Exclusive interview - Johan de Villers, ABB
Chief of ABB's GCC Power Systems Division discusses our energy future
As the Middle East races to keep up with power and water demands, Johan de Villiers, head of ABB’s Power Systems Division in the Gulf, is confident that the power and automation technology provider is perfectly placed for the region’s ambitions.
The next ten years in the Gulf will be critical. Increasing demand for power and water from expanding industry and population growth is already beginning to strain the region’s current infrastructure, and as countries look to sustainable methods of power generation to complement existing fuels, companies like ABB are looking forward to the challenge.
“We have had a very strong presence in the Gulf for a long time,” says Johan de Villiers, general manager and head of ABB’s Power Systems Division in the Gulf region.
“With five divisions globally, we’ve got units focused on substations, underground cable connections to renewable sources, network management solutions, typical SCADA systems and systems for power networks.”
It’s a diverse range of services that sees ABB currently involved in a mixture of building up new infrastructure and refurbishing existing networks – the company recently energised one of three new 400kV substations in Kuwait, is building the country’s largest water pumping station, is soon to be refurbishing an existing power plant, having also
supplied the world’s highest substation to the Burj Khalifa’s 155th floor.
“In the UAE we’ve got a 400kV substation under construction in Fujairah, and several other 132kV substations strengthening the distribution network,” says de Villiers.
“We’ve also got several substation projects under way in Qatar - both with Kahramaa and private developers - two of which will be fully underground,” de Villiers adds.
A steady flow of substation opportunities throughout the region, and also opportunities in the water generation and wastewater sectors is encouraging de Villiers, whose power division is the largest of ABB’s operations in the Gulf.
Providing everything required for a power plant – whether conventionally fuelled or renewable – the division offers complete service solutions for the water industry too, including pumping stations, water generation plants, water distribution and also the wastewater cycle.
“Infrastructure development has been a recent theme in the Gulf,” de Villiers says, “and it’s clearly still a big topic here. We see a lot of opportunities in developing water generation, and also in water transmission and strategic water storage projects – there are water storage projects in every country at the moment.”
Strengthening the grid
“We also see a challenge to provide electricity to the more remote parts of the countries, bringing power into communities that have not been well served in the past. Strengthening the weaker parts of the existing network – that’s definitely an area of interest for us,” he says.
With this infrastructure critical to industry and development, de Villiers is adamant that being as close to customers as possible is the best way to support regional markets.
“We have a setup in each one of the Gulf countries we are responsible for; it’s a local unit, and these local units are geared to meet the sustainable business we have in the markets.”
The company’s divisional setup also helps it to provide full-service solutions where possible.
“In the UAE we see many synergies between our different divisions, so we work closely together in the management team – our aim is to offer complete solutions to our customers.
In Qatar we have an example of a small water plant where every piece of electrical and control equipment comes from ABB, covering every division we’ve got,” de Villiers says. “It makes it very simple for the customer to interact with us,” he adds.
Discussing the requirement for more extensive and robust infrastructure in the Middle East, it’s impossible not to mention the subject of the region’s power mix.
The next decade will see the UAE’s first nuclear plant come online at Braka in 2017, and an increased emphasis on sustainable sources to both cover peak periods and also hold back lucrative fuel reserves will undoubtedly change the face of the region’s energy mix.
But aside from developing the technology to bring renewable energy to a point where it’s supporting a significant percentage of the demand, de Villiers is keen to point out that the infrastructure to deal with the introduction of renewable sources still needs to be designed and constructed.
“It’s clear that renewable sources of energy are going to increase,” he says. “Almost every country in the region has got or announced targets, and over time we can expect those targets to get higher and higher, increasing the amount of renewable energy supplied to the grids.”
“The good news is that the basic infrastructure is already in place in these grids, which we still need. It’s not that we have to take out large quantities of equipment and put different items in – it needs to be augmented by systems that allow bi-directional power flow.”
Another issue posed by renewables is the introduction of a non-constant energy source to an infrastructure designed to deal with energy on demand, rapidly creating a need for flexible transmission systems in the region.
“The basic problem is that when the renewable sources are available, you don’t necessarily have the peak loads on the network,” de Villiers explains. “That’s a key technology for making smart grids and technology really work, and to maximise the benefits; the storage of electrical energy is becoming an increasingly large topic.”
“Ideally, you should be able to store the difference between the maximum renewable energy that you generate, and the peak load that you need when the renewable energy isn’t available,” he adds.
Energy storage and the timing of the source’s production will also have implications on the planning of future power networks, as infrastructure may need to be ready to deal with heavier loads for short periods of time.
“Even though your target might be to have 30 per cent renewable resources by a certain date, on that date you might need the grid to be able to deal with 100 per cent renewable energy,” de Villiers explains.
