A Q&A with Marelli Motori’s Wolfgang Unterbusch, Co-CEO for sales and business development about his infrastructure mission
From March 2023, Wolfgang Unterbusch was appointed Co-CEO of sales and business development, Marelli Motori SRL.
He worked in the field of rotating electrical machinery (motors and generators) in the oil and gas, marine, power generation and industrial sectors in Europe and worldwide for 30 years.
Wolfgang spoke with Ambrose McNevin about his roles, his management style, microgrids and the changing power market and where Marelli is meeting the shifting challenges of different sectors from marine to hydro energy and across energy intensive industries.
Ambrose McNevin (AM): Q: What is driving the market for local electrical infrastructure?
Wolfgang Unterbusch (WU): A: National electricity power grids, even where they have been well maintained, are aging, can be affected by cyber-attacks, and are exposed to the macro effects of global events such as war, fuel shortages and other emergencies such as the pandemic. They are not the future of energy and power supply.
Having had to endure power cost volatility – customers must pay whatever price they are offered by the power plants – and thanks to gas supply issues caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine they have felt the impact of security of supply so industry is looking for independence from local grids.
AM: As an infrastructure supplier how quickly is the market changing and how quickly is the shift to independence moving up the policy agenda?
WU: In Germany for example there are rapid changes in the energy sector. Shutting down nuclear power plants, shutting down all the coal power plants is pushing the consumer to change to energy sources like wind, heat pumps and solar. Every house is acting as a microgrid. It will supply power into batteries or the local grid. This transition is happening very quickly and industry will follow this trend as fast as possible. And it is not just in Europe, the microgrid market is growing quickest in America and Asia because of the pressure to quickly get microgrids built.
Everyone is well informed about the possibility to work independently from the grid, to work connected to the grid, to put power back into the grid but it is still critical energy supply that remains a priority across all energy intensive sectors.
AM: Is industry asking: ‘what are our options?’
WU: As Marelli Motori our part is to cover the gaps in the power supply depending on the load. Our role here is in a microgrid system working with hydro, solar and wind energy. Our opportunity is because the most important thing for industry is cost. As a generator supplier customers ask us about the efficiency of the generator because the end user requires power for different loads.
When I came to Marelli, I realized that the definition of microgrids is not clear to many people. From the point of view of the Power Solutions Division (which includes Piller, Bergen Engines and Marelli Motori) we manage large projects from 50 MW to 300 MW. In some areas Bergen Engines will take the lead as they are key suppliers and Marelli will supply the alternators up to 10 MVA.
Microgrid operators who use RER (Renewable Energy Resources) and are tied to how much power can come from wind and solar mean the loads are different for the generator. All industries are asking for high efficiency over a range of different loads. This has a direct impact on cost. If the generator efficiency is 50% it makes no sense because it burns money. We need a 50% load at high generator efficiency of over 90.5%.
Our many years of experience in engine and generator construction enables us to adapt the generators precisely to customer needs and regional grid specifications, thus guaranteeing a perfectly coordinated system made up of components from Bergen, Piller and Marelli, which are 100% adapted to customer requirements. A significant advantage of this constellation is where the customer has only one contact with interface function between the companies Bergen, Piller and Marelli.
The second part is that Marelli, as an independent company, works closely with partners such as OEM system integrators, distributors and shipyards who take control of our areas of activity such as hydropower, marine, power generation, etc. We ensure the right technologies for the applications and customer specification.
There are synergies between Piller and Marelli in terms of electric machines and the engine business.
These are the major questions we get from industry. That and how fast can we provide energy in case of a grid outage. They want to know the system and generator response time to avoid blackouts. The answer is that we can immediately provide the energy requested by the load.
It relevant to all sectors and especially so for data centres. We explain to these customers that a microgrid black out using Power Solutions Division technology including Marelli alternators and generators is nearly impossible. Piller’s Powerbridge kinetic energy storage will keep the system live for 20-30 seconds and this will give us time enough to start our generator so that the black out in a data centre or hospital will not happen.
Keeping any system live is a huge benefit for any industry as it removes all downtime and need for restart of a complete industrial process.
