In a chat with our Association, the 2019 Global Energy Prize laureate Frede Blaabjerg (Denmark) on why he wants to dedicate his chapter of our new book to digitalization of… electricity.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: Hello Dr. Blaabjerg. I’ve tried to pronounce your surname properly in Danish with an “o” in the first syllable. It’s an amazing thing. This is a science, isn’t it? Double “a” pronounced as “o”.
BLAABJERG: Yeah, yeah. So, that’s our special letters in Denmark.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: We’ll talk about exciting things like the future. But first of all, I want to talk about the last 36-48 hours. The Texas thing, the disappearance of oil as a substance which is tradable. Was it a surprise for you?
BLAABJERG: Oh yeah. Negative oil prices are amazing. I was saying to myself: is that really possible? But, of course, it’s the market mechanism which are playing. We cannot just stop the production from one day to another or reduce from one day another, so there is overcapacity. But my belief is that, clearly, this is just intermediate, because when the word comes up and once again, we will see the same need for energy in order to run the whole planet.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: You think so? So, we’ll be coming back to life?
BLAABJERG: Oh, yeah. What I want to be heard is the recovery will be relatively fast compared with, for example, wars.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: One of the interesting consequences of the drop in the oil prices even after the initial OPEC++ agreement, was that Professor Dynkin of the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences here in Moscow our beloved Mr. Chung, who is the President of our International Award Committee, both agreed that the lower the oil price, the higher are the risks for the alternative energy. Why charge your electric car when you can go to the normal petrol station, and, using the cheaper petrol, cheaper gasoline just use your normal car. Would you agree with that?
BLAABJERG: Well, yes. We can say instantaneously, yes. But it’s relative, I’m quite sure, despite what the cost of oil is today. It may be different in a matter of months. I’m quite convinced that Europe will carry on with the decarbonisation and renewable generation. There can be areas, where we can see that you’ll have a bit of a pause in terms of this kind of investment, but already today I was listening to the debates at the Danish parliament, and they were saying that they want to use this as an opportunity. Because if they have to kick off the economy, then why not kick off in doing what we intend to do: to make the society more sustainable.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: Do you think that the alternative energy would be able to boost the economy up as fast as the traditional one? Now you have stable jobs in the traditional industry in the traditional energy, we have technologies, which have been worked out for decades and decades, we have qualified personnel and then if you abolish it overnight… Will the alternative energy be able to replace the role, that the traditional energy is playing in the economy?
BLAABJERG: On a longer term it will… I see a great opportunity for alternative energy to take over a significant part of what the fossil fuel is covering today, but I do not see that we necessarily can avoid using petroleum and so on, because the petroleum can also be used in a lot of other applications, where we hardly have any substitute.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: Let’s talk about our plan to launch on behalf of the Global Energy Association a new book, which will be about ten breakthrough ideas for the next ten years in the world energy. So, whichever the source of energy, which comes to the grid, be it coal, be it oil, natural gas, the wind and solar, you still have to digitalise the grid. Now let’s explain in very simple terms what for and what it is.
BLAABJERG: Well, digitalisation of the grid is to control the grid in a smart way. The issue with electricity in general, is that you need a balance in terms of what you are consuming and what you are producing, so if the consumption goes up you have to you have to put more power into the grid and if the consumption goes down, then you have to lower the production. And in order to be able to do that, we need much more control of the grid and in order to do control we both need components, which can do it and then we need a lot of communication, a lot of software in order to control the grid in a proper manner, and this is what we can call the digitalisation of the grid.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: Let me try to explain this once again in simple terms for those who are listening to us, but who are not specialised in the matter. I was talking about a month and a half ago just before the whole thing erupted to the boss of the Russian electricity grid company ROSSETI, Mr. Livinsky. And he gave me an example, which, I think, describes this new reality. Well, in the past and even today, if something happens to the wire somewhere, people have to go physically alonf the line and look up where the problem is. If you digitalise this system, you will not have to do that, you will actually see the place, where the wire has been broken or cut in your computer and send the crew to repair it. That’s in very simple terms. That’s what we’re talking about?
BLAABJERG: This is a part of the whole digitalisation that you monitor many places. Let’s say, a digital grid based on communication and monitoring. Yes.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: That was a very down-to-earth example.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: But you know this is sort of this sci-fi journalism. Let’s put it this way. Let’s talk about it in wider terms. In another 10 years what the digitalisation will mean and why you want your chapter of the future book to be dedicated to this topic?
BLAABJERG: My view is that in the future energy more and more things will be electricity-basde. That means we need expansion of the grid, we need expansion of the production of electricity, and the forecasts are that part of the transportation system will be more electrical based. There is something we call e-fuel.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: Liquid, based or what?
BLAABJERG: Say, you have hydrogen. And you know, you can add something to hydrogen then you get, for example, natural gas, you can get e-gas, and you can even liquidase it. Still you have to add some components in order to get to. This is being discussed relatively a lot in Denmark, because the agriculture can also come with some material to make this e-fuel for some the ways of it.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: How do you transport it?
BLAABJERG: If you transport…
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: It could be a pipeline, or it could be a cistern?
