Interview with Danielle Merfeld, VP & Chief Technology Officer at GE Renewable Energy
How are artificial intelligence & digitization being leveraged to realize huge cost savings for growing wind turbine fleets? Catherine spoke with Danielle Merfeld, VP & CTO of GE Renewable Energy, about this, how she went from winning science fairs across the country as a child with Air Force parents to receiving her PhD in Electrical Engineering & ultimately taking the helm for technology at GE Renewable Energy. They also spoke about how her most instrumental mentors did not have technical backgrounds, as well as what it takes to effectively drive technology across a wide range of renewable energy business units within a Fortune 500 company.
Did you know GE Renewable Energy provides hydropower, has 90 GW of installed onshore wind capacity & that one out of every five turbines uses a wind blade produced by GE?
Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Danielle Merfeld. She’s the CTO at GE Renewable Energy. Welcome, Danielle.
Danielle: Thanks. Great to be here.
Catherine: Danielle is joining us from Charlotte, North Carolina. And I just wanted to say for those that don’t know, you were the cleaning Woman of the Year Award winner. You were recognized in the top five of the North American Power List. And you are currently the CTO of GE Renewable Energy. Can you tell us a bit about GE Renewable Energy in the work it handles? I know that you all do a lot around wind and hydro, what need are they currently serving?
Danielle: So a lot of people do know a lot about GE, because we’re such a big brand. And we’ve been in the energy space for a long time. But our portfolio is pretty broad. So we’ve been in the renewable energy arena for more than 100 years because of hydro, long history there. And we serve utilities, system operators, independent power producers, commercial customers in like 80 countries. So we’re a pretty global network of providers. We provide sales of products and services around the world. So hydro I mentioned, you mentioned onshore wind, a lot of people do know us because especially in the US, we have a big share of the onshore wind activity in that segment. And we have like 90 gigawatts of installed base. And we have some pretty cool products in that space. So people know what’s there. We also have a blade business, we manufacture and sell wind blades, not even just to GE but to our competitors as well onshore and offshore. So we make one out of every five turbines uses GE LM wind blades. We also have an offshore wind business, which is newer than our onshore wind business. And we introduced the world’s first 14 megawatt turbine, which is an amazing engineering feat taller than the Statue of Liberty. Every one rotation of a blade is powers two homes in the UK. So it’s really awesome engineering feat. We have a hybrid business, which combines solar and energy storage. And so we make solar inverters there. But then we also have a collection of grid businesses that is in our renewable energy business. And a lot of people don’t realize how integrated the needs are. And the challenges are between renewable energy generation and grid operation, the resilience of the grid and renewables are tightly tightly connected. So in our grid businesses, we sell HVDC, fax, AC, AC systems, high voltage, we also have a grid automation business that sells substation automation and protection. And we have high voltage systems like Transformers and stat comps. And then we have a whole bunch of services business that keep all those fleets running. And all the energy flowing smoothly around the world. So it’s a pretty broad portfolio. Very exciting stuff. And you know, technology abounds.
Catherine: Yeah. How are you all leveraging AI to enable renewable energy to proliferate? And what is the one digitalization initiative at GE that excites you the most?
Danielle: Yeah, so AI is an interesting topic of conversation. And a lot of companies talk about it. And I think we talk about it, sometimes, AI just means machine learning to some degree and in some applications. But where I see us using AI in a cool area, I mean, there’s some interesting new spaces, like for advanced load controls for wind turbines, where we met to actively manage the behavior of the system to reduce both fatigue and extreme loads on the wind turbine. We’re also using it when we manufacture blades when we do the inspection, because one little wrinkle in the carbon pultrusion, for example, can create a 50 times less strength in the part that ‘s late. So it really matters that we do a good inspection. But maybe if you asked about what’s the one that is most exciting, probably the biggest thing that is on my mind, thinking about our fleet, as we start making more and more wind turbines the whole industry is growing exponentially is that’s a lot of wind farms that are coming out to manage the wind farm maintenance, it’s a lot cheaper to do maintenance on a blade than to replace a blade. I mean, it goes from like $300,000, to replace the blade to 20 to $50,000 to go and do a big maintenance job on a blade. So the economic benefits of being able to assess whether or not a blade needs to be maintained and then go out and do it before there’s a need to replace it are huge. So we have a whole program that uses AI to take thermographic videos of the blades while they’re running like these are not standing still. And then go from these video images frame by frame and train a system to really pull out what are the right snapshots. So now we have you know from 3000 frames into 150 images that are more valuable and then we can deploy our AI on what’s the known defects? And where are they? And if we need to have a human inspected? What’s next or even better a robot inspection? So we’re just taking this really big data set down to something small. And then we’re integrating it into our models to say, is that a problem or not. And that’s probably the one that’s going to make the biggest difference for our customers in the field is being able to do all this quickly and be good at it not just have human error, or whether someone’s trained well enough. But then I won’t go into a long story about it. But I can’t comment on digitization without talking about the grid and saying, the grid is being revolutionized and how we use digital technologies to make that safer and more resilient and more interconnected. It’s absolutely the story of the grid. So I wouldn’t want to go past half of this question without commenting on the grid a little bit.
