Smart Takes

Five questions for...Eric Gebhardt, CTO, GE Energy Services

Posting in Aerospace

The journey to a smart energy ecosystem is fraught with operational change, GE Energy Services CTO Eric Gebhardt says. We asked him five questions.

LAS VEGAS -- GE Energy Services chief technical officer Eric Gebhardt delivered a keynote speech at the 2011 Forrester IT Forum yesterday on how his company is making "the journey to a smart energy ecosystem."

As more renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are plugged into the power grid, their intermittent nature will force IT operations to change, he said.

"Infrastructure in place today has reached the end of its design life," he said during his presentation. "Customers are looking to operating longer and longer with the same equipment while changing operating modes."

For a company that's fully invested in the smart grid -- and makes a steam turbine that's as big as a football field and rates at 1.3 million horsepower to use on that grid -- change is a major undertaking.

I sat down with Gebhardt and asked him five questions. Here were his responses.

SmartPlanet: What was the most difficult part of GE's rapid expansion for the smart grid?

EG: Dealing with the vitality of the market. You know what point you needed to be at three, five years from now. When you look at smart grid, it's a moving target. You have to design for a wealth of options.

It's a different way of product development -- a significantly different thought process. Agile [software development] has helped with that. When you're building the next great app, you have to do it differently. Then think about investing in the infrastructure of the smart grid. You're not going to sell it, but you need it to sell your apps on. It's hard to put a return on investment on it.

High-level support within the organization was important. We knew smart grid was important. It was different than things we had done in the past. We looked at ROI metrics differently. I give a lot of credit to people to make those decisions. People had to put their necks out a little bit. We're trying to have a startup in the middle of a 100-year old company.

SP: What impact does the smart grid have on the overall IT industry? It's a new space.

EG: What's going to be exciting about it -- the CIO and myself have a lot of discussions about this -- are career options for IT professionals. I don't think we've shared talent back and forth enough. What are the core competencies between these groups? There are a lot of similarities, but historically we haven't shared that. IT has to be based on a function, but core abilities are transmissible. Engineering will ask IT a lot more questions.

We are doing a lot with the electrical infrastructure around datacenters. The relationship between the two groups has really accelerated in the last 18 months. It's driven by an actual need. There's always going to be some challenges around the edges -- some IT people still like the waterfall methodology, for example. It's like two different languages. It's been 90 percent positive, and 10 percent we'll work stuff out.

SP: You called the company's collaboration with Georgia Tech, a smart grid lab, the "Silicon Valley" of Smart Grid. You have a degree in aerospace engineering from GT. Do you feel the industry need this kind of green collar infrastructure, one of knowledge?

EG: We're doing a lot around systems-level thinking and engineering. The challenges we're facing now are not going to be solved by components. When you think about a wind turbine -- it's a great system, marvel of engineering, but someone has to understand that when it's put on the grid, it's going to put additional demand on the grid. Someone needs to understand that impact. Green technologies are fantastic, but we have to understand that they're intermittent.

We've done two things to help the next generation: investing in Georgia Tech and other colleges with our smart grid challenge, where we give system-level challenges to them. We give them problems you can't solve with one component. We have two teams competing against each other on each subject. We had 10 patentable ideas from the first round with Georgia Tech. The way engineers work together in the work environment today is much different than the past.

We also have our system level engineering advancement program. We take people with a masters and a few years of experience and take them broad. Everyone is deep in something and broad.

SP: What is the biggest challenge you face?

EG: Continuing to educate why systems matter. People underestimate to have the optimal system, what doe that mean? You can look at it an integration -- take components and make them work together. The other is designing technology to work in a fit-for-purpose way. The correct answer is somewhere between the two, but having that conversation that you're decommissioning a project someone's been working 20 years on, that's a tough conversation.

We should be so grateful for the scientists and engineers from 40 years ago at how smart they were. Today, things will be replaced in only a few years, but the infrastructure will last longer.

We can apply current modeling technology on older equipment and find out we can run it much harder, safely. We have more understanding about mission critical equipment.

What excites me every day are these kinds of issues. We're not trying to solve everything in one way.

SP: Which decision are you most proud of?

EG: I'll give you two. To go full bore with software. We had to pull all those engineers together in one group To give him the go-ahead to run with Agile and other systems -- a large financial decision -- the impact was tremendous. It was high risk, high reward.

The other is the formation of the systems team. We formed it, and people were confused. Systems weren't a part of our dialect at that point. To get people to sit backhand think about how to get things to work together and design emerging technology…for the first year or so, it was confusing to the organization why this mattered. The smart grid architecture gave the group credibility. Now that team is getting pulled into electric vehicles, smart [power] plants, et cetera.

Correction: The original version of this article stated that GE's steam turbine was as big as three football fields. That is incorrect; it is as big as one football field. We regret the error.

Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure