Postprint from SingularityU Vienna Chapter Salon #12: Disrupting Energy, 24.06.2020
We are living in an exponential world. It dates back to the late 18th century that famous James Watt gave rise to the steam engine and a whole new era that we today refer to as the first machine age (1). Since then, technological progress has changed from a rather linear to a strongly exponential incline. As digital revolution leads us into the second machine age, we experience today the fastest technological progress ever.
This exponential progress is observable in a large variety of domains, such as Agriculture, Medicine and Healthcare or Industrial Processing, but also and particularly in the Energy and the Mobility domain. These two – energy and mobility – have seen tremendous exponential progress, each of them, during the last decades. The true revolution, however, is yet to come, when the two “converge”. “Convergence” in this sense stands for the creation of a joint new eco system for co-innovation at the intersection of domains. Since we usually tend to think in classical problems and solutions within separate domains, the most fascinating aspect of technology convergence is, that it may evolve inconspicuously for a long time until finally the spark jumps over and ignites a completely new technological path. I am convinced, this convergence now seems closer than ever before for the energy and the mobility domain. In the short term it will fix today’s major flaws within the two domains. But this is just the beginning. In the long term, we may expect a variety of unprecedented new possibilities and business cases.
The Energy domain: Smart grid needs smart storage at scale.
If we look at the energy domain, the overarching vision is clear: In the effort to limit global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees celsius, we have to reach carbon-neutrality as quick as possible. To reach this vision, a de-centralized and carbon-neutral approach is inevitable – the smart grid. The smart grid allows to make maximum use of renewable energy sources and to flexibly distribute them to consumers – or even better directly use them on-site and on-demand. Due to the decentralization of producers and consumers across locations and the great fluctuation of supply and demand, however, this approach requires a major transformation of the present energy system. This transformation is underway and has already made remarkable progress: In fact, the renewable energy production in the EU has more than doubled within just the last 10 years (2), backed by the exponential price decline for solar and wind energy (3). This sounds promising. Unfortunately, climate change is progressing rapidly as well. The share of renewable energies in the energy mix has improved, but is still at an EU average of 35% (2). As a consequence, the vision of carbon-neutrality that the EU has targeted with its “European Green Deal” (4) to be reached by 2050 requires five times the progress made over the last thirty years to be made within the thirty years to come. What’s the bottleneck here? Besides the sheer ramp-up of renewable energy installations, like solar and wind, one particular bottle neck is energy storage. The smart grid relies strongly on this energy storage as a means of flexibility, i.e. to balance and equalize supply and demand. De-centralized and controllable energy storage is in fact one critical element of a scalable smart grid and thus for sustainability in the energy domain as a whole.
The mobility domain: Green mobility needs green power at scale.
The vision of carbon-neutrality sheds an equally bright light on mobility. Up to one quarter of greenhouse gases in the EU is still caused by mobility and transportation, of which three quarters are caused by road traffic (5). Despite enforcement of fleet emission targets and attempts to adopt synthetic fuels, road traffic is still running mainly on carbon-based fuels and is therefore a major concern when it comes to environmental sustainability. But the mobility and transportation sector is in a massive transformation already, originating from three technology mega trends: Powertrain electrification, digital transformation and automated driving. Electrification is the primary choice when it comes to environmental sustainability. Even if it’s far from commodity, it’s been making significant progress and is now expected to finally take off within the next years. Electric vehicle take rates are currently doubling every year (6) and expected to continue on this path as more and improved models hit the market and battery prices continue their exponential decline (7). Sounds promising, too. However, for this approach to work, it requires electric vehicles to be charged with renewable energies. Only then they effectively contribute to reducing the carbon footprint. Renewable energies and their share in the overall energy mix thus becomes a key catalyst for sustainability of the mobility sector.
Energy and Mobility: A perfect couple!?
It seems odd: Energy and mobility need each other to succeed. Or at least they are a surprisingly good couple: The smart grid needs high amounts of energy-storage, distributed across the grid and controllable to equalize the fluctuating supply and demand to master the shift to renewable energies. Mobility must get rid of carbon-based fuels. Electrification is a promising solution, but is still expensive and relies on a renewable energy mix to be effective. The solution is obvious: Electric mobility is currently adding huge amounts of electric energy storage to the grid. It’s distributed, it’s powerful (with Lithium-Ion as the dominant battery technology) and it’s controllable (with massive computational power and connectivity on board of every vehicle). Even electric vehicle usage patterns seem to support this idea (with their batteries staying highly unused today, i.e. cars currently being used for only one hour per day in the statistical average and high-voltage batteries considered worn-out when capacity drops below 70 to 80 percent). As a consequence, integrating electric vehicles into the power grid (also known as “Vehicle-to-Grid” technology) could turn the smart grid vision into reality (8). This would accelerate the increase of renewable energy sources in the energy mix. And as the energy mix becomes more and more carbon-neutral, so does electric mobility. Electric vehicle owners can act as micro energy suppliers, lowering their total cost of ownership, which again raises the technology’s attraction and adoption further. As a consequence, I am convinced, we are going to see a positive feedback loop in the upcoming years, a “convergence” evolving at the intersection of the two domains energy and mobility. This convergence will manifest in the electric car and its hardware and software peripherals as an eco system for new business cases, products and services.
