We need big innovation for demand-led energy systems: Molly Webb, Energy Unlocked
- 29 March 2016
Molly Webb, Founder of Energy Unlocked, talks about the innovation required to shift from centralized energy infrastructure toward more flexible, demand-led systems. Energy Unlocked runs innovation challenges that rapidly overcome market barriers to energy system transformation. This is part of The Climate Group’s project Home2025.
Today’s energy system, the cornerstone of prosperity for over a century, is operating at too high an environmental and economic cost – and is still failing to reach 1 billion people on the planet.
Unlocking innovation today will allow us to most effectively tackle the energy ‘trilemma’ of low cost, low carbon and resilient energy for all.
Our existing energy and electricity infrastructure is centralized and fossil-fuel based. The transition away from that, starting with the power sector, has been driven by subsidies to alternative renewable power such as wind and solar technologies.
But this supply-led approach, which has succeeded in growing renewables from a small base, has reached limitations.
We are beginning to see intermittent renewables at scale cause challenges in managing and balancing electricity grids, even without the expected large-scale adoption of more demand-side innovations such as electric vehicles. Germany has followed a high-cost transition path to 27% intermittent renewables that other countries may not be able to follow.
There is an alternative path. Because digital, technical, social and financial innovation are changing how we buy, produce and consume electricity.
This trend is unlocking new ‘flexibility’ in the demand-side of energy: we can now store energy, or automatically shift consumption patterns to match renewable generation. This flexibility will lower the costs for the transition to a renewable energy system.
Though the analysis hasn’t been done for every country, Imperial College’s analysis for the UK Climate Change Committee showed that annual savings of £3-8 billion would be possible if we had a highly flexible system to meet our 2030 low carbon targets.
A number of companies heading in this direction such as Tesla, SolarCity and NEST are now household names, and the valuations show that these companies are capturing energy consumers’ imagination.
While the products these companies make are still high end, the adoption curves can be faster in places where renewables – in combination with storage – already make economic sense.
OMC Power, a micropower company in India, is providing solar electricity to customers because it is the best option. Where extreme weather events occur in the US, renewables and storage provide the resiliency needed to meet critical power needs during outages.
This shift is underway. But it is unclear how fast the pace of change will be.
To meet climate change targets, we need significant progress toward decarbonization to happen in the next decade, which will require innovation from unexpected places.
We can learn from innovators who have experienced market barriers – and act to overcome them – to really accelerate the global energy transition.