“As you go through the daily cycles, when you get to the low point you may cross the point where you only need 30 per cent of the installed capacity, which could all come from renewable resources, meaning that you might find a point in the cycle when all the power in the grid is supplied by renewable sources, or stored energy.”
This makes grid planning an important and essential task, and one that de Villiers is confident consultants will prove invaluable in.
“Consultants are important,” he says, “we see the consultants practically evaluating quality, playing an important role in the qualification of products and preparing specifications as having an increasingly significant task. The preparation of the grid is an important topic, and I think consultants will play an important role in preparing the specifications for it.”
Having already been pioneered in other parts of the world following strong economic drivers, namely the US and in Europe, these systems will need localising and adapting for implementation into the Middle East; another task for the consultants.
Something that will have to happen though, before sustainable energy sources are fully integrated into the Middle East’s power mix, is the costs needs to come down.
“The biggest driver for technology at the moment is to bring costs down, to make it as cost effective as possible,” de Villiers says.
“With renewable energy, scale is important – you have to implement it on a large scale to make it cost effective, but in the region you see a lot of governments making subsidies available, and I think it’s driven by wanting to do the right thing.”
“Even when it might not make financial sense today, you get this mixture of incentives for the users of electrical power where you have the policy frameworks in place, the pricing incentives, and then you’ve got the governments who are making subsidies available to do the right thing.
You need these two elements – subsidies from governments and the strategic action they take, but to really encourage this on a ground level, the policy frameworks and incentives all have to be in place. This will come – it’s just a question of time.”
On the subject of grids, the region is also looking to the GCC interconnection grid – a high-voltage transmission system designed to integrate the power systems of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the UAE – as a practical and economic solution to many of the region’s power issues.
With the UAE’s new Al Silaa power plant completed and soon to form an important link in the interconnection grid, how is this likely to affect the region’s power map?
“The short answer is that it could create a real win-win situation,” says de Villiers. “It could be some time before you have a lot of active trading across this link, but once you start trading the countries with excess and cheap power would benefit by exporting it and leveraging this advantage, while countries with expensive power would benefit from buying it from cheaper sources,” he says.
With a worldwide trend to transport more power over longer distances, de Villiers is also certain that eventually this will see the GCC grid interconnected with other grids via high-powered, long-distance links.
Concerning ambitious projects in the Gulf, it’s hard to forget Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup bid win. De Villiers was living in Qatar when it was announced, and is confident that the event’s slogan – ‘Expect Amazing’ – is more than just a boast.
“It’s a huge achievement for Qatar, and I’m sure they’ll make a spectacular success of it,” he says. “They’ve taken a unique approach to it – for instance, all the energy used to cool the stadiums will be generated through renewable sources; of course you can’t generate all of it during the event.”
“ABB is very keen to play its part in making this come true, and providing the technology to make it happen. It’ll mean a whole range of infrastructure will need to be provided; so much of it needs to be built up, and there’s a huge amount of investment coming. I believe it’s very significant, not just for Qatar but for the whole region.”
In terms of where ABB is looking to strengthen its business, de Villiers sees real potential in a more industry led approach to maintenance in the power sector.
“One thing I’m particularly passionate about is providing meaningful after-sales service; we really want to help our customers manage the lifecycle of their electrical assets better.
I believe that the transmission and distribution sector is lagging behind industry – industry has a much longer history of preventative and proactive maintenance programmes, where assets are actively managed,” he says.
“Through close interaction with our utilities companies, we want to see how we can roll that out to give them benefits, lowering the cost
of maintenance extending the useful life of assets,” he says.
The increasing interest in renewables is also giving ABB the chance to expand its portfolio, having recently acquired a 35 per cent stake in German concentrated solar power technology experts Novatec.
“It’s clearly good for our business,” de Villers says, “I’m very excited about the investment ABB is making in high-tech companies; we really want to be a complete player in the whole value chain.”
“It’s also impacting the type of people we employ,” he adds. “We’re seeing an increased need for software engineers, for instance.”
Emphasising the importance of continual customer liaison, de Villiers also believes that localising services is key to success.
“It’s important to understand that what’s important to countries in the Gulf is not necessarily what’s important to Germany or California,” he says.
“That’s where the greater differences are. Research and development is a key area for ABB; we invest more than a billion dollars a year and there are more than 6,000 scientists working for the company. We want to bring this research and development closer to our customers, and we’re interested in topics that are unique to this region.”
“Each country has its own priorities, and they all present opportunities for us at the moment – they’re all target markets for us,” he adds.
Discussing markets, and the pressure of increasing competition from Asian contractors, de Villiers is pragmatic.
“It’s clear we’re operating in a global market, and all the time it’s becoming more and more open for international competition. It’s not down to a location, or a particular geography, it’s to do with quality and reliability – that’s what customers want,” he explains.
“They want value, and we want to make sure we serve them with the best quality and the best value – that will cement our position in the future, as it has in the past.”