Harjit Birdi has been fascinated by energy systems since he was a child in India. His father was an official of the State Electricity Council. When the power went out, his father’s job was to run across town with a team to find the cause of the breakdown. Despite his mother’s concerns, Birdi asked his father to take him with him on his emergency expeditions. A few years later, when it was time to choose her college major, the choice was obvious. “Electrical engineering fascinated me, because energy is something you can’t see,” he says. “You can’t see those electrons. You have to imagine the complexity “.
Birdi earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from India and a master’s degree from the University of Saskatchewan, then was hired at GE in 2005. His initial job was reminiscent of the days his father was dragged: he helped public utilities become more efficient by updating their power monitoring and control systems. After several moves, he had the opportunity to work with a developer of wind farms, where he gained a front row seat in the global transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources.
Birdi is doing so today as sales manager at GE Renewable Energy’s Grid Solutions division. His job is to help utilities and developers integrate a range of GE products and equipment from other vendors to build wind, solar and hydroelectric systems and bring more renewable energy online. It will take him up to four months to complete a typical customer proposal, which can span thousands of pages and cover everything from procurement and construction to health risk analysis. The digital file of his latest proposal consumed more than a gigabyte of storage space. “Offshore wind is my favorite form of energy, because all kinds of engineering come into play,” he says. “It involves different types of technologies and a large number of people in many different countries.”
Birdi’s role is more relevant than ever in the energy transition. Wind power today generates about 9% of US electricity, with offshore platforms only accounting for a small fraction of that. But even in the face of complex technological challenges, offshore capacity is expected to grow faster, increasing by 15 times globally by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency. The Biden administration recently set new targets for building offshore wind farms, in line with the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The target: 30 gigawatts installed by 2030. GE is poised to play an important role in this challenge with its Haliade-X wind turbine, which can generate up to 14 megawatts, enough to supply the equivalent of a British family with just one turn of its turbine. Birdi’s employer, the Grid Solutions unit, plays an important role in driving the transition, including work on technologies to transmit power over long distances, a key requirement for offshore wind growth. “We need to find new ways to accelerate the production of wind farms to achieve the president’s goal,” he says.
The wind farm industry has been moving fast since Birdi joined it in 2016. At the time, he says, European-based offshore wind farm operators wanted to expand to North America, eager for the technology as the need to tackle climate change has acquired urgency. But the first steps weren’t easy, as there were no offshore wind farms in US waters.
Birdi got his first taste of this industry when he worked on what is supposed to be the largest offshore wind farm in the world, located in the North Sea about 80 miles off the Yorkshire coast. GE will supply 190 13 MW Haliade-X turbines for the so-called Dogger Bank A and B phases and 87 14 MW Haliade-X turbines for the final segment, Dogger Bank C. The first turbines are expected to go into operation in 2026 Birdi has also worked with several GE teams and their partners to create master plans for renewable projects that assess the feasibility of projects and determine what equipment needed to be purchased and how to build the power plant.
Birdi and her colleagues also face the recurring challenge of how to generate a steady stream of electricity when the wind isn’t blowing. To meet the peak power demands of a particular project, Birdi collaborated with several GE teams on solutions that combine wind turbines with natural gas generators and battery storage facilities. This allows developers to collect and store wind energy when it is available and supplement it with natural gas to meet peak electricity demand. “Natural gas and renewable energies come together like hand in hand,” he says.
Having worked in this industry for more than 20 years, Birdi has more than a few ideas on what needs to be done to bring more renewables online. Here are three of him:
Expand the transmission capacity. Birdi says adding more offshore wind farms will require better integration with the power grid. As wind farms move farther offshore, developers are using a technology called high voltage direct current (HVDC), which can transmit power more efficiently over long distances than using cables carrying alternating current ( CA), the most common form of transmission for mass energy. The goal is to reduce the high cost of HVDC required in deeper and further afield, says Birdi. HVDC can also be used for efficient ground transmission.
More storage space. Although solar and wind power are intermittent, utilities must always provide power on demand to meet peaks in consumption. Birdi says grid-scale energy storage systems can complement agile gas turbines to meet demand when sun and wind aren’t available. The US Department of Energy plans to spend $ 3 billion to increase production of the advanced batteries, which are critical to many clean energy initiatives.
Electric vehicles and smart grids. Electric cars are idle 95% of the time, which offers the opportunity to turn them into a kind of virtual powerhouse. By connecting electric vehicles to a smart grid, he says, we can selectively control the charging speed of each individual vehicle when not being driven. Connected in this way, all vehicles can then act as a power plant, like a single large-scale battery capable of supplying power to the grid.
Birdi remains confident that companies and governments are making progress on these and other solutions. “Developers always want to create more and more power,” he says. “If I can help them do that, I’m planning happiness.”