Catherine: When I was based in the UK I was always hearing from GE, like predictive analytics was like a big. Can you mention that at all?
Danielle: Yeah, I think that’s a little bit of what I was describing in terms of what I described was about how you do inspection. But predictive analytics isn’t too different. But instead of looking for cracks, you’re listening for harmonics, or you’re looking at data, and ultimately, everything that could go wrong, there’s clues. And maybe the clues are it’s rattling noise. So all of this use of digital tools, or AI, are picking up on those clues. And sometimes they’re like in a human, when we’re communicating, we have some subconscious things that we do little things that you might not notice, or they might not pick up. Unless you’re trained to look for the tells. We’re just looking for the tells and finding them. And then being able to see them more clearly and look only for them. That’s a really great thing that I think Predictive analytics is going to do already is spreading across all industries. But the industrial spaces like renewable generation, where you’re just growing your fleet so fast, you can’t afford not to do that.
Catherine: Yeah. What would you say some of the challenges are that the US renewable energy industry is facing? So do you think it’s more policy driven, technology driven otherwise?
Danielle: Yeah, a month ago, or maybe two months ago, I said, absolutely the most basic need is policy consistency, right. And we have had such inconsistent policy in the US around wind, specifically with the PTC cycling up and down. And the problem with that is that it makes it really impossible to build a secure supply chain. So all the small companies that feed the bigger companies that feed the bigger companies that feed us, our major components, they all depend on having uniformity of demand, we need more you know, if it’s growing, we want it to grow every year, we don’t want it to cycle up and then break to zero for a year or two. And so given the passage of the inflation Reduction Act, we expect that the market demand is going to be very uniform and growing as it should. And frankly, it helps us all because that will help us really drive more of a growth pattern that fits the ability to resolve climate issues and reach our goals from an admissions perspective. So this is all in the same. It’s all aligned with what we’re trying to do from a goals perspective. But even with this market demand, the uniformity of demand coming. We still need permitting and regulatory reform, because that’s all part of the timing. We need the government’s support to make sure that people aren’t waiting in interconnection queues for years, and then possibly, many of them to see which one is the project that’s going to go first. Yeah, so all those things are important.
And again, I’m going to skip over to the grid, because I can’t talk about renewables without talking about the grid. If I were to say the biggest technical challenge, because you know, you commented a little bit about policy or technology, the biggest technical challenge is all about can the grid do these transformations all at the same time that it needs to do to be able to accept all of this renewable energy that’s going to be put onto the grid, because it will limit how much we can put on the grid if we don’t do it, right. And the three transformations of the grid are, it’s been transformed by the physics. So we’re moving from synchronous generators to these power electronics, things that are plugging into the grid, wind and solar inverters and converters, the operations is changing. So now it’s operating differently. They’re more discrete, smaller sites that are spread farther apart, that need to talk to each other differently. We’re even having new loads that move around like electric vehicles. So the grid is operating totally differently than it did before. And we’re going to need to transform the economics because fuel is now free, and you know, how you pay for things and whether the market rewards the right behaviors and the right conditions that off the grid has never had to go through three, even more than one transition at a time. Right. Usually it has a decade or two to do it and they’re in series We’re doing three has to be done within the decade. And they’re all happening at the same time. So it’s not just like jumping out of the plane and building the parachute, you’re actually inventing the sewing machine, then you’re gonna sew the parachute, then you’re gonna make it put it on. Yeah. And you’ve already jumped out of the plane. So this is a tough challenge, biggest challenge by far, I would say.
Catherine: Yeah, that’s a great analogy. So you’ve been at GE since 2007, and have risen to become GE Renewable Energy CTO. First, I have to say that, statistically speaking, this is becoming more uncommon for any professional to stay at a company for such a long period of time. So it says obviously, a lot about GE as a company. But secondly, I’m curious to know how your leadership style has changed over the years. Can you share any insights on the keys to effective leadership, particularly in a growing and constantly changing environment?
