SCHENECTADY — The new leader of technology development at GE Renewable Energy is a familiar face in the Capital Region tech community.
Danielle Merfeld, who in 2015 became a General Electric vice president and the general manager of the 2,000-person Global Research campus in Niskayuna, moved in December to Renewable Energy. She is the new vice president and chief technology officer for that business, which has 22,000 employees in 55 countries and reported a $727 million income on $10.3 billion in revenue in 2017.
Renewable Energy is based in Paris, but its component divisions are dispersed around the world. Its onshore wind division is based on the sprawling campus at the foot of Erie Boulevard in Schenectady, where GE Power is headquartered.
Merfeld is an electrical engineer by training and experience, which might seem to be a good fit for a business that generates electricity through renewable sources, but a lot of the scientific work it does is in other disciplines — particularly mechanical engineering, when huge wind turbines are involved.
“I’m coming in with a very different set of experiences, so I have a lot to learn,” she said. Engineering leaders in the four divisions of Renewable Energy — onshore wind, offshore wind, hydro and wind turbine blades — do a lot of the technical work, she added. “What I’m looking for much more is the larger picture.”
In that sense, Merfeld’s new position is similar to her previous position, in which one of her main roles was to assemble research and development teams that would function as a whole that was greater than the sum of their parts.
She credits General Electric for giving her the opportunities to advance as a leader and giving her the mentorship and training she needed to accomplish that.
Merfeld’s career has its roots in her teen years, during an internship at a Florida Air Force base that had a laser laboratory.
Holes were burned in a number of objects that summer.
“I probably didn’t do them a lot of favors,” she recalls.
But she did get hooked on science.
When she entered the University of Notre Dame, she asked a counselor what she’d have to study to build a career with lasers.
The reply: “electrical engineering.”
She earned an EE bachelor’s at Notre Dame, then a doctorate in EE at Northwestern. She never did get a master’s degree in EE, though some later internal training at GE’s leadership institute in Crotonville was the functional equivalent of a master’s of business administration.
In her undergraduate days, Merfeld worked as an assistant in an EE lab. During her graduate studies, she spent a couple of summers with a NASA program.
“It was a good experience to understand what it was like to work with government agencies,” she recalls.
Government work was the focus of her ambitions at the time.
She submitted her resume to General Electric Global Research in the hopes of using it as a practice interview, rather than out of a desire to work there. Her mind changed once she got on-site, and started talking to people.
In December 1999, she joined GE Global Research.
Early on in her time at the hilltop campus in Niskayuna, she met a young chemical engineer named Glen Merfeld. The two now have twin 12-year-old daughters and a 9-year-old son. They live in town not far from Global Research, where Glen still works. He leads a value-modeling team, looking at GE products and services, considering the various market changes that might affect them, and recommending strategies to deal with those potential changes.
Merfeld said she learns a lot at the dinner table.
The great outdoors is a favorite place for the family to spend time together.
“We love hiking up in the Adirondacks,” she said.
Merfeld grew up an Air Force brat, moving to a different base every few years. After 18 years here, the Capital Region is the only place that feels like home to her.
“I think I’ve been amazed at this part of this country,” she said. “I don’t ever want to move.”
Merfeld, 45, said her recent shift from Global Research to Renewable Energy is an opportunity and a promotion, not just a lateral move.
“I see this as a huge step forward in my career in terms of learning how a business runs.”
It also meshes well with a longstanding interest of hers, energy efficiency.
But it required some changes in perspective, as research and development are different from manufacturing and services.
“I think the biggest difference is the time frame,” Merfeld said.
Researchers take a longer view to effect changes in the future, she explained, while manufacturers are more directly focused on product innovation. The engineers and scientists are working for the same company with the same goal, they just sometimes have different perspectives or priorities, she added. “The cycles are just different.”
She continues to think of herself as an intrepreneur — an internal entrepreneur, focused on bringing ideas to fruition within a company.
Merfeld’s office is in Schenectady, where the onshore wind division of Renewable Energy is based.
GE Renewable Energy itself, which had been headquartered in Schenectady, now is based in Paris. It has offices and factories for its various divisions on four continents, from Grand Forks, North Dakota, east to to Shenyang, China. Merfeld is chief technology officer for all of it.
The new role has caused her some regret she never learned other languages, and has led to a lot of travel — there are limits to the effectiveness of video conferencing.
“Technology is great but there is something to be said for the more causal human interaction,” she said.
She hasn’t encountered any pushback abroad over the America-first stance of President Trump. Curiosity, yes, but no backlash, which is important for GE, a company with operations in more than 100 countries and a heavy reliance on international trade.
“There’s always an interest [abroad in U.S. politics], no matter who’s in charge,” Merfeld said.
“There’s maybe a little extra interest now,” she allowed.
GE Renewable Energy previously had been part of GE Power, but became a standalone GE business in 2015.
Much attention has been paid to the vision for GE’s future offered in late 2017 by new CEO John Flannery: concentrate on Aviation, Healthcare and Power as GE’s core businesses and sell off the others. But Merfeld said that was misinterpreted as meaning the future of GE Renewable Energy is in question. Flannery meant “power” in the broader sense of “power generation,” through both GE Power and GE Renewable Energy.
GE Power has been struggling financially but Renewable Energy has been growing and performing solidly. Merfeld said it has great potential for further growth as more and more of the world embraces eco-friendly sources of electricity.
It was recognized in late 2017 with the company’s internal “Growth Business of the Year” award.
As she leads efforts to boost existing and future technology at General Electric, Merfeld also works to encourage the next generation of scientists and engineers, those still in grade school now. Not just girls, who are under-represented in the engineering field, but boys as well. And not just at her children’s schools, but in others across the Capital Region.
“I’ll talk about anything from robotics to clean energy,” she said.
An animated and enthusiastic speaker, Merfeld likely succeeds in opening young minds to science with each visit.