Leading the march towards renewables
Luke Witmer is a Lead Research Engineer at Greensmith Energy – a Wärtsilä company. His considerable and varied expertise with almost all facets of renewable energy has made him an innovator and influencer in the path towards 100% renewable energy future.
A specialist in renewable energy, Luke Witmer’s background covers almost all bases in this exciting field: he has designed and installed photovoltaic systems, developed energy software, and taught graduate level courses on solar resource and technology at Penn State University. He joined Greensmith Energy in 2015 as an Energy Engineer, some two years before it joined the Wärtsilä family.
“I lead the Greensmith Data Science, Simulation, Optimisation, and Forecasting team that is now part of Wärtsilä,” Luke says. “So far, my journey has been an incredible experience of understanding our customers' needs and building solutions that meet their complex requirements.”
Much of Luke’s work focuses on helping meet client needs using optimisation and machine learning, such as the application of algorithms for forecasting loads and renewable generation, decision making under uncertainty for energy storage dispatch, and a unified predictive algorithm library.
“I think my greatest contribution to Wärtsilä is with Greensmith’s forecasting and optimisation product offerings,” he says. This is demonstrated in one of his most significant projects on a small island off the coast of Portugal.
Renewable solutions for islands
In the north of the Azores is a 61-square-kilometre island named Graciosa, meaning ‘graceful’ or ‘enchanting’ in Portuguese. In the past, Graciosa’s 5,000 inhabitants depended solely upon importing fossil fuels to power their energy grid, but recently they decided to upgrade the small amount of wind energy to a hybrid renewable system capable of fully displacing the fossil fuel power for significant periods of time.
The new hybrid renewable system has a 6 MW/3.2 MWh energy storage system integrated with 1 MW of solar and 4.5 MW of wind power. This will boost the share of renewables from around 15 percent to more than 60 percent, reducing diesel consumption by about 70,000 litres monthly.
“I have been involved in the Graciosa Hybrid Island Microgrid project since the beginning of team’s involvement,” says Luke. “We are continuously pushing our forecasting and optimisation offering forward with what we are learning from this project.”
Minimising costs, maximising reliability
The new hybrid renewable power plant is managed by GEMS, the energy management system developed by Greensmith Energy – a Wärtsilä Company. The platform can operate autonomously and automatically using a data driven approach that leverages a rules engine, machine learning, and formal economic optimisation. GEMS integrates with the power-generation plants and energy storage to continuously operate and optimise system performance. The Greensmith software team has brought the right people together at the right time. “Our developers and their diverse backgrounds are a key reason behind GEMS’ success”, says Luke.
“My background in solar energy assessment with some aspects of meteorological education was critical in building our wind and solar forecasting modules,” explains Luke. “Additionally, my background in applied science helped me lead my team in building the GEMS Optimisation Engine which solves the complex problem of scheduling the diesel generators on the island while taking into account the myriad of constraints and factors that affect operations.”
Efficient renewable generation, coupled with energy storage and grid management systems like GEMS, says Luke, can play a dramatic role in the fight against climate change.
Helping create a greener tomorrow
Luke’s typical workday revolves with the sun, as one would expect. One of the first things he does is to take a look at sites that are operating in production and make sure there are no new issues that need to be immediately addressed.
“Second, I check in with my team and make sure everyone is progressing on our priorities without any roadblocks,” Luke says. “Third, I engage with customers and other teams to continue to understand future requirements. Finally, late at night after the kids are in bed, I have a phone call with people in Australia or some other far-off land to participate in building the right solution for their needs.”
He says what he enjoys most about his work is being a significant influencer in Wärtsilä’s transition towards 100 percent renewable energy. The acquisition of Greensmith Energy, he says, shows that Wärtsilä is seriously focused on building a future powered by clean energy.
“The acquisition of Greensmith put Wärtsilä on the map in terms of leading the vision of a 100 percent renewable energy future,” says Luke.
He is particularly pleased with Wärtsilä’s dedication to innovative energy integration projects and going ahead, he sees his skillsets playing an important role in coming up with new products for a greener future.
“In the next 15 years I can imagine many more turnkey hybrid offerings,” says Luke. “I see myself helping to productise the software aspects of these offerings, specifically the forecasting, optimisation and simulation components.”