BLAABJERG: Yeah, we can use the pipeline, it can be trucks and so on, which is able to do it.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: This is amazing. I’ve been hearing things like that, about hydrogen, being transported at the pipelines as gas pipelines, in the right mixture.
BLAABJERG: Yes, yes. That’s, of course, also, a step to be made. If we look at it, this could also be a fantastic opportunity for us to store more long-term in renewable generation – especially when there is no sunlight or wind.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: And that’s applicable worldwide if you think about it, because I believe it is I everywhere.
BLAABJERG: Oh, yes! As there are billions of people who do not have any electricity today. And I think we should do much more also in that direction to do it cheap and easy to install everywhere to provide electricity to poor people. And it can make a very big difference. You can just turn on the switch your appliances from a simple battery or something like that. This battery is charged by a PV panel, this is much more long-term solution.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: So, we’re talking about the system becoming more and more decentralised?
BLAABJERG: Yes, we can say it is becoming more and more decentralised. But even so we’ll need also communication between the units in order to be sure that it’s operating in a proper way. That’s where there is a role for the digitalisation of the grid.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: I’m very grateful, of course, to the cofounders of the Global Energy Association for inviting me to preside over the organization. But let me give you an example from my basic job, which is television. The year was 2002 maybe 2003, myself and several colleagues of mine were invited to Geneva, to the annual General Assembly of the European Broadcasting Union. And there we were told that soon we’d stop the confusion with different standards of tapes and cassettes (Betacam, U-Matic, VHS, etc) because with the arrival of the digital era everything will be under one standard. Well, 20 years later we are digital. But your humble servant stoped editing himself because in the past we had three analogue standards and now we have endless digital ones. So, I always need a technician nearby who was helped me with editing. What will happen with the digitalisation in the electricity production? Will there be common standards because there is a possibility of every single community having its own digital standard which would not coincide technically with the neighbour and the system would just collapse…
BLAABJERG: Well, there is always a risk that let’s say it’s a global perspective that there’s not a hundred percent common standard. But I think – relatively sure – that if you should have an energy market that you need one way or the other common standard in order to play buy and sell and so on. So of course, standard should widen, so we have more and more interconnection between each other. So, if for example we have a situation, where Russia and the rest of the Europe are not really interlinked together because they interconnected together because of frequency voltage or whatsoever. Then we should see if it is possible and also of course it should be perspective in it in terms of trade and so on. One example is we’ve built now connection to UK from Denmark. This is a long distance and it involves AC/DC. But it works. So, I think standardisation is important. What we maybe will see in the future and also when we talk about this kind of digitalisation of the energy and the electricity is what we call point-to-point rate. If you have a five kilowatt/ hour and I buy that from you personally. Of course, I have to pay a little bit for the transportation of the energy. But we will see that we will get this point, two points energy trading and this will also be a kind of need of digitalisation of the energy system.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: Which countries do claim leadership in digitalisation now, which are the star examples?
BLAABJERG: The star examples in terms of digitalisation, as well as the most modern grid, I would say that maybe the Germans and the Chinese.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: Have you ever heard about this little project, which is about to create an electricity Super Grid between Russia, China, the two Koreas, Japan and Mongolia, ba ig circle. How viable had such projects are, you think?
BLAABJERG: I would say, a lor depends on connections. So, the Sea of Japan is very deep, so it’s not so easy to put the cables. cables where you go really deep require special arrangement, this is a more expensive.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: So, let me ask you an idiotic question. Not because you mentioned China, but because you mentioned the UK before. How long is the cable from Denmark to the UK? Is it under the sea?
BLAABJERG: Yeah, it’s under the sea.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: Must be about 500 miles at least?
BLAABJERG: It’s not so deep. And if I remember correct, the sea between China and Japan is very deep. So you have to put a floating system as far as I know. That it is feasible, but the deepness means a lot in terms of expansion.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: I don’t really want to reveal everything. I just hope that we’ll be producing our book sooner rather than later. As of now, I’ll limit myself to one final question. Which technologies do you think will be relevant not only the next 10 years but in the next 30 and 50 years?
BLAABJERG: I’d say that what I would like to see is the ability to store energy long-term. Whether that will be especially the battery technology, which is maybe 10-15 times better than we see today. Or it is what we discussed a little bit at the beginning of our conversation: if we can make hydrogen and we can do some chemical process afterwards so that we can store in it. This is what I see as some important things to be solved should we be based on renewable generation. I’m a little bit biased in that direction. But it’s really my belief that we can push down cost for wind turbines, the PV and so on. This planet could be fantastic that could be very interesting.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: So, even despite the coronavirus and what’s happened in this last 36-48 hours with the oil prices and taxes the future is bright?
BLAABJERG: I’m very sure that everything will recover in terms of, let’s say, growth in countries, whether it takes 2 years, 5 years, I don’t know. But when this happens, the demand for energy will recover again and we have to look at how will we’ll deliver this energy to the societies.
GLOBAL ENERGY ASSOCIATION: Thank you so much indeed, sir.
BLAABJERG: Oh, you’re welcome.