BNEF Summit 2014: Start Your (Distributed Energy) Engines

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One of the key drivers of energy innovation today is the growing demand for electricity in developing countries, so we weren’t surprised to see that put forth as a major theme in this week’s BNEF (Bloomberg New Energy Finance) Summit 2014, in New York. What did surprise us is the extent to which the distributed energy model is emerging as a major force in that dynamic.

Distributed energy is a topic that gets a lot of attention from us here at CleanTechnica but don’t just take our word for it.

We visited the first day of the three-day BNEF event and we heard basically the same take from Duke Energy Chairman of the Board Jim Rodgers, GE Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Immelt, and Bob Powell, President of SunEdison’s North America operations.

Qualcomm Formula E racer
Qualcomm Formula E racer (photo by Tina Casey).

If you’re wondering how that all ties in with the outrageously sleek all-electric Formula E racing car pictured here, it greeted us when we walked into the summit. We just couldn’t resist a few beauty shots and as we later found out after a discussion by Formula E’s Alejandro Agog, the all-electric racing concept also dovetails with the distributed energy model (hint: it’s all about energy storage).

Duke Energy Has Seen The Future, And It Is Distributed

Duke Energy has a major split personality problem right now due to its coal ash disposal issues and other fossil fuel activities, but the other side of the split is the company’s active support for the Obama Administration clean energy initiatives, its avid pursuit of wind power, and an early interest in distributed solar generation.

In his discussion, current Duke Chairman and former CEO/President Jim Rogers described how the utility industry is transitioning from a vertically integrated model into a hybrid system driven by deregulation, renewable energy mandates, and advanced technology.

Also driving change is the retirement of “virtually all” existing, conventional power plants in the near future. That will leave the US electricity market like a “blank sheet of paper,” in Rogers’s words, ready for the construction of a new model for an electricity market.

In the new model, operating a utility company by growing kilowatt hours will no longer be sustainable. The bottom line for Rogers is that electricity demand in the US is decoupling from GDP growth. All else being equal he foresees little or no growth in generation.

As an aside, that’s an interesting forecast considering the growing load by EV users, but not when you take into consideration the extent to which EV ownership is marketed alongside distributed solar.

Getting back to Rogers, the replacement utility model takes advantage of new communications technologies and distributed energy generation to create a business model of “optimizing everything” in terms of customer usage and experience.

By chance we had an interesting talk along those lines with a representative from Pulse Energy, a company that leverages utility data and utility meters to jumpstart energy efficiency improvements in commercial buildings, so you can see how Rogers’s new model intersects with the growth in the data-driven energy services sector.

As for utilities that are still stuck in the vertically integrated model, Rogers had this to say:

If entering industry today I’d be an attacker. Incumbent utilities tend to be resistant to anything that attacks their core business. Their first instinct is to protect the core, to not change the business model or the regulatory model.

Also of interest, Rogers foresees that the distributed microgrid/solar generation/energy storage model being popularized in undeveloped countries could help those companies make the leap, once the advantages of the distributed model establish a track record of low cost and high resiliency.

GE “Investing Like Mad” In Battery Technology

Though GE’s take on the future of energy overlaps somewhat with Duke Energy, its focus is on wind power, and that brings up one major difference between the solar and wind markets. Solar lends itself to an extremely high degree of distributed generation and new markets are still in development, while wind is far less scalable and its market is considered mature.

That’s part of the reason why Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of GE, focused his discussion on the challenges of integrating more renewable energy into the grid.

A main key to solving that problem is energy storage, and that is a major point of overlap between utility scale wind farms and distributed solar.

Immelt cited low cost energy storage technology and fuel cells (which can be considered a form of energy storage), as two of the most exciting trends, stating that the company is “investing like mad in sodium battery technologies” and developing advanced fuel cells.

He also agreed with Rogers that the centralized power generation model is flat while “distributed power, consumer empowerment, renewables all are realities” with a healthy growth rate.

Distributed Energy And Storage

As for Bob Powell of SunEdison, his contribution to a panel discussion was to emphasize that, in the context of distributed solar, his company is in the business of offering value to customers and not simply selling a product. Among other services, that value consists in load shifting (using low cost solar to avoid high peak rates), and that is another point of overlap between distributed generation and storage.

For Powell, the vast potential of distributed generation really comes into play as part of a symbiotic relationship with advanced storage, smart grid technologies, and other innovations.

Powell also noted that the relatively light footprint of distributed infrastructure makes for a more rational deployment of energy investment dollars.

Finally, Formula E!

No, we did not forget all about that Formula E car. For those of you unfamiliar with Formula E, this new all-electric, international racing series is the brainchild of FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile).

Under the direction of Formula E Holdings CEO Alejandro Agag, the series has taken shape as an urban event, with the aim of blasting EV tech into global consciousness.

The urban theme comes from Agag’s belief that in the future, only zero emission vehicles will be permitted in city centers.

For Agag, the key factor in Formula E is racing’s long history as a hotbed for innovations that work their way into the mainstream auto market. Aside from raising public awareness he expects significant nuts-and-bolts results over the years, as the competition between racing teams gathers steam.

Energy storage was front and center in Agag’s discussion. While much of the Formula E technology has counterparts in Formula 1, the Formula E battery is still not ready for prime time in terms of capacity (all Formula E teams must work with the same standard car, including the battery):

The name of the game is still the battery, or maybe fuel cells, or supercapacitors. We are waiting for that breakthrough in storage.

Switching to a new battery in a pit stop is an option considered but discarded for safety reasons, so for the first championship series (set for this fall in 10 major cities around the world) each Formula E team will switch to an entire new car.

Agag expects a significant improvement in Formula E battery technology by next year, so look for some of those innovations to trickle into the consumer market for both mobile and stationary batteries and fuel cells.

In a conversation with CT, Agag also mentioned that Formula E team co-founder Leonardo DiCaprio is just one of many public figures interested in jumping into Formula EV racing, but everyone else will have to stand in line: the ten slots for this year’s race have all been spoken for.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3244 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey