Wind Turbines: I’m a big fan

by Hanson Boyd, MBA ‘14

Hanson Boyd, MBA ‘14

Energy makes the world turn. I’ve been fascinated with the energy industry from an early age and worked in traditional power generation before coming to Johnson. This summer I was able to experience another dimension of the industry with an internship with GE’s Renewable Energy Leadership Program.

There is an ongoing battle between traditional and renewable energy. In places like California and Hawaii, the accessibility of renewable energy is at 20 or 30% with growing concerns of intermittency. Therefore, it is still up to traditional energy plants to take up the slack on a day without wind or sunshine. Steam turbines, powered by coal, oil and natural gas, need to be nimble in order to support a stable grid. Renewable energy intermittency was seen as a problem that begrudgingly needed to be addressed with traditional power.

However, the tides are changing remarkably quickly for an industry that still depends on thousands of power plants built in the 1940s.[1] One thing I learned in the sustainable global enterprise (SGE) immersion is to think globally and be aware of disruptive technology. Historically, wind power has been criticized for underperformance, but wind technology has gone through a remarkable transformation in recent years.

In fact, wind power has become the solution for problems that plague nations around the globe. In addition to dramatically reducing the output of greenhouse gases, wind power frees countries from depending on imports of oil, natural gas or electric power, all of which are subject to price volatility or political embargo. Politicians in developing countries are increasingly using wind energy to alleviate unemployment and promote economic development. Finally, wind power is already a less expensive alternative to traditional types of energy generation in certain locations.

Technological improvements to wind turbines over the last decade have outperformed expectations by both the general public and the utility companies that are purchasing the technology. I was surprised to discover that even GE Renewables, the top wind turbine producer in the world, needs to spend time and effort educating their customers on what wind power can do. The amount of time that a wind turbine can produce full power has risen from 25% to over 50%, and reliability of the technology has increased from 80% to above 98%. Also, the intermittency of renewable energy, experienced in the past, is being addressed with advanced forecasting and energy storage. Given its amazing success, it is no surprise that wind is projected to comprise the majority of new energy installations in the future.

This summer I secured an internship with the Renewable Energy Leadership Program at GE Energy and worked on a project that focused on how GE introduces new products. Technology and government policy change so quickly that the cycle for introducing new products is critical to its success. However, this rapid turn-over of products has negatively impacted the quality of products in the global supply chain. I asked myself a basic strategic question: How can we improve quality while still maintaining the rapid pace of product development and market launch?

My investigation led to an in-depth case study of one of GE’s recent successful product launches. I conducted dozens of interviews with those involved in the process – everyone from factory floor quality auditors to engineering and product line executives. The case study allowed me to step back and shed some light on gaps in communication, artifacts of a company that grew rapidly out of necessity. After completing my report, I had the privilege of presenting my recommendations to the executive leadership at Renewables and again at the umbrella Power and Water level.

My summer at GE has been a whirlwind. I have learned much about the industry and what it takes to navigate a big company. It has been a fantastic experience that has entrenched me further into the world of renewable energy. After learning the ins and outs of the industry, I can now proudly say that I am a big fan of wind power.