by André Oerlemans, Solarplaza

UTRECHT - Roads filled with self-driving electric cars, powered by solar and wind energy, that are notified by a smart electricity grid on whether they need to store excessive energy or supply energy back to the grid. That’s how Auke Hoekstra, senior advisor smart mobility at the Technical University of Eindhoven, sees the future.

In that future, every owner of solar panels will be an energy supplier that tries to sell his electricity for the best price possible. Smart-grids and Google-like startups will supply the necessary technologies and services to connect all these systems.

Long-term predictions? According to Hoekstra, the past five years have shown that developments in renewable energy always happen faster than expected. “Things move so fast,” he says. “The thing that surprised me most is that five years ago I was still focusing on grid parity (the moment where electricity from your own roof is cheaper than that from the power socket), which was at that time still the holy grail for the PV-industry. Recently I saw an offer for solar power from the desert for 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour and I thought: ‘what the heck!?’ That’s half of the price of electricity coming from coal fired power stations. We’ve passed grid parity by miles. What was once a distant mirage, has now already become old news.”

Surprising speed

When asked to project the pace of current developments into the future, Hoekstra thinks that the combination of solar energy; battery technology; the growth of electrical transportation, smart grids; and innovative startups in the service industry will bring forth substantial changes in the energy market. “What will surprise us most is the speed with which electric cars will populate our roads and how quickly they will be driving autonomously as well,” claims Hoekstra. “In five years it will be the most mundane thing for people to pick out an electric car at their local dealer.”
Electric cars not only cut back on emissions and use of fossil fuels, they can also play a vital role in the storage of renewable energy. That storage capacity can be utilized to shave off the peaks and lows in supply and demand. A “fully charged” electric car drives 30km a day on average and only uses a fraction of the power available in its battery. This enables it to supply power back to the grid or charge when there’s oversupply. Additional to that, many households will install home battery storage systems of their own. Hoekstra: “If we’re really producing a lot of solar and wind energy, then energy storage will be of paramount importance. But if 10 percent of the people have an electric car that can take on and release charge in a smart network, all peak-related issues will be solved.

Smarter network

Hoekstra works at grid operator Alliander, but - through the ElaadNL (‘EchargeNL’) foundation - has been seconded to Maarten Steinbuch’s research group at the Technical University of Eindhoven. There he performs research on the acceleration of the energy transition through sustainable mobility. To build a new energy infrastructure, a different power grid will be an important requirement. A grid that’s designed for two-way traffic, for peaks and lows, which can better connect suppliers and consumers of energy. A smart grid. “It’s vital that we apply internet technology and IT to provide our aged and unintelligent energy grid with sensors and make it smarter, so that the supply of wind and solar energy can be better attuned to the demand of - for example - electric vehicles, without it being overloaded,” says Hoekstra.
But that’s not all. Thanks to the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) devices can communicate more intelligently. So we can imagine a situation where a washing machine will be told by the smart grid when electricity is cheapest. A charging station will notify an electric car when the charge on the grid is lowering. Hoekstra argues that it will take standardized protocols to enable that. Only then, the electric car from Japan will be able to communicate with every Dutch charging station. Only then, the Eastern European washing machine can be told by the American powerwall when to best run its program. “Because of that, Elaad came up with a protocol to make charging stations interchangeable, which is named OCPP. That’s currently the most commonly used protocol globally,” Hoekstra gives as example.

Local energy market

Such a smart grid would clear the way for an energy transition. The business model for the energy market would be completely restructured. Energy utilities will lose their dominant role and will play a more facilitating part in supply guarantee. In the smart grid, local suppliers will be connected to each other through IT-platforms where Google-like startups will regulate the trade of energy and provide services. “The energy utilities are already no longer the top dog and will continue to lose their prime position,” Hoekstra predicts. “Already now I see Eneco (a major Dutch energy utility) restating their identity, now saying that they’re ‘an energy services company’. Now the smaller players get the chance to compete with the big fish in the market.”
That market is thoroughly dynamic. Many new developments are happening parallel to each other. According the Hoekstra we’ve long since passed the point-of-no-return, as we don’t even require new disruptive changes. “The solar panel and the battery are in themselves already extremely disruptive inventions. Such technology already ensures that the energy transition is unstoppable. Like water through a broken dam it’s flowing into our society. They enable we can reshape our society through two of the major industries of the world: energy and mobility.”

Social revolution

During the technical process of change he also sees ample space for a social revolution. The energy transition will lead to democratization of the energy market. “If in the future net-metering policies will be cut short, everyone with solar panels will make their calculations on how much their energy is worth on the smart grid and sell their energy accordingly. It add a psychologic component to the equation. Energy will become a commodity and the way it’s being traded will become more important,” Hoekstra explains. “But that commodity can be supplied by anyone, because the solar panels are owned individually. Just like you used to have your vegetable garden out back. The solar energy will now be stored in your own car or home storage system, like people used to have a stack of coal in their basement. Now people are getting their energy anonymously from a utility. In the future they will arrange that in their own environment. That way energy will be given a personal measure again, a counter-movement in a world that keeps on globalizing.”

Auke Hoekstra will deliver the keynote speech at the TSF NL networking event on 8 December in Utrecht. This event is the official prelude to our TSF NL conference, the yearly business and strategic platform for the Dutch solar energy market, set to take place on 18 May 2017 for its 9th edition.