Large motors and generators can power the way to net zero

Large motors are also large consumers of industrial energy. That makes them a prime target for energy efficiency initiatives.

Energy efficiency is so important in the world’s journey to net zero that the International Energy Agency (IEA) has labelled it ‘the first fuel’. As part of this initiative, industrial electric motors are a key target area for energy efficiency improvements. There are more than 300 million industrial electric motor-driven systems currently in operation, and if they were replaced with optimised, high-efficiency equipment, global electricity consumption could be reduced by up to 10 per cent.

The world’s use of energy by electric motors is in the form of four major applications – compressors (32 per cent), mechanical movement (30 per cent), pumps (19 per cent) and fans (19 per cent). There is rightly a considerable focus on improving the energy efficiency of small to medium electric motors. Yet it is large motors, rated at greater than 375 kilowatt (kW), where some of the most significant savings are being achieved. While these motors comprise just 0.03 per cent of the total stock, they account for about 23 per cent of all the energy consumed by motors.

As an example of what is possible, ABB recently recorded the highest ever efficiency for synchronous motors with a value of 99 per cent, resulting in a new world record. This is good news for customers, as it limits their energy costs and lowers overall operating costs. But it is even better news for our planet, since every increase in efficiency means a reduction in energy usage and lower CO2 emissions.

Over 20 years, the higher efficiency of just one of these motors will save more than 5,900 tons of CO2. That’s the equivalent of more than 3,000 round-trip flights across the Atlantic from London to New York. If we can replicate the carbon and energy savings from this motor across all similar motors in operation globally, the energy savings would be enormous.

Energy efficiency initiatives extend far beyond motors. In shipping, our new in-line shaft generator enables operators to benefit from the efficiency, performance and reliability advantages of permanent magnet technology. The innovative design offers better efficiency at both full and partial loading. This will help cut fuel costs for large vessels such as container ships and ferries by between 3 per cent and 4 per cent, as well as significantly reducing emissions.

Pioneering a new breed of power

Meanwhile, for utilities, the quest for decarbonisation calls for power grids to quickly transition to renewable resources such as wind and solar instead of large, centralised fossil-fuelled generation plants. That helps reduce carbon emissions, but it also brings new challenges in maintaining grid stability. This is because switching off traditional plants reduces the level of system inertia vital to resist sudden changes, such as when a generator trips offline.

Power grids rely on their inertia to keep them stable. However, wind turbines and solar panels are not able to contribute inertia to the grid. This is where synchronous condensers, which are large rotating machines, can play a key role by restoring the missing inertia.

Synchronous condensers are proving to be a cost-effective and reliable way to increase the level of renewables connected to grids while maintaining stable and reliable operation. They are finding applications in locations as diverse as the Lister Drive Greener Grid Park in Liverpool and the isolated Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic.

Innovation is at the heart of the solutions that will deliver net zero. Motors with enhanced energy efficiency, more efficient generators and new approaches to grid stability are all coming together to pioneer a new breed of decarbonised power.

By Heikki Vepsäläinen, Division President – Large Motors and Generators at ABB

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