Alstom Grid's president on connecting the GCC networks
Alstom Grid’s president, Grégoire Poux-Guillaume, discusses smart grids, HVDC and the potential of the GCCIA
As head of one of the “big three” global electricity transmission firms, it is perhaps not surprising that Grégoire Poux-Guillaume, president of Alstom Grid, can confidently reel off some mightily striking figures about his firm.
“We are a four billion euro business [US $5.4bn], with close to 20,000 employees worldwide. We’re present in 70 countries around the globe, so it’s a very international business, and it’s one of the market leaders in transmission solutions.”
Part of the Alstom group, which also covers power generation and transport, the firm is a true giant in the industry, and the Grid business has a suitably extensive range of offerings and expertise which it has been supplying to the region for decades.
“We do everything from transformers and switchgear to network management systems for controlling the electrical grids and smart grid down to neighbourhood level. So it’s a really wide-ranging business that has been around for a century, and that has been active in the Middle East region since the 1950s.”
His firm’s regional news updates have come with impressive frequency, but possibly the most conspicuous example of its work in the Middle East is its involvement with the GCCIA project to connect the grids of the GCC states.
“We were very pleased and honoured to be selected to be part of the GCCIA project – it’s a very important undertaking for the region and we are proud that we contributed to the backbone for connecting six countries.
It means the members can trade electricity and creates stability by making sure that one country can support another, and can balance the load when the situation arises. So it’s a very important part of the electrical grid in the region,” he explains.
Poux-Guillaume says that, despite the firm’s work on the back-to-back HVDC interconnections being completed, the involvement is essentially an ongoing enterprise.
“Your involvement never really ends because you continue to support the system and you handle any questions that the customer has. And the GCCIA venture is really continuing – the trade between the members and the use that has been made of it. It really is a wonderful tool that can be used even more.”
This greater potential use of the interconnection has been a feature of many recent industry events, with varying opinions on exactly how well used it is.
Whilst some have seen it as an instant success story, other commentators have suggested that even though its creation has been notable, in practice it has been less well utilised. Poux-Guillaume’s take on the matter is that there is a clear distinction between the two key parts of the GCCIA undertaking.
“Using the same products and platforms, there are really two parts to the GCCIA. One is the stability related aspects – the exchanges that you have for load balancing – and the other is the trade-related aspects.
It is this second one, to really use it for a platform for business, that is taking more time to take off. The need-based applications ramped up quickly, whereas on the business-applications side, the situation now is ‘we have this tool; how do we use it to exchange with other countries on a commercial basis?’ ” he explains.
Furthermore, Alstom , he says, is ready to support the GCC states when they take the policy decision on the next steps on the project.
“The GCCIA is a tool that will live on for decades. It was a very visionary plan from the states, and I think they’ve taken the right steps in having the vision and in implementing it. Now the applications will come as it develops.”
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Another key area in which the firm has a good deal of expertise is in smart grids, with announcements in the last year including a smart grid-related deal with Kuwait’s Ministry of Electricity and Water, and a tie-up with Toshiba to explore energy management solutions.
All of this, of course, sounds very impressive, but one of the talking points about smart grids in the region has actually been how the concept has largely remained just a talking point. Poux-Guillaume, however, suggests that the Middle East smart grid is not simply theoretical.
“In the Middle East, there is a lot of ambition because energy is such a hot topic. There are exciting plans for renewable energy, for example, and we’re getting a lot of request from our customers to help them in developing a road map for smart grid.
“We believe that you are going to see an increasing number of demonstrators highlighting the key technologies that the Emirates needs, and we think that that is going to happen fairly quickly.
We have a number of discussions ongoing for some very exciting projects, so I think the Middle East is not lagging. They are very aware of what is being trialed elsewhere, and are really matching their specific requirements with specific technology – either being developed or tested, or already in the field. You are going to see some exciting offerings being developed. I truly believe that.”
With such an apparently promising future market, it is no surprise to hear that Alstom Grid’s smart grid offerings are extensive, with the firm approaching the concept from both a ‘smart grid’ and ‘smart city’ level.
“In smart grids, we are the world leader in control systems for the transmission grid, so we’ve built a lot of the control centres for the electrical grid around the world.
We built the national control centre in Qatar, for example, and there are many other examples in the region of the control systems we’ve built. So we have very strong historical know-how on the operation of the electrical grid,” he says.
The firm also has lengthy experience in the automation field – in the automation of substations for example, and Poux-Guillaume says that his firm has consequently developed applications in transmission and distribution.
“In transmission, we have network management systems, as well as market-making – so managing the commercial exchanges between networks.
“On the distribution side, we have a distribution management system (DMS) that allows the utility to do things like managing its distribution grid and also highlighting the areas of potential failure to help manage the operational teams in field intervention.
This means you both isolate the issue and also coordinate the efforts of the intervention team that are actually going to fix the issue. This is a very important tool for distribution operators that minimises downtime and maximises the availability of the network,” he says.
Another key aspect of smart grids is the issue of network stability, particularly as renewable energy becomes a more tangible force in the region. These more intermittent power sources raise issues of stability, and require operators to mitigate the effects to balance the grid.
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“We have pioneered network stability solutions that are a combination of hardware and software. So fascia measurement units that will measure parameters at grid level, together with the software behind it, that optimises and assimilates and basically allows the grid operator to see what the current and future areas of weakness are, so that they can either handle an issue, or pre-empt an issue,” he says.
Flattening the peak of electricity demand is the other crucial concern for many operators in the region, with the potential cost-savings running to the substantial price of building entirely new power plants.
“In the US, for example, we have a demand response system operating for PJM, one of the largest commercial transmission firms in the world. Their network is over 150GW, and they manage up to 15GW of demand response power on our system.
It allows them to basically manage the peaks as they come along and has not only meant they maximise their bottom line, but also to opt not to build some new planned power plants,” he explains.
On a more local ‘smart city’ system there are similar cost-saving advantages, in addition to environmental advantages linked to managing such things as rooftop solar panels, building management systems or electrical vehicle charging stations.
“In the US and in Europe, we are doing demonstrators at a big city neighbourhood level. What we do is build the heart, the intelligence, that allows you to optimise those elements in the most effective way – from an economic and environmental perspective.”
With recent global contract wins that include a US $500 million deal to build an 800kV Ultra High Voltage Direct Current link in India, and work nearing completion on the world’s longest HVDC link in Brazil (measuring 2,375km no less), the near-future certainly looks pretty comfortable.
In the region, Poux-Guillaume is similarly confident that the firm is doing the right things to maintain the momentum over 2013.
“We have a strong presence in the region and we have a strong relationship with our customers here. Our ambition is to accompany them on their developments – in HVDC, in smart grids, and in other technologies.
There are quite a few countries in the region that are stepping up their investments. Of course, there are also some that are slowing down their investments because they’ve invested heavily in the past.
It’s a very active market that is hungry for innovative technologies and that is what we bring. The more we can bring solutions to our customers in the region, whilst localising the know-how as much as we can, the more positive it will be for us and our customers. That is our plan in a nutshell.”
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Poux-Guillaume joined Alstom back in 2003 as the firm’s vice president of strategy, before moving to head up Alstom Power’s hydro turnkey power plant business.
Following that, he led the firm’s Environmental Control Systems activities and was subsequently appointed president of Alstom Grid and executive vice president of Alstom in July of 2011.
Previously he has held positions with Total Exploration & Production, McKinsey & Company and CVC Capital Partners. He is a graduate of École Centrale Paris and Harvard Business School.