Danielle: Sure. And so I will say one thing, I’m, I have been at GE since 1999. But 2007 is when I got into energy. And I know looking back, I mean, I was working in a lot of different spaces with GE. So it’s an even better question now. Because like, how could I have been at a place for 23 years? I think part of it has to do and many of my colleagues who also work at big global companies feel the same way. GE provides a lot of variety of opportunities to try new things, you can never really get bored, and you feel like you’ve never done at all, you’ve never been close. But remember, also the industries that GE is in, and that you know, just the energy enterprise overall, it’s completely changing every decade is a new world and new geographies, open up new challenges in that industry. So there’s been constant change around me, I don’t know that even when I’ve been in the same role, the jobs never been the same year over year. So I’ve felt that it stayed pretty exciting. And I will also admit, and I say this openly within GE a lot is I thought about leaving a lot of times, but every time I did the opportunity I had and GE was just better. So I just chose to stay. So it’s not like I just stuck around out of lack of inertia. It was a continual decision and continual recommitment to find the thing that I want to do the most. And it just happened to be in GE. And for me, the core of that was, it’s just the world stage, being able to do something important, and then being able to do something important that can impact so many people. That’s what does it for me that magnifies my impact. You asked about what my leadership style has changed. If I were to pick one thing, it would be letting go of control a little bit more engaging, and learning and listening. I’ve found that I’m way more effective when I have a team that trusts each other and that I can trust them. And we genuinely like each other. And we just kind of lean into each other’s strengths. You don’t have to as a leader, I want to be well rounded, but I don’t need to be the expert in everything that my team is doing. Yeah, and my personal style has kind of become that as my mission is to create team success. And I will look good, and I won’t worry about it. And I’ve never really have. So it’s really important to, especially when we have these huge challenges that we have in energy, is building partnerships and teams who listen to each other and have different points of view, managing that risk. We’re not gonna. We’re not having partners outside of GE customers, academia and national labs, suppliers. I mean, that’s really how you win and you build that trust circle as big as possible, and invite more people in and then you can go a lot farther.
Catherine: Yeah. I really appreciate what you said about transparency around, not just having your head down and doing GE year after year after year, but actually making a decision to look outside the space and GE being the better option for you. I think that’s important for people who’ve been at companies a long time to take that on board that it is important to keep looking at what’s going on outside the space to make sure that what you are doing is the best thing for you. And that may be staying put. But it’s important to also realize there’s other opportunities out there as well. And that’s okay. I know that you have a bachelor’s degree and a PhD in electrical engineering. Did you always want to work in renewable energy in particular? And how did you make your way into this industry? What advice do you have for others looking to go into your footsteps? I knew that you’ve mentioned previously that you’re a big proponent of mentorship. So if you could also comment on GE’s women’s network as well please.
Danielle: So I didn’t really know what renewable energy was when I first started off in school. My interest in this really just came from being interested in lasers and being interested because of science fairs, getting a chance to go into that space. My background is not in engineering, I don’t have family members that are technologists, I was an Air Force brat who moved around the country growing up. And the one common thread was science fairs. So I just got lucky, as I mentioned in high school, and I got to have an internship at a research center that worked on lasers. So I just started picking things that were interesting and lasers were interesting. I think that’s a pretty good philosophy for anyone moving forward is if you pick things to work on, that you’re interested in, you’re more likely going to do well in it, because you’re paying attention, you’re reading a little extra, you’re more passionate about it. So I luckily got into a really great zone and went to undergrad and in graduate school in the electrical engineering space, always finding something that was appealing to me. And actually, that’s what brought me to GE, they happen to need researchers at their research campus in upstate New York, this historic research campus that I knew nothing about when I interviewed with that I even I was sort of taking the GE interview as a practice interview, because why wouldn’t you want to get practice with such a well known brand, right? When I went there, I realized I was like a kid in a candy shop with a sweet tooth. They had all different types of technologies, I didn’t have to pick one I could be that sort of follow my passion person that I was. And I first started there really to help revolutionize lighting, by helping the world move from incandescent bulbs, which GE was very well known for, to solid state lighting, LEDs, and revolutionized lighting, why not go to the place that was sort of the birthplace, bringing lighting to the masses. And it was only like five or six years after that I had the opportunity to move into the Solar World, which is just an LED run in reverse. And since then, I’ve always had at least a toe, if not my whole body in the water on renewable energy, first with solar, and then with wind and then much more broad across the whole portfolio.
