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Electricity is the energy of choice for the 21st Century, it can be generated cleanly and transported to our homes and work places easily with the current infrastructure – but how about our transportation options in the future? For our cars and fleet vehicles we need an energy storage medium, and the race to become the energy carrier of choice for the 21st century is underway.
In previous centuries oil and coal dominated the energy carrier market, but as we know the use of these comes with a price, CO2 production and the increase in global warming*.
Powering our homes from electricity generated from renewable sources seems like an obvious way forward, the growth of wind and solar farms across the globe seems to continue. Countries such as Denmark have gone entire days on wind power alone, even with spare capacity to sell to neighbours on very windy days . But what happens when the wind doesn’t blow? In 2016 the UK’s offshore wind only produced power for 36% of the time [1a]. Clearly energy generation of the future will have to be a mix of sources.
What will replace the petrol station?
Electricity is also the energy of choice for future transportation, with manufacturers such as Volvo declaring the start of the end of the combustion engine , with the French and UK government following up and declaring they intend to ban sale of all petrol and diesel cars by 2040 [2a]. But one of the major sticking points for transportation is the energy carrying system – the 2 main contenders are batteries and hydrogen for combustion or use in fuel cells.
Both have very serious deficiencies;
- Batteries take too long to charge – leaving consumers potentially without transport
- Hydrogen storage is fraught with risk, in compressed liquid form (energy consuming) it is difficult to transport when compared to petrol and solid state storage is not commercially viable yet.
And both of these technologies require new infrastructure to ensure delivery of energy to our cars when and where we need it. The limited range of these new electric vehicles creates a challenge for charging stations locality, particularly in rural locations.
Also of a challenge is speed of charging, we are all used to jumping in the car with a quarter of a tank, and topping up at the local petrol station in under than five minutes. But does unplugging your battery car with a quarter charge damage the battery? Do we all have to plan an eight hour period of charging where we cannot use our vehicles?
How do we overcome these technology deficiencies whilst the developments are still moving forward?
While research continues to push the barriers for technologies around both these energy carriers – what is required is new thinking around business models to go alongside. The suggestion of a service style business model, where vehicles are rented, is likely to gain traction in the future. Companies such as Uber have grown significantly by delivering a new business model that challenges the current status quo. And these business innovations are beginning to be seen in the energy carrying fields.
Renault's new electric car – the ZOE – now allows you to purchase the car and lease the battery  allowing you to avoid the huge depreciation in battery cost.
Tesla superfast charging claims are well known, but their battery swap technology  could be the key to opening the vast fleet market to electric vehicles, in essence when your battery is running low – you go to the battery station and in under three minutes your battery is replaced with a fresh one. In the future the hope would be you would only be charged for the energy within and any damage to the battery.
Hydrogen on demand via water electrolysis has been known about for centuries, but now on site hydrogen production is being deployed  to reduce issues around large scale hydrogen transport.
So is the future electric? It's certainly one option, but may not be the only one as we explore different ways of carrying energy.
If you'd like to know more about our work in the energy sector we're exhibiting at European Utility Week in Amsterdam, 3 - 5 October, stand number 5Q32,
*The undeniable facts are that global temperatures are increasing and that ‘greenhouse’ gases do add to this warming effect. The debate over if man or nature is the driver in the global warming can be discussed elsewhere.