The skyline of the Pudong region of Shanghai is simply spectacular. And this city is averaging a growth rate of 12% to 15% per year. With cranes visible in all directions, it is clear that this city is on a massive expansion spree. In fact, a friend joked that the national bird of China is the crane. I was amazed to learn that the number of high-rise buildings in Shanghai in excess of 10 stories high is now over 4000.

When Jim Greer and I first arrived at the Shanghai Airport, my friend Rick Rocamora arranged to have us picked up. We then joined Rick and his charming wife Joan for a traditional Chinese dinner in Pudong. Rick and Joan make their home in Shanghai and were happy to show us the city. After dinner, we all strolled down the boardwalk along the Huangpu River, where we could look across to the Bund (the Old Shanghai business district). The air was so clear that the lights across the river glimmered in seeming perfect focus.

How Did We Get to China?

I found myself in China because of my friendship with Dr. Li Roumei, the secretary general of the Chinese Society of Electrical Engineers (CSEE). Dr. Li had invited our international editor, Gerry George, and me to attend the 2010 China International Conference on Electricity Distribution (CICED) in Nanjing. For those of you who don't know Dr. Li, she can be as convincing as she is charming. Dr. Li also asked if I could suggest a “smart grid executive” who could give a keynote presentation for the event. So I called on my utility buddy Jim Greer, who is the Oncor senior vice president presiding over smart grid efforts at this utility, which is headquartered in Dallas, Texas.

Jim had been to China before and was eager to travel again. And because customers have choice in Texas, his utility has a fairly unique spin to share on a regulated T&D company working with both utility consumers and service providers in the smart grid arena.

Jim and I caught the same plane from the United States to Shanghai, and the next morning, we departed to Nanjing from Shanghai's ultra-modern railway station on its just-commissioned express train (which was quite a treat). Hitting speeds up to 320 kmph, the 305-km journey took only 75 minutes. We found that China has no hesitation in investing in infrastructure. In fact, the country is already planning a high-speed train from Shanghai to Beijing.

Smart Grid and Electric Vehicles in China

The focus of this year's CICED event was the burgeoning movement called “smart grid,” which attracted attendees and speakers from all parts of China and from around the world.

I was quite impressed with Dr. Xue Yusheng's keynote presentation of the future of smart grid in China. His comment that we must have a robust grid before we can get value from a smart grid stuck with me. Dr. Xue, chief engineer with the Nanjing Automation Research Institute, will be sharing his views on smart grid in an upcoming issue of T&D World.

I sat in on quite a few presentations on renewable energy initiatives and smart grid projects now moving forward in China. I was particularly impressed with China's progress in energy storage and combined heat and power installations. The CICED technical program was quite extensive, covering all aspects of smart energy delivery.

The technical presentation given by Du Chendong with the Shanghai Municipal Electric Power Co. was my favorite. Du shared SMEPC's progress in building out charging stations in Shanghai. Fortunately, Du sat right behind me, and we had the chance to talk after his presentation, and he agreed to craft an article on the topic.

Over at the exhibit hall, a five-seat electric car was on display. This vehicle, manufactured by Nanjing Jiayaung, is in production and already available for purchase in Norway, Austria, Spain, Iceland and the United Kingdom.

Jim and I slipped away from CICED for an afternoon, travelling by car to the city of Yangzhou, where we toured a State Grid electric vehicle bus and car charging station. As you can imagine, charging a bus requires a quite sophisticated three-phase source. We found more electric vehicle technology over at the nearby Smart Grid Exhibition Center, where Siemens, GE, LS (Korea) and Tatung (Taiwan) were among the companies with smart grid exhibits that address both the utility and customer side.

The Rest of the Story

Conferences are about learning, but they are also about connecting. Thursday evening Jim and I had dinner with guests including Zhai Xue Yi and Zhu Xiaohui with the Jiangsu Power Supply Co. in Nanjing. We had a marvellous time discussing technology and business, not to mention listening to incredible music from local artists playing classical instruments. This experience was enchanting.

The breakfast buffet at the conference hotel proved to be a perfect environment for connecting with speakers as well. One morning, I joined my buddy Mike Edmonds (who spoke on distributed intelligence) for breakfast, where we worked on our chopstick skills together.

I was sad to see the CICED event come to an end, but we had more fun in store. On Thursday, our mutual friend Dr. Xue invited Gerry George and me for a tour of the State Grid's Nanjing Automation Research Institute. Our timing was perfect, as we were able to see the WARMAP (Wide Area Monitoring Analysis Protection-control) systems being tested for later installation at regional utilities.

During lunch, Gerry and I had the chance to talk with Dr. Xue and the team of editors who work on CSEE technical journals. We also discussed the possibility of working together to share technical advances in China and around the world.

After lunch, Dr. Xue surprised us by taking us to the Nanjing Historical Museum, located in the former Presidential Palace. I've read a lot about China's history, so it was quite a treat to visit the offices that served at various times as both China's national and provincial headquarters. Sun Yat-sen, the first president in China's history, served here back in the early 1900s. And Chang Kai-shek also had his headquarters here for a short time. The architecture of the palace was a blend of the traditional and the modern, with lovely gardens and ponds providing a sense of tranquillity.

The next morning, Gerry and I got an early train back to Shanghai, which left us with sufficient time to visit SMEPC. I was quite excited that Mr. Du was in the group of engineers and managers who met with us. We have a good working history with SMEPC and have covered their initiatives over the past 10 years. In fact, we ran an SMEPC article in October on a 220-kV cable installation across the Changjiang Bridge. This utility continues to impress, and I still can't get over just how well it handles the phenomenal load growth in Shanghai.

SMEPC also treated us to a presentation on the energy exhibits at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo of which SMEPC is a major sponsor. And with energy on everyone's minds, the energy exhibits today are every bit as exciting as the energy exhibits at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.

Back in the early days of our industry, fair exhibits installed in Chicago by Westinghouse included 60-cycle three-phase generators, step-up transformers, transmission lines, and induction and synchronous motors.

Now 117 years later, World Expo attendees are shown:

  • A self-healing and automated distribution grid
  • 100-MW East China Sea Bridge Wind Farm
  • 4.7 MW of photovoltaic power
  • 330 kW of battery storage
  • Electric vehicle charging stations
  • Smart appliances
  • Ice cooling.

With our whirlwind week nearing an end, I left SMEPC to catch a high-speed magnetic levitating train to the airport. Because Jim and I were catching the same flight back to the states, we had a chance to recollect and see if we could put our trip in perspective. We were both blown away by the massive investment in infrastructure, whether it is roads, power lines, high-speed trains or high rises.

We were also quite humbled by the genuine hospitality of the Chinese people. Talking directly with engineers on their smart grid projects is fun because we get to learn “the rest of the story.”

I've now been to China three times over the past 12 years, and with each trip I discover a new China. So whether travelling by plane, train or automobile — or all three, as Gerry, Jim and I did — the best way to find out about how China is handling its energy infrastructure is in person.

Whatever preconceived notions you might have, there is no better way to truly understand an industry or a country than to immerse yourself in the culture and dialog with the individuals who are driving change.