Power play: Philadelphia houses U.S. headquarters of a leading maker of networks that manage power grids
Feb 10, 2013 (The Philadelphia Inquirer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Gregoire Poux-Guillaume is president of Alstom Grid, one of the world's leading providers of systems that manage complex electrical networks. He was on a flight to Philadelphia last Sunday when the Super Bowl was under way, so he has an alibi during the blackout.
"We don't have any direct involvement in that," he said, laughing.
The Super Bowl outage was caused by faulty switchgear in the electrical lines serving the Superdome, but it amounted to a free half-hour commercial on the important role played by the power grid.
"The electrical grid is pretty abstract for most people, except when the Super Bowl gets stopped for 34 minutes," said Poux-Guillaume (pronounced Poo-GEE-yohm).
Last year Alstom Grid quietly relocated its U.S. headquarters from Washington to offices near Philadelphia International Airport. The Harvard-educated Poux-Guillaume visited last week to meet with employees and clients.
Alstom Grid is one of the major operating units of the French industrial giant Alstom, which also builds power generators as well as transportation equipment. (Alstom Transport Inc. is currently rebuilding PATCO's rail fleet.) Poux-Guillaume's division accounts for about 20,000 of Alstom's 100,000 employees.
These are heady times for companies like Alstom that are transforming aging systems originally designed to transmit electricity from central power plants. Alstom and its competitors are developing two-way "smart-grid" systems to manage power flows and financial transactions among a profusion of players, including renewable power generators.
Smart-grid systems require more sophisticated equipment and software that can accommodate customers who are sometimes producers as well as consumers of power, depending upon the time of day. For instance, electric cars are expected to play a critical role on the smart grid, drawing upon the system to charge their batteries, but also selling stored power back to the network when demand spikes.
"Suddenly you have all these small sources of power generation, and most of them are intermittent," said Poux-Guillaume, 42. "Power generation is fragmented, not stable. Transactions are happening both ways."
Alstom Grid has operations across the country. It develops software in Redmond, Wash. It manufactures high-voltage switchgear in Charleroi, Pa.
In Philadelphia, Alstom has maintained an office for more than 20 years where it develops Flexible AC Transmission Systems (FACTS).
FACTS, which are typically installed at a utility substation, instantly supply stored power to stabilize networks, improving efficiency and allowing utilities to push more power through their transmission lines. They are big business for Alstom and its competitors, including Siemens AG and ABB Group.
Alstom's FACTS systems are assembled by a contractor near Philadelphia for distribution throughout the Americas. Alstom Grid decided to consolidate its U.S. headquarters with its Philadelphia operations partly because of proximity to customers. It provides software to most of the nation's regional grid operators, including the largest, PJM Interconnection of Valley Forge.
"We manage 40 percent of electrical exchanges in the U.S.," Poux-Guillaume said.
Alstom Grid is also consulting with the Navy Yard to develop its experimental city-within-a-city electrical grid.
And it also recently signed up as the technical adviser to the Atlantic Wind Connection, the ambitious subsea transmission line that would connect offshore wind farms to the mainland.
Alstom now has 120 employees at its offices near the airport and is relocating teams here "as much as possible," Poux-Guillaume said. The company has 20 open positions in its FACTS operation.
"These are sort of $100K-plus jobs, advanced engineering," he said. "So we're growing. Our constraint is more how can we staff these positions, which is a nice problem to have."
Contact Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947, @Maykuth on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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