Three Energy Challenges for 2018

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on January 16, 2018
Traver Kennedy
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Energy is going through a massive transformation, which arguably, together with technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT), will re-define the way we live in the coming decades. In the case of energy, this transformation is being driven at one end by the need to power a growing society in a way that makes sense for our environment. At the other end, rapid change is happening all around us, thanks to continuous progress in technologies for sourcing and storing energy from renewables such as solar, wind, and hydrogen.

Last year, the BBC interviewed energy experts in several fields about the greatest energy challenges facing humanity. Their report concluded, “Perhaps the greatest issue raised by the scientists, policy experts, and companies we spoke to is how to cope with the immediate hike in energy demands expected in the coming decades.” What they were referring to is soaring demand for electricity that will arise from the rapid urbanization and industrialization of developing economies. According to Jim Watson, director of the UK Energy Research Centre, “There are still a lot of people around the world—1.2 billion or so—who do not have access to modern energy services. There is going to be a lot of rising demand from regions like Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa.”

Energy will continue to transform our social landscape in 2018.

In 2018, we should see progress focused on addressing this “hike in energy demands” that experts referred to. This year, the three main challenges for our industry lie in the areas of transportation, electricity for the billion left behind, and the sustainability of cities.

Silently Moving the World

Anybody who has crossed the road in front of an electric car has noticed it: these machines are silent compared to regular cars. The reason for their quiet operation is that electrical engines function with magnets and electricity, not with the micro-explosions that make combustion engines move. A few months ago WIRED wrote an article aptly titled, “Electrical Vehicles are Dangerously Quiet. Here’s What They Could Sound Like.” The reality is that electric vehicles [EVs] have become commonplace in a very short period. One of the challenges this year is to expand the infrastructure that supports them.

The biggest obstacle for widespread adoption of vehicles that run on electric power—whether cars like GM’s Volt or a Tesla that get their power from the grid, or cars like Toyota’s Mirai or Honda’s Clarity that get their electricity from hydrogen—is recharging infrastructure. And in the case of the former grid-powered vehicles, the time it takes to re-charge them. The technology and investments in this area are advancing rapidly. Micro charging stations for EVs are sprouting everywhere, from airport parking lots to schools and hotels. Hydrogen fueling stations are also expanding in places like California and Japan where hydrogen vehicles have been available since 2015.

Plans and initiatives on EVs from all the major car manufacturers in 2017 (including Volvo’s plans to go fully electric in just a few years) as well as growing consumer demand for green cars indicate that this year, we should expect to see the consolidation of manufacturers’ endeavors in the form of technology and infrastructure that make for a better user experience. We are already beginning to see this collaborative approach take shape. Last week, the world’s largest automaker, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, launched a venture capital fund that “will invest up to $200 million in start-ups and open innovation partnerships,” according to TechCrunch.

Helping Cities Lead Environmental Sustainability

One of the biggest surprises of 2017 was the way in which cities all around the world took the lead on ensuring that carbon emissions stay in check in the coming years. Last summer, we wrote about how cities were stepping up to reaffirm their commitment to reduce their CO2 footprint and how thousands of cities around the world, aware of the disproportionately high impact they have on carbon emissions, had banded together to “create the largest global coalition committed to battling climate change and pushing the world into a low-carbon economy.”

To make good on their intentions, cities need innovative technology. 2018 will see tremendous activity as companies of all sizes, from startups like Joi Scientific to giants like Shell, continue to invest in technology to meet the challenges that cities have committed to solving. The year will see progress around “city-sized experiments” in sustainable power already underway in several corners of the world—from re-designing Puerto Rico’s electrical grid that was devastated by a summer of storms last year, to making Beijing livable again, to “experimental cities” in the Middle East and the U.S. that integrate renewable energy in a completely new way.

We expect to see progress to support cities coming from their own utilities (who are the biggest customers of solar and wind) and from what’s referred to as the edge of the grid in the form of distributed renewable energy that can be produced on-site, such as solar, and on-demand, such as Hydrogen 2.0.

Taking Electricity to the 1.2 Billion Who Lack It

A few months ago, Mashable created an interesting map on energy use (and scarcity) around the world. In the related article, they concluded what we all know: “Because of lack of access to electricity and modern energy sources, people around the world, especially in rural communities, struggle to break out of the cycle of poverty.” As I referenced above, one of the conclusions among industry experts as to the biggest energy challenge of our time is making sure we bring electricity that these communities will increasingly demand in an affordable and a sustainable way.

We believe that this year, the growing momentum around connecting the rest of us to electric power will see a boost in the form of localized, clean production of energy. The use of solar power and the availability of better batteries at a local level will continue to grow in communities where electrical power is sporadic or the grid does not reach at all. Additionally, entrepreneurial companies (like us) will continue to make progress in developing the technology to produce clean energy on-demand, almost anywhere.

We are fortunate to be working in an industry that is transforming the way we live and the way we co-exist with our planet. Since the widespread adoption of electricity a century ago, the world has not seen so much exciting activity in energy. In 2018, we expect to get ever closer to solving the challenges that transportation, urbanization, and social justice pose before us.


Photography courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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