Is it real?
No doubt, there are obstacles remaining to be overcome – some of the most obvious being the sheer ramp-up of renewable energy installations, like solar panels and wind turbines, as well as the electric vehicle charging infrastructure, that’s lagging behind already. Even the production of high-voltage batteries still has tremendous side effects today, namely the utilization of rare earth materials, harvested in some of the poorest areas in the world, often under intolerable humanitarian and ecological conditions. Once produced, another challenge is electric vehicles’ bi-directional charging capability and it’s impact on battery life time. Yes, remaining challenges are substantial. They are not road blocks, but will require far-sighted collaboration, policy-making, standardization and communication on an international level. The resulting opportunities however are huge. Is it real? As a matter of fact, automotive manufacturer Tesla currently sells approximately one thousand vehicles worldwide per day. If only half of their electric storage capacity would be made available in a smart grid, the resulting storage installation would suffice to power approximately three million households (equal to the greater Vienna area as an example). Again – that’s the additional storage installation “per day”! Industry experts have found that Tesla vehicles are already equipped with necessary vehicle-to-grid hardware (9). It’s not used yet due to battery life time concerns, but could potentially be activated via Over-the-air update. This is not to say Tesla is a first mover here. Some selected vehicle models offer vehicle-to-grid capability already and have shown prosperous results in first field trials. However it’s the sheer impact Tesla could have by unleashing this feature – which does not seem unrealistic at all. Tesla has been communicating and pursuing their vision as an energy company rather than an automotive company, from the very start. Accordingly, their product portfolio covers everything necessary. And did you know: Tesla has now finally gotten approved as an energy supplier in UK (10). There’s definitely more to come…
What’s the consequence?
Chances are, the convergence of energy and mobility is about to take off. Exponential progress within the two separate domains will ultimately converge into a new eco system lifting sustainability to a whole new level and creating unprecedented new opportunities and business cases. However the road to success is long. Numerous obstacles remain. And these are not only technical. Technical progress always puts assets from scarcity into abundance. But it creates new scarcity at another end. As a society – as consumers, technical and business experts, policy makers and industry leaders – we must ensure that the transformation we are pursuing does not end in what is called “transformation failure”. We must avoid, in particular, that new scarcities cause outrageous societal or environmental cost – as is the case for example with rare earth materials. Last but not least, transformation starts with each one of us. As Mark Bonchek, Singularity University Faculty for Innovation, puts it: „In times of transformation, before we can change what we do, we first must change how we think“. For this transformation to work, we must re-think our understanding of personal mobility or even personal possession as a whole: When the electric vehicle becomes part of the smart grid, it becomes part of a critical infrastructure. And we have to treat it as such. Yes, this will restrain our personal freedom and convenience, but is inevitable to solve one of our major challenges of the 21st century – which is: Sustainable energy.
Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, not to the author's employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.
- Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAffee: The Second Machine Age; W. W. Norton & Company, 2014
- Agora Energiewende, Sandbag: The European Power Sector in 2019; Berlin; 2020
- International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA): Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2019; Abu Dhabi; 2020
- European Commission: The European Green Deal (COM/2019/640 final); Brussels; 2019; https://eur-lex.europa.eu
- European Environment Agency (EEA): Progress of EU transport sector towards its environment and climate objectives; Copenhagen; 2018
- European Alternative Fuels Observatory (EAFO); https://www.eafo.eu
- BloombergNEF: Lithium-ion battery price survey results: Volume-weighted average; London; 2019; https://www.forbes.com/sites/robday/2019/12/03/low-cost-batteries-are-about-to-transform-multiple-industries/
- Benjamin K. Sovacool, Jonn Axsen, Willett Kempton: The Future Promise of Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) Integration: A Sociotechnical Review and Research Agenda; Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol. 42:377-406; Palo Alto; 2017; https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-030117-020220
- Fred Lambert: Tesla quietly adds bidirectional charging capability for game-changing new features; Electrek; 2020; https://electrek.co/2020/05/19/tesla-bidirectional-charging-ready-game-changing-features/
- Fred Lambert: Tesla is officially approved as electric utility in the UK – but why?; Electrek; 2020; https://electrek.co/2020/06/15/tesla-officially-approved-electric-utility-uk-why/