By Frede Blaabjerg, Professor of Power Electronics and Drives, Aalborg University and Simon Round, Corporate Executive Engineer, Power Electronics and Digital, Hitachi Energy

Power Electronics (PE) is not a topic of everyday discussion. Nevertheless, it is a vital transformational technology that is quietly operating in the background – unseen and unheard – yet, embedded into products that people use every day to make life more enjoyable.

We use Power Electronics to charge our smartphones and electric vehicles, and we use it to increase cooking efficiency through induction cooktops/hobs. The world’s industries are also becoming increasingly dependent on PE to increase efficiency in solutions. For example, PE is used to power large-scale aluminum production and efficiently transmit power across countries and seas. Power Electronics is revolutionizing the world’s energy systems – and can be increasingly found everywhere!

Power Electronics is the application of semiconductor electronics to the control and conversion of electric power.

These semiconductors are the power transistors and diodes that switch the input voltage on and off into a network of passive components to transform it to different voltage levels. Advancements in power semiconductor technology have enabled the power processing to even higher efficiency levels.

To correctly operate, the power conversion systems need to be controlled through embedded digital computers that run sophisticated algorithms thousands of times per second. The controller supervises the operation and adapts the behavior based on various parameters and set goals. This ability to change is embedded into digital algorithms which comprise the system and application knowledge.

PE is where the digital bits (information) meet the flow of electrons to perform optimal work. The combination of PE and digital technologies is the key enabler of the electrical power grid that will serve as the backbone of the carbon-neutral energy system.

Power electronics is unlocking social benefits

The presence and growth of Power Electronics in society come from its extreme flexibility and capability to adapt for the purpose. Power Electronics is a ‘multitool’ ready at hand for solving the many new challenges arising from a dynamic and accelerated transformation towards a carbon-neutral energy system. And the big winners are global society as well as the planet!

In the last twenty years, Power Electronics and its ability to enable game-changing technologies, bringing efficiency, compactness (less use of our planet’s land and resources) and reliability (keeping production on, even in extreme conditions) has strongly contributed to the journey towards carbon-neutral targets. Its speed of reaction, flexibility of control, and the scalability across power and voltage levels are key attributes that will ensure resiliency of the future energy system. PE is enabling the electrification of remote urban areas, converting polluting industrial processes and transportation infrastructure toward greener alternatives and improving the wealth of the population through more affordable energy – in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goal 7.

Power electronics is more relevant today than ever before

In recent decades the power grid was supplied by traditional rotating generation sources that had a main role in maintaining grid stability. Large-scale renewable power generation was just emerging, and bulk generation was concentrated in a few locations, while high voltage AC lines transmitted the energy from the generation sources to the load centers.

In the energy sector, PE applications were highly specialized solutions at the high and medium voltage level. High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC), for one, connected separated AC grids where AC transmission could not be used due to excessive losses, cost or differences in frequency. HVDC makes possible the provision of reliable energy to remote places and islands such as Shetland Islands in Scotland and Rio Madeira in Brazil while enabling a holistic power system across geographies and frequencies such as the Japanese power system in Higashi-Shimizu. Flexible AC Transmission Systems (FACTS), meanwhile, strengthened the AC network and power quality in weak nodes, while static frequency converter solutions electrified rail networks, decoupling the voltage and frequency of the rail network from that of the grid. Hitachi ABB Power Grids pioneered most of these PE applications.

The energy system is today undergoing a tremendous transformation, which due to its speed and outcome could be called a ‘revolution’. Increasing sustainability and environmental attention, sup-porting regulatory frameworks and new technology developments in the power sector are making electricity the backbone of the future energy system.

In this new and evolving situation, the role of Power Electronics has drastically changed.

Power Electronics connects renewable DC sources (e.g. solar PV) to the AC grid and is used to increase the controllability and efficiency of AC generation such as wind turbines and hydro power plants. HVDC technology realizes very efficient, long distance and fully controllable power transmission, allowing connection of offshore wind generation and interconnection of countries, enabling more energy trading. FACTS have become instrumental in solving the new power quality issues helping the existing infrastructure to cope with the new dynamic power flow even when the grid strength is reduced. From generation to consumption, Power Electronics is enabling solutions such as battery energy storage systems, pumped hydro storage, hydrogen production and conversion back to electricity.

Transportation is undergoing a real revolution towards electrification.

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