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Bringing Remote, Intermittent Energy Sources Into Line

Credit: DoE/NREL

NISKAYUNA, NEW YORK--Juan de Bedout, manager of the Electric Power and Propulsion Systems Lab at GE Global Research, doesn't do the sexy work most people have in mind when they think about renewable energy. He doesn't design high-efficiency photovoltaic films or extract energy from hydrogen bonds in water--although colleagues at GE Global Research are working on those problems. De Bedout's efforts are focused on a goal that is less obvious but no less important: integrating renewable energy sources--which are often intermittent and far from where the energy is needed--into an electrical-power grid that prefers a steady supply.

De Bedout himself is nothing if not steady. The child of an American mother and a Colombian father, he grew up in Medellin, Colombia--known in the United States, especially in those days, for drug cartels and guerrilla wars, although he still managed to have a "normal" childhood. He earned all three of his degrees--B.S., M.S., and Ph.D., all in mechanical engineering--from his father's alma mater, Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. His grandfather was also a Boilermaker, serving on Purdue's engineering faculty, where he's still a professor emeritus.

GE Global Research

De Bedout is one of about 1900 researchers working at GE's Niskayuna, New York, laboratory; the company has smaller research facilities in India, China, and Germany. Given the size of the lab, the number of new hires each year is surprisingly large--"in the several hundreds," says Vlatko Vlatkovic, GE's Global Technology Leader for electronics and energy conversion and de Bedout's boss. People frequently move out of the research organization and into other GE businesses, says Vlatkovic, making room for fresh blood and ideas.

Vlatkovic's team of about 250 scientists and engineers is rich in electrical engineers, but the other nine technology areas represented at the research center employ scientists from a wide variety of disciplines. About 40% of the research staff has Ph.D.s.

Juan de Bedout

De Bedout, who joined the lab in 2000 with a freshly minted Ph.D., spent his first several years at GE working on a series of control-systems projects: for diesel engines, a robotic vision system for automating gantry cranes, and leading a small team working on the Department of Defense's Joint Strike Fighter Advanced Engine program. The job delivered, he says, exactly what he was looking for: hands-on work on a broad range of interesting projects--and he thrived. "He was able to learn a lot of things in different technical areas," observes Vlatkovic. Four years later--much faster than the average GE researcher, who takes this step between 7 and 8 years--de Bedout took over the lab's propulsion and electricity-generation lab, which focuses on problems related to sustainable energy supplies.

GE and sustainable energy

GE came late to sustainable electricity production. Two acquisitions--of the assets of Enron's wind-energy division in 2002 and of the solar company AstroPower in 2004--brought GE into the sustainable-energy business. Today, "we do research in virtually every area of sustainable energy: wind, solar, clean coal, nuclear, carbon capture, energy storage and hybrid systems, geothermal, and biofuels," de Bedout says. GE, which is the only American company in the world's top 10 suppliers of wind turbines--intends to double its investment in "green technologies" over the next 5 years, de Bedout says, to about $1.5 billion.

De Bedout's particular focus is on the challenges of integrating alternative-energy sources--wind and solar in particular--into the power grid. Wind and solar energy's unsteady nature challenges electrical utilities, which have to maintain idle capacity to compensate--a so-called spinning reserve--which costs the companies money. Another barrier is geographic: "Some of the best wind resources in the United States lie in the Dakotas, far away from the big cities and industrial centers that could utilize that power," he says. "Weakness of the interconnection can create operational issues, including voltage-stability problems"--problems de Bedout and his team of 15 are working to solve.

Technique's not everything

Technical breadth and teamwork, says Vlatkovic, are two of de Bedout's particular strengths--and both are essential for any researcher at GE Global Research. Almost all the projects at the research center, Vlatkovic says, are multidisciplinary. "You have to be able to work on a team and understand what the other folks are doing. You have to be able to fit in that team and communicate … and learn from the other guys."

"We really value equally the technical ability of the candidate and their interpersonal leadership skills," says Vlatkovic. "They learn that along the way and--in the case of Juan--they learn it very quickly."

Jim Austin is editor of

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DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700021

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