Interview: Robert Morgan, CEO, Energy Storage, GE Renewable Energy

Robert Morgan circle headshot

The energy storage sector occupies an uncertain position, with new customer demands on one side and grid-level bottlenecks delaying distribution on the other. In the lead up to his keynote presentation at the Australian Energy Storage Conference, we spoke to Robert Morgan, CEO of Energy Storage at GE Renewable Energy, about strategies for tackling some of the key internal and external obstacles in the energy storage space.

How to succeed in energy storage — advice from an industry veteran

Robert Morgan is no stranger to observing movement in the energy sector. Over his 30-plus year career in global energy markets, he’s watched the industry adapt to intensifying climate and regulatory pressures in a slow march towards the future.

Now, he’s confident that energy storage is an integral part of the sector’s next big step.

“Energy storage is a natural progression of the industry as society progresses through phases of fuel efficiency and environmental improvements, and now confronts ever-increasing penetration of renewables,” Mr Morgan said.

Growing an energy storage division

After working for years on the unregulated side of the electricity industry with companies such as Agile Energy, Areva Solar and RES Group, Mr Morgan was recruited into GE in early 2018 to grow the company’s energy storage startup unit into a self-sufficient division within GE Power.

“The biggest challenges have been in balancing the agility and innovation necessary for a startup to flourish, with the demands of a mature business that is looking to have investments make near-term, significant-return impacts,” Mr Morgan said.

In expanding GE Power’s energy storage portfolio, Mr Morgan leveraged a number of the company’s core strengths.

“Our strategic advantages come from three sources,” Mr Morgan said.

“One: GE’s global reach and customer base – 30 per cent of the world’s electrons come from GE equipment. Two: GE’s technological foundation and drive to innovate brings continuous improvement, including asset and grid-level control software; and three: achieving scale in the energy storage business [gives] us leverage in the supply chain to get cost out and then move to adjacent sectors that have even more area for differentiation.”

His top piece of advice for Australian utilities that he’s learnt from GE’s energy storage technology journey is to set high standards for reliability, safety and punctuality on all energy storage projects.

“Customers want a reliable, competent partner to execute a project on time and on budget, with guaranteed performance and an absolute commitment to safety.”

Exploring current and future trends

Looking beyond internal operations, Mr Morgan emphasised the importance of keeping abreast of industry trends, which can aid decision-making and make it easier to spot market opportunities ahead of the competition.

In regards to current trends in energy storage, Mr Morgan spoke enthusiastically about lithium ion batteries and the growing synergy between energy storage and renewables.

“Right now, the trends in energy storage are twofold. First, electric vehicles are advancing to a scale that makes lithium ion batteries the cheapest and most effective of the proven storage technologies at modest durations — less than six hours.

“Second, customer demand for shaped energy supply products means that we can offer wind, solar, and gas technologies in combination with energy storage to create a hybrid renewable solution that meets customer needs.”

Mr Morgan also made a point to highlight the ‘3 Ds’ — decarbonisation, digitisation and decentralisation — which he says are creating key opportunities in energy storage.

“The 3 Ds, along with electrification of vehicles and other goods, are driving consumer behaviour and making it a necessity to ramp up volumes of renewables, as well as smaller scale projects and automation,” Mr Morgan said.

“This creates the opportunity for energy storage to enable more consumer choice, e.g. ‘sun and wind when I want it’, and more localised energy system deployment and control.”

The real obstacle to grid integration

Mr Morgan said that when it comes to the changes that have to happen for the grid to accommodate new storage technologies, it’s less a hardware problem and more a people problem. In other words, the base infrastructure already exists; what’s needed most is a change in attitude.

“Control systems and grid software need to be updated, but the wires can fundamentally handle energy storage — incumbent operators often have a resistance to change.”

“The grid is ready to accommodate energy storage technologies today. What is really needed is system operators and interconnection rules to recognise that energy storage both generates electricity and demands electricity — it flows both ways.”

According to Mr Morgan, it now falls on the government to spur grid operators along and ensure critical system reforms happen so that the storage industry can continue to grow.

“We already have the control systems and software to enable more energy storage, but regulators and politicians need to help push system change.”