Catherine: Yeah, see, I really liked that story. Because I think there’s so much pressure on people who are graduating these days to like, figure out what it is that they want to be and do. And I just think like, you have to sometimes just kind of go with the way the journey, go with the flow of like what, what’s totally the direction that you’re being sort of taken in the current if you like. And so I think that’s a prime example that you were open enough to look at an organization and have them almost guide you a little bit as well as you following things that you’re passionate about that led you to where you were, it wasn’t so prescriptive.
Danielle: Yeah. And I’ll add to that, I’m glad you called that out. Because so many times when I am talking to young people who are thinking about what to start with, or even people mid career who are trying to decide if they’re going to make a move, so much of what might hold them back is this perceived notion that they already invested something in one area, and therefore they must stay in that when in reality, the better you are, you become better by having a diverse set of experiences. So if you’re not moving around, if you’re not trying things that are ancillary to your main path, you’re probably not building a broader set of skills that are going to be worthwhile, right skills that you’ll need later, especially young people who feel like they need to know what they want to do. Even if they did, the world around them is changing so fast. What the world needs you to do is going to be different. So I had to tell people not to try to predict where they’re going to be in five or 10 years. Just to say, what do I want to do now? And then next week, you can say, What do I want to do now? And it doesn’t change week by week, but year by year, it should change?
So you asked about mentoring. And one thing I will say is, I have been mentored and I have been a mentor to a lot of people and not just in GE but that’s a great network source when you work in the same company that’s so big. But there are organizations like in GE, we have the Women’s Network, right, where it’s great because you can connect with people that have something in common with you. We’re all women, many of us work with mostly men. But it doesn’t have to just be about that. I know, I probably leaned into the women’s network and got a lot more support at times in my life, like when I just had twins, or you know, when I was going through this periods of my life where I needed colleagues that knew kind of what I was going through, but also were working in GE or who were working tough jobs or had to decide if they were going to travel. But the day to day stuff. Mostly it’s just about having a network that you can call on when you have a big decision or knowing you can get experience leading something or get trying out some some activity in a low risk environment where you’re supporting in a leadership role, something for the network and not changing your job to try out something new. But it’s been really great that there are organizations like this across lots of companies, and I highly recommend anybody who isn’t already part of some employee advocacy group just to dip their toe in the water because it’s a really great way to meet people as well as give back to your community if you’re already if you don’t feel like you need it.
Catherine: So just the final question I have for you is about your upbringing. You touched on it a little bit earlier. But what was your upbringing like? And did you have any mentors in your life who encouraged you to pursue a career in STEM? So I feel like this question you might have already sort of answered some of it. But is there anything else that you want to talk about with that?
Danielle: Yeah, I think that certainly growing up science fairs were a big part of it. As I mentioned, that made me feel accomplished even though I was a fifth or sixth grader, or even a high schooler halfway, knowing what I was doing, and always feeling a little bit inadequate. I realized later, every high schooler feels that way. But the mentors in my life were not even all technical themselves. There were people who just kind of gave me confidence, or helped me believe I could do something that they never did, or that I never did before. I mean, especially for young women in technology, it’s too easy to presume other people know it more. Or you’re the only one who doesn’t have it figured out. Most of the people that I looked back that really shaped or impacted me or my professional careers, were not people in my profession, and weren’t people who would have guided me, technically, they were just people who made me feel strong, are good at what I did or capable. I was a really nervous public speaker when I first got to GE. And then I was in a role that they just needed me to talk a lot about what we were doing. And I had to do it. So one of my mentors just said, for a whole year, just say, yes, you’re gonna get asked to do a lot of things. And you just have to say, yes. And I was like, This is crazy. But I did it. And then I realized I hated it at first, but I got better. And now I do a lot more of it. And I don’t hate it anymore. So I mean, those are the people that influenced me the most. And I think that it’s really important to have role models. And to show, for example, I try to be a role model to young women about how fun it can be to be in STEM. And it’s not just like, you’re fighting the battle, and you’re showing that women can do it. You’re getting to reap the benefits of good high paying fun, diverse activity that matters to the world. And what drives different people into this field is different. So people that resonate with me, I can help coach and guide and a lot of different people are out there. So we need all different types of mentors and coaches and guides.
Catherine: Yeah, yeah. Well, thank you so much for your time, Danielle. I really appreciate it.
Danielle: My pleasure, Catherine. It’s been fun.