SCHENECTADY — A veteran GE researcher has been honored with a lifetime achievement award for his work to integrate renewable energy into the nation’s electrical infrastructure.
Nick Miller grew up in Clifton Park the son of a General Electric steam turbine engineer, went to school at RPI, and has spent 37 years at GE’s Schenectady campus. That wasn’t his plan upon graduation from high school, but he developed a speciality and has stuck with it, particularly after GE re-entered the wind power business in the early 2000s.
Miller now holds several patents and is continuing his work as GE works to capture and hold market share in the growing renewable energy sector.
The Utility Variable-Generation Integration Group recognized this with its Lifetime Achievement Award last week at an event in Tucson, Arizona.
The 60-year-old New Scotland resident is senior technical director of GE’s Energy Consulting Group, a component of GE Power. It operates out of Power’s Schenectady headquarters and has offices on four continents. It was founded in 1915 by legendary electrical engineer Charles Steinmetz and still has essentially the same task today: Making the latest power-generation technology work as a whole to serve the power grid.
Miller recalled setting out to study mechanical engineering at RPI, but changed to electric power engineering, a degree unique to RPI at the time, thanks in part to his family exposure to GE. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he secured a job offer at Pacific Gas & Electric, clear across the country, but opted to stay close to home.
“This place has a very proud, long history,” he said of Energy Consulting. “A lot of people who wrote the book wrote it while they were working here.” Miller is particularly proud to be following in the footsteps of pioneering engineer Edith Clarke, whose mathematics research laid the groundwork for today’s smart grid.
The mission of Energy Consulting became his career: Understand the power generation and transmission components of the grid, make them function as a single organism, and figure out how they fit into a customer’s present and future business plans.
The early 2000s were a critical era in the career for which Miller was honored last week. GE had entered the wind power market three decades earlier and exited because the technology hadn’t matured. By 2002, material science had advanced and GE was able to acquire a strong company: Enron Wind Group. Soon after, New York began to press development of wind energy as a state policy initiative.
“Nobody had a handle on how to bring that technology into the grid,” Miller recalled, pointing out the basic problem: Wind turbines generate power when the wind is blowing, not necessarily when the electricity is needed.
At that time, the prevailing wisdom was that a half-gigawatt was the most wind power that could be integrated into New York’s grid, which has a peak demand of 33 gigawatts. Miller and his team did a study with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and New York Independent System Operator that concluded the grid could handle 3 gigawatts of wind power, or about 10 percent of peak demand.
It was viewed as a radical conclusion, and New York still hasn’t come close to that goal. But Texas has since reached more than 20 gigawatts of installed wind power, and it has supplied more than half the state’s electrical needs at times. And individual power pools have reached as high as 60 percent of electricity derived from wind.
“For 15 years we’ve been going up this ladder,” Miller said. “The basic tenet of all that was to make the wind power grid-friendly, to make the behavior of the wind turbine friendly to the grid.”
He added: “You’ll notice the word ‘integrate’ rolls off my lips a lot.”
The work Miller and GE Energy Consulting do to integrate wind power into the grid translates also to solar power, which like wind power is a variable source that depends on varying sunlight. Many of the 20 patents he holds or helped secure are for wind and solar power controls.
In separate but related work, Miller has led the team that built the wind turbine models utilities use for planning, and he has counseled utilities and governments in more than three dozen countries on how to make their power grids cleaner, more reliable and more economical.
General Electric, meanwhile, has become one of the top manufacturers in the wind power industry, with more than 35,000 turbines installed worldwide. Remote Operations Centers such as the one in Schenectady control 13,000 of these.