AM: What opportunities has Marelli identified in the hydro market?
WU: Hydro is playing a big role world-wide. Countries such as Azerbaijan are growing the scale and number of hydro plants. Hydropower is the most proven renewable energy.
It is already a significant part of the electricity mix and will continue to play a key role in the electricity supply and infrastructure of countries and regions with sufficient water resources.
Hydroelectric power plants are in use all over the world today and are very successful. Countries like Brazil (64%) and Canada (60%) generate most of their electricity from hydropower, not to mention Norway (92%). Globally, hydropower covers 16% of electricity needs and 58% of renewable electricity.
There is still enormous untapped potential.
Marelli Motori works closely with global turbine manufacturers and offers specification-compliant solutions for their turbines, regional grid regulations and environmental conditions.
By working closely with Bergen in the power generation and microgrid applications, our generators have been further developed and adapted in terms of performance to market requirements.
This gives us a new opportunity to participate in larger hydropower tenders.
We develop and produce specifically for the respective application and thus guarantee safety and availability.
Marelli built a new 10MW generator especially for use with Bergen’s engines. This will help us in the hydro business. There is also a larger generator in development. The investment and partnership with Bergen Engines works well and is helping us further penetrate the hydro power sector because these generators are well suited for use in hydro plants. We see a trend to larger generators to produce more power and energy in the hydro business.
AM: The shipping industry is under pressure of stricter environmental regulations regarding Co2 emissions. What does this mean for Marelli?
WU: We are seeing an electrical power shift. Ships still require motors and this year we are seeing a lot of orders that were delayed because many ship owners are rethinking how they can change the engine from running on diesel to running hydrogen fuelled engines. This is true across container shipping to cruise liner vessels.
The big questions are always about efficiency, weight, dimension. These are the major requests from our customers. It does not matter if they require motors or generators, they want the highest efficacy with the lowest weight.
These questions come up again and again, especially when we talk about electrically powered ships where weight plays a big role. If you are talking about ferry boats or autonomous ships running in Norway they need permanent magnet (PM) technology. In 2023, we were able to develop PM motors for the first time in cooperation with one of our major customers and produce them according to customer specifications. PM machines are primarily used where weight, efficiency and fewer maintenance interventions are required, e.g. fast ferries, autonomous/battery-powered ferries, but of course also in other applications.
We are also well placed in the naval sector thanks to synergies with Piller. Piller’s strength today is in the defense sector, while for Marelli it is more in the commercial business. Defense and naval applications used to be a niche sector for Marelli, but now the partnership can represent a great opportunity for both to grow the business. The marine sector will continue to generate a large part of our sales at MMCE in the future.
AM: So the development road map is one where at one end of the market marine users want more compact and less weight and at the other end of the market you see opportunities for deployment of large scale generators?
WU: Yes, that’s correct.
AM: Do your generators have any role to play for new grid structure in emerging markets?
WU: We are familiar with grid codes world-wide of course. But how the national grid codes will change during implementing these new energy sources is not yet entirely clear, but I am sure we will see new grid codes coming that we must fulfil with our generators.
Combining wind turbines, hydropower and solar energy means you have a lot of fluctuations with frequency and voltage. Hence the benefits of working with Piller which helps us a lot with making the grid stable.
AM: Big projects are built on teamwork. What kind of manager are you?
WU: For me as a manager, it is important to build trust between all our employees and myself, and this is a two-way street. People relationships matter and I see people and not just resource. Whenever possible, I try to take my employees with me, to integrate them and to give them room to maneuver. In situations with customers, I see it as my responsibility to be in the first row to solve problems, to coach my team and provide security.
I always try to be consistent and predictable towards my teams and only promise what I can deliver.
About Marelli Motori
Marelli Motori employs around 630 people with extensive manufacturing facilities at its Arzignano headquarters and own subsidiaries in South Africa, Asia, Europe and USA. The company also has an extended sales, distribution and service network across four continents, supplying products to more than 120 countries.
On 24 May 2019, Marelli Motori was acquired by Langley Holdings plc, the British engineering and industrial manufacturing group.