Back to the future



16 October 2018

Mr Fusion Home Energy Reactor from the 1980's Back to the Future movie series (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)

In the classic Back to the Future movies, the future was powered by a decentralized clean-energy system. Houses and flying cars ran on fuel cells fuelled by residential garbage. The technology itself isn’t particularly far-fetched – not the flying car bit, but the process to power a fuel cell from hydrogen produced by methane from garbage is relatively straightforward for today’s biogas plants.

But time travel aside, what the 1980s vision of the future missed are the actual technologies that emerged started to reshape our energy system in the last three decades since the movies came out – namely wind, solar and battery electric cars. While the present of the energy system is strikingly similar to the 1980s with a practically unchanged domination of fossil fuels, the expectations of what will follow shifted. This is a very different future and one that creates a delicate challenge for the electricity sector.

Transport is a huge and growing energy consuming sector. It represents 28% of total final energy consumption, and is responsible for almost 60% of global oil demand. Electricity is used in transport, though today mostly in electric railways compared to which electric cars are still minor.

If garbage, or, in a more scalable fashion, biomass or hydrogen produced from natural gas, were to provide a clean-energy alternative for transport, the transport sector could move away from oil without integrating more deeply into the electricity sector. There would be no need to deploy new infrastructure to support electric car charging, no concerns about charging times and impacts on power flows, it would be business as usual for electricity.

In addition, garbage is easy to store, and fuel cells can regulate their production in a flexible fashion. In technical terms this creates decentralised dispatchable clean-energy production – meaning it can collect power into a central system, much like the current system. Such a technology would enable the continuation of a hundred-year paradigm of regarding electricity demand fluctuations as a given and managing the system from the supply side.

But, this market is tiny. Only a few thousand residential fuel cells are sold in Japan each year, nothing compared to the millions of solar panels sold around the world. To be sure, solar production varies with the weather and it is often not well correlated with demand. A solar rooftop with a battery in the garage seems like a perfect distributed dispatchable solution and generates increasing attention. However, more than 99% of the solar panels are deployed without batteries – their variability is handled at the system level rather than at a project level. In fact the optimal location of batteries is often not next to the solar panel but in specific network nodes where their operation can relieve bottlenecks.  

Solar and its twin brother, wind experienced a radical technological progress, cost declines and are rolled out at an impressive scale. While the energy system will continue to rely on a diversified set of fuels and technologies, the rapid growth of wind and solar will have to play a key role in tacking  disruptive climate change. Nevertheless, both of them generate electricity which accounts for only 20% of energy consumption today.  The full potential of wind and solar will be realised only if a much higher proportion of energy is consumed by electrifying other sectors, including transport. Such electrification not only reduces direct fossil fuel use in vehicles or buildings, but if done smartly it unlocks need new flexibility sources that wind and solar will need for really large-scale growth.

The transport technology that generates the most excitement is electric cars. Although personal cars represent only a minority of the oil use of the transport sector, electric cars capture public imagination in a fashion that is disproportional to their energy footprint. As a result, they tend to dominate discussions on the future of energy even though ships, aircraft or heavy trucks are most likely to continue to use oil for a considerable time. Linking electric cars to wind and solar creates major opportunities but also challenges. Cars and wind and solar production will need to interact through an interconnected system. An EV can’t be self-sufficient when coupled with a residential rooftop solar panel since solar production is low in the winter precisely when the car has a higher electricity need. In temperate climates, nearly all solar households remain connected to the grid with a changed utilisation pattern and wind is evolving towards a quintessential utility scale big business where technological progress makes wind turbines bigger and bigger rather than small and decentralised.

While early adopter electric cars used in suburban commuting can take advantage of the existing network and charge in the garage of the owner for mass adoption and long distance travel a new infrastructure development will be needed. High capacity chargers will require network reinforcements as well as a careful coordination of when the cars charge. Due to the energy density of hydrocarbons, it is not possible to copy the gasoline lifestyle to the electricity age. Plugging in and quickly filling the car at sunset will be part of the problem, responding to changes in wind with smart charging will be part of the solution.

A dominant role of electricity is not a new dream. The 19th-century science fiction novels of Jules Verne are full of electric cars, battery powered submarines and even electric helicopters. This electric future was delayed by the century of oil, but it is now arriving. Its features are becoming increasingly clear: A new electricity network that is more robust and more flexible at the same time. A new market design that is able to orient and optimise millions of producers, consumers and prosumers giving value to time and location. A new transport system where parking vehicles are not idle but act as active system assets.

Because of its security implications and importance to modern society, electricity will remain a heavily regulated industry where government policy plays a crucial role in guiding the transformation. This complex interplay of technology, investment, policy and regulation shaping the growing role of electricity will be depicted in the upcoming World Energy Outlook focus. In special effects, it might not be up to Hollywood’s standards, but it will be as exciting and innovative.

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