Get Yer Motors Running

Last week, I spoke with a few representatives from GE Motors and Services, one of the groupings under Industrial Solutions within the massive GE Energy business unit of General Electric (NYSE: GE).  In the course of the conversation, I received a brief tutorial on the state of affairs in the motor marketplace.

Although easy to overlook, motors add up to a very big deal:  according to the Department of Energy, motor-driven equipment accounts for an estimated 64% of U.S. industrial electricity demand, because motors are embedded in so many fans, pumps and processes — all of which are ubiquitous in the industrial sector, and particularly in the three largest end-user segments of power generation, oil/gas and mining. 

Because motors represent such a significant share of the nation’s electricity consumption and such a signficant outlay for U.S. manufacturers, the DOE has made motors a key area of its Industrial Technologies Program to improve the competitiveness of American industry.  There’s also a group of interested parties that has formed Motor Decisions Matter, a group that is hosting a website with information on motors to facilitate better decision-making on the subject.

Energy efficiency is arguably the primary factor in the motor market, because expenditures on energy consumption represent the vast majority of a motor’s total life-cycle costs.  For instance, a low-voltage motor might cost $4000, whereas its associated annual energy cost might be on the order of $40,o00 if it runs a large percentage of the time (not uncommon in industrial settings). 

Thus, each fractional gain of energy efficiency is huge, and paybacks on making an investment in a new motor might be as short as one year. For larger motors, it can be very economic to tear down and rebuild the windings to eke out a little more efficiency from the motor — that’s the Services part of GE Motors and Services.

As you might expect from such an industrial giant — one that was built upon electric energy — GE offers the full spectrum of electric motors from 1 to 100,000 horsepower.  Main targets for GE’s research agenda in motors centers on applications for electric vehicles, and also permanent-magnet motors to reduce the need for rare earth metals (as discussed in a prior posting of mine). 

Other desired improvements in motor technology center on relability — particularly since industrial users have reduced inventories of spare motors as capital budgets have been squeezed.  Two particular challenges stand in the way of improved reliability.  First, heat:  as a rule of thumb, each 10 degree increase in internal temperature reduces motor life by 50%, so considerable attention is being paid to materials and heat dissipation approaches.  Second, vibration:  bearing failures account for 52% of all motor failures, and vibration is at the source of most of this issue.

I didn’t hear anything from the GE Motors representatives suggesting that a major revolution is on the way in the motor sector — although GE is more known for continuous incremental improvements than in profound breakthroughs — but it’s clear that motors continue to be a fertile ground for innovation, so many decades after they became commonplace. 

It’s yet another a good reminder that all facets of the modern economy, even the most basic ones, are the subject of attention for innovation relevant to the cleantech sector.