Power Electronics Pioneer’s Inventions Have Made Renewable Energy More Affordable

2019 Global Energy Prize laureate Danish professor Frede Blaabjerg in front of a wall of power electronics.
Photo: Aalborg University

By: Kathy Pretz

THE INSTITUTEThanks to converters invented by IEEE Fellow Frede Blaabjerg, it’s less expensive to generate electricity from renewable energy sources. His development of variable speed drive technologies has led to more efficient heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

For his work on energy storage and integration technologies, Blaabjerg received this year’s prestigious Global Energy Prize. The award—given by the Global Energy Association, a nongovernmental organization in Moscow—honors outstanding research that addresses energy challenges. He shares the US $600,000 prize with Khalil Amine, leader of the advanced lithium battery technology team at Argonne National Laboratory, in Illinois.

Blaabjerg is a professor of power electronics and drives at Aalborg University, in Denmark. He’s also president of the IEEE Power Electronics Society and was editor in chief of IEEE Transactions on Power Electronics for six years. 

“I have been in the power electronics field for 30 years,” Blaabjerg told The Institute, “and my absolute major contribution in terms of impact has been in applications such as renewables, like wind generation. That includes connecting wind turbines to the grid and all the things that make it possible for going from wind to electricity.”

REDUCING ENERGY COSTS

The converter technologies, new design tools, and control electronics developed by Blaabjerg improved the quality of energy being fed into the power grid from photovoltaics, wind turbines, and other renewable sources, making the electricity more reliable and less expensive.

 “Many years ago, it was not really economically feasible to apply this technology in these kinds of applications,” Blaabjerg says.

His work on energy conversion from wind turbines has saved tens of millions of US dollars annually for consumers, according to the Global Energy Prize website.

He also invented ways to make HVAC systems run more efficiently. The Global Energy Prize website reports that his invention of energy-optimal control systems for asynchronous induction motors and permanent magnet motors has increased efficiency by up to 20 percent compared with standard methods. He also reduced the number of sensors in HVAC systems’ industrial drives—which lowered the cost to run them.

Continuing to innovate, he’s now working on ways to predict when new power and electronics equipment will fail by using mathematical models that describe the wear out of the applied components in the power electronic circuits. He says he is basically trying to predict how long a product will last and at the same time take into account statistical variation.

He also is developing an automated way of conducting reliability assessments on the millions of renewable energy generators on the power grid.

POWER PIONEER

The Times Higher Education magazine described Blaabjerg as engineering’s most quoted and successful researcher. He has written more than 1,100 magazine articles and reports on topics related to power electronics and renewable energy. According to Google Scholar, his work has been cited more than 100,000 times. He has received 32 prize paper awards from IEEE, and Thomson Reuters has named him among the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds.

He is to receive the 2020 IEEE Edison Medal during the IEEE Honors Ceremony, part of the IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit, to be held on 15 May in Vancouver. 

Even with such accolades, Blaabjerg remains humble. Although he’s pleased to see the technologies he’s worked on for so long finally being used to benefit society, he says what he likes doing most now is working with his Ph.D. and postdoctoral students.

“I enjoy seeing young people have the opportunity to contribute technologies that make a difference in the world,” he says. “They understand the importance of having a reliable power system, and that electricity is necessary in modern society. By working in the power electronics field, they’ll have the opportunity to introduce and implement technologies related to power generation and power distribution and their efficient use.”

GROWING INTEREST

As president of the IEEE PES, he says, he’s happy to see increased interest in the discipline.

“Five years ago, we had 7,000 members, and we’ve just passed 10,000,” he points out. “We are seeing fast growth in this field.”

He has been an IEEE member since he was a power electronics engineering student at Aalborg, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.

He says IEEE has inspired his work. “Through conferences, I was able to network with others, and there were seminars that I was able to learn from,” he says. “IEEE has helped bring visibility to my work and the ability to impact others. I also enjoy the high quality of IEEE’s publications.

“To me, the organization stands for excellence and respect.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 11 December 2019.