Interview: GE Power Conversion on PV inverters, competition and storage

20. November 2012 | Top News, Applications & Installations, Global PV markets, Industry & Suppliers, Markets & Trends, Storage & smart grids | By:  Becky Beetz

Last September, GE Energy invested US$3.2 billion in acquiring Converteam. In an interview with pv magazine, Stefan Franko, business leader for renewables at GE’s Power Conversion business, talks about photovoltaic inverter technology, global markets and what the GE acquisition has brought to the Converteam table.

GE Energy acquired Converteam in September 2011. Headquartered in France, Converteam, or GE Power Conversion as it is now known, is a provider of power conversion solutions and automation systems, based on high-efficiency power electronics, motors and generators. Included in its portfolio are inverters for the photovoltaics industry.

Most recently, the company supplied the inverters for Seltec’s first Chilean photovoltaic project – a 1.4 MW plant located in La Huayca, in the Atacama Desert.

At the company’s Berlin base which, on the back of investments made in 2010 toward improving the layout and flexibility, includes a state-of the-art inverter manufacturing facility, Stefan Franko spoke to pv magazine about the transition into GE and the photovoltaic inverter developments that have recently taken place.

In what ways has the GE takeover impacted Converteam?
This year we had the challenge to implement various processes simultaneously. While we belong to the energy management activity [of GE], we can act self-determined and, especially in solar, we are considered the experts for power conversion equipment in the GE world. [At first,] people imagined there might be a problem with customers in areas where GE may act as a competitor. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. Rather, we’re benefitting from the fact that in some areas we are being contacted for projects by people trusting in our ability to handle them because we are GE. 

What is the main focus of GE Power Conversion?
In power conversion in general, we are doing three things: (i) transforming electricity into motion, like compressors, propellers, mills, etc.; (ii) motion into electricity – this is becoming more of a focus, because the question of how to harvest energy is becoming more important worldwide; and (iii) electricity into electricity – this not only applies to solar, but also to grid coupling. Moreover, we are looking to compete with the segment leaders in the area of HVDC (High Voltage Direct Current) technology.

What specific photovoltaic inverters does the company offer?
We want to diversify, because if you enter into a field at a later stage, you need to show where your strengths are – and our strengths are definitely in technology and applications. So our decision was clear: to develop something specifically for the solar segment at the utility-scale level. One of the decisions was to make inverters available outdoors by putting cubicles outdoors. We’re among the first to offer this technology, and we have already acquired over a year of experience in outdoor inverters. This know-how puts us in a highly advantageous position.

For example, housing is not really needed, so if you are able to reduce the structural requirements for entire power stations including outdoor transformers, switchgears and inverters, you can generate serious cost reductions. If we can make do with two inverters, one transformer and one switchgear, then we are able to compete successfully. A liquid-cooled device … [has] made it possible for us to build the system outside. It’s a fully enclosed cubicle, allowing us to substantially reduce faults and … the need for maintenance. We have done it – and it was challenging, because we were among the first to use liquid-cooled systems. The associated task of convincing customers that this is the right solution for them also wasn’t easy, but more players are following.

Secondly, three years ago we determined that using DC voltage would be an important factor in decreasing costs. What we had in mind was a three-level technology, because we can build a 1,500 volt DC inverter in the field, which we proved by installing the first operational system for Belectric this June. This new technology thus allows us to achieve significant cost reductions.

The GE brilliance inverter – a 700 kW and a one MW solution– is another product that can fulfill all required American standards. The two-level inverter features the standard 1,000 volt DC link and is viable for solar applications.
The next step will be to combine outdoor inverters with our outdoor power station.

At what capacity can you produce inverters?
In 2011, we had a production output of 50 MW and expect an output of 130 MW in 2012; globally we have a capacity of around 250 MW. We have worldwide production facilities. Based on the current demand for U.S. solar farms most units are manufactured in the U.S. (Pittsburg), but also in Europe, India and in China.

Are there plans to ramp capacity up?
If we want to ramp up, [we could do so] to virtually any capacity. Now everything in the organization is planned on the basis of an international supply chain. So if we can distribute production among the different sites, we will not ramp up a single location. In terms of the different business areas, if the volume increased in South America, we would definitely look into our supply chain capabilities there.

Can we expect to see any new inverter models on the market in the next 12 to 18 months?
In the field of inverter and power electronics, our biggest achievement and important step in the right direction was to enter the 1,500 Volt segment. We will look into introducing additional improvements/applications depending on our customers’ requirements. In power electronics, there is nothing really revolutionary on the horizon.

Which markets are most important to GE Power Conversion?
Europe and the U.S. are our two leading areas while our growth focus rests on Asia – particularly China and India – and South/Latin America. Some of the biggest opportunities are found in Brazil, Mexico and Chile, due to present conditions in these areas.

IMS Research recently stated that inverter shipments rose from 19.4 GW in 2010 to 26 GW in 2011. At the same time, revenues and prices fell by 1% and 12%, respectively, with prices reaching US$0.26/watt. What are GE’s views on inverter pricing? What are the predictions for 2013?
As long as we have not reached grid parity, everyone will try to target price decreases. Today, we cannot really talk about prices. What I see at the moment is that everyone is selling whatever they can produce at a price they might be able to afford. Yet this cannot continue forever. I’m sure that prices will continue to drop, and they will reach a level where the costs of raw materials – like copper, steel and silicon – will be the main factors determining this price limit.

Where can further inverter cost reductions be made?
One way we want to contribute to attaining lower prices or energy costs is to provide technology know-how, like 1,500 volt inverters. This technology is our answer to the challenge to reduce costs. We will also streamline and optimize our production processes and try to be more efficient, make better use of our international supply chains and assembly lines, etc.

A number of companies are looking into integrating photovoltaic inverter and storage technologies? Is GE active in this area?
From the power electronics point of view, battery storage is no issue. But to select the right battery concept for the right application – whether you want to store up to a second, 10 minutes, a day, or even up to a year – needs a different storage or battery concept. This is a challenge, because it requires you to explore the different battery concepts, and you need to consider cost and lifetime – major weaknesses all battery concepts have in common.

GE is focused on some areas where costs can be removed in the context of batteries and is developing its own batteries. In Munich, there is an [R&D center] for solar and battery storage and we’re working together with the research centers in GE on storage systems at a deeper level. It will come, but there’s still a way to go.

What is the company’s survival strategy, especially against such competitors as SMA, Fronius, Kostal and Power-One, etc?
Maybe they should have a survival strategy towards us? – not because we are the best company in the world, but because we are newcomers. Also, given the fact we are newcomers, I would not compare the level we have reached today with a company like SMA. But thanks to our specific experience we are bringing different aspects into the game and a fresh perspective into the industry.


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