bought a $7 billion revenue stream in 2007 dollars. The strategy entails low cost, high reliability, and profitable technologies.
  3. Invest and achieve commercialization: Having established a broad technical base, Immelt imagines a “footprint that goes everyplace in the world,” so GE can achieve scale and commercialize rapidly. In addition, make two big bets and bring them to the market, e.g., coal gasification/sequestration, next generation nuclear power.
  4. Partnerships and acquisitions: Partnering with innovative smaller companies dealing with adjacencies, and doing acquisitions to augment the portfolio.
  5. Ecomagination or investing in the environment: Imagining and building innovative solutions that help customers meet environmental challenges and improve their operating performance, while also benefiting the company and the world.

If Immelt were the king in charge of making policy, he would authorize “progressive policies” to help the economy. These include achieving energy security by pursuing a mix of fuels, and creating jobs in this sector to stimulate growth. The government must also back risky commercial ventures (such as new nuclear plants) in case society changes its mind.

Ultimately, says Immelt, “Think big! There is no sin in making money by solving societal problems.” Energy is a pillar of successful and competitive societies, and the time seems to be right for GE and other innovative companies to become part of the energy solution while creating wealth for their shareholders.

Source by Ernie Cevallos


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