Q&A with Hitachi Energy’s EVP & Head of North America

Anthony Allard, who heads up Hitachi Energy as Executive Vice President and Head of North America, shares why the grid is holding us back from clean energy

Often regarded as the backbone of energy infrastructure, the grid plays a critical role in the resilience and growth of society. A vast network of power generation, transmission and delivery, the grid ensures we can function in the modern world. 

But Anthony Allard is a firm believer in grid modernisation being critical to smooth the transition to clean energy, and how in its current state, it is standing in the way of this ever-sought after goal. 

Anthony is EVP and Head of North America for Hitachi Energy and has spent most of his career in the power sector with companies such as GE and Alstom. Most recently, he was Chief Operating Officer for BECIS, an energy-as-a-service solution provider in Singapore.

Now at Hitachi Energy, a global technology leader dedicated to advancing a sustainable energy future for all, Anthony works to provide innovative solutions and services focused on energy transmission, distribution, grid edge and digital offerings across the utility, industry and infrastructure sectors. 

In this Q&A with Energy Digital, he shares the challenges facing grid infrastructure in transitioning to a net-zero emissions economy by 2050, highlighting increased strain due to electrification and the need for regulatory reform.

Q. How important is investing in the grid?

Grid modernisation is the single most important investment we can make when it comes to meeting the climate goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. The decentralisation of energy generation and the integration of renewables has highlighted the limitations of existing infrastructure.

Utilities need complete visibility into grid operations across the entire energy lifecycle so they can adapt quickly to the ebbs and flows of energy generation and demand. Upgrading transmission lines to handle the efficient movement of power across great distances, with minimal losses, is imperative to support the sharing of power between markets and to increase the resiliency and flexibility of the power grid.

It is also critical that operators have access to actionable insights to make critical decisions in the moment to ensure grid resiliency. It’s going to be a huge undertaking, but the industry is up to the challenge.

Q. What specific challenges do you see the grid facing currently in terms of facilitating the transition to a net-zero emissions economy by 2050?

The electrification of the economy is putting a significant strain on the grid. Already, we’re seeing increased energy demand putting pressure on local grids to their limits, and as a growing number of sectors electrify, demand will increase, which will place further strain on the existing grid. While data analytics powered by AI and machine learning (ML) will likely provide additional visibility into and control over the electrical grid, solving these bottlenecks will require more than just technology upgrades. We need regulatory reform and supply chain optimisation.

To meet this demand, the industry is going to have to better manage the influx of renewables into the energy market. More investments in grid connections and capacity will help, but we need regulatory reform and incentives to facilitate this shift and develop local supply chains that will accelerate the move to clean energy.

Q. With Hitachi Energy's extensive experience in managing grid assets globally, what key insights can you share regarding the most effective strategies for modernising and optimising grid infrastructure?

It really comes down to visibility into and control of the grid. Armed with real-time data put in the right context, operators can make the right decisions at the right time to ensure reliability. Predictive insights can identify potential equipment failure before it happens and take action to avoid service disruption. This automation is critical.

Triggering actions based on real-time telemetry will take pressure off human operators and allow them to focus on higher-level tasks. Using technology such as AI/ML to augment human decision-making will also contribute to the modernisation of the grid and help the world transition to clean energy.

Q. Could you elaborate on the role of high voltage switchgear in enhancing grid resilience and accommodating renewable energy integration?

High-voltage switchgear is any component used to connect or disconnect a part of a high-voltage power system. This infrastructure is essential for the protection, safe and smooth operation of a high voltage system and is key to minimising interruptions and ensuring the quality of the electricity supply.

An important and very widely used type of equipment, gas-insulated switchgear (GIS) relies on the use of sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) gas, which provides insulation and current interruption. While SF6 performs these functions very well, it is also an extremely potent and persistent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential more than 24,000 times higher than carbon dioxide.

To ensure that this key element of grid infrastructure can continue to be used, Hitachi Energy has developed an eco-efficient portfolio, called EconiQ, to ensure that high-voltage substations remain safe, reliable and compact, while dramatically reducing their carbon footprint. We’ve helped many utilities around the world deploy more sustainable switchgear in their grids, helping them meet their decarbonisation goals.

Q. What emerging innovations do you believe hold the most promise for addressing the limitations of current grid infrastructure? 

Digitalisation is a trend that holds enormous promise in terms of optimising the performance of grids. Existing tools for things like asset performance management and workforce management are already being rapidly adopted by utilities, and emerging capabilities like artificial intelligence and machine learning are beginning to enter the mix as well. AI/ML is likely to provide significant benefits in areas like grid optimisation, asset management, predictive maintenance, energy trading and more.

Q. Following the recent Inflation Reduction Act, what policy measures do you believe are crucial for supporting the necessary investment and development in energy distribution infrastructure to meet our clean energy goals?

Grid modernisation is the most important thing we can do as an industry to smooth the transition to clean energy. Fortunately, technology is not a bottleneck – the technologies we need are mature and available. However, regulations are not necessarily keeping up with the urgency of the climate crisis. We need to see urgent reform in the areas of planning, permitting and siting of new clean energy projects, high-capacity, long-distance transmission systems and grid interconnections needed for renewable energy developers to integrate with the grid. 

The IRA has been very successful in creating demand for clean energy development, but we need to make it easier for these projects to come to fruition. This includes extending tax credits and incentives, expanding the use of energy storage technology and allowing the transfer of tax credits to spur investment and incentivize local labour and supply chains.

A multi-layered, nationwide approach that leverages both technology and policy to enact change is absolutely critical to accelerating the clean energy transition.

To hear more insights from Anthony, read the upcoming June edition of Energy Digital Magazine.

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