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26 February 2019 3 min read

Autonomous vehicle technology heralds the next paradigm shift in energy

Ysanne Hills

Ysanne Hills
Director | Energy and Public Sector | London

The energy system is changing beyond recognition. It’s happening faster and faster, so much so, that as an industry, we’ve almost got used to paradigm shifts. But they are going to keep coming – and now is the time to start preparing for the next one.

A few years ago, we finally broke the sacrosanct rule – generation doesn’t have to be matched to demand in real-time – since then, advances in battery technology are such that we now have the ability to store electricity at scale. For networks, system operations and market players the impact of this change is unquestionably, huge. It’s also the reason that green energy can be cheap energy. With home batteries, solar and Electric Vehicles (EVs) this concept can be downsized too – you and I will be able to lower our energy bills and help power a green society.

As an industry, everyone has had a few years to start getting their heads around what flexible demand and generation on a single site means, and there are some hugely exciting business models developing. Regulators are fighting to keep up, and energy businesses are desperately trying to work out how value flows through this new system, and where they can play.

And yet, already, the next shift can be seen on the horizon. Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) will change the way we think about energy all over again. First generation and supply at each site became flexible – now with AVs, sites themselves could move around.

AVs will be driven by a machine rather than a human driver, and so, when you add in Uber-style ride-hailing and highly reliable EV technology, you end up with a car that simply drives around all of the time, choosing the right area to be in, based on where demand is highest. Until it runs out of power and needs to recharge – here’s where the energy link comes in. What if the car could make money while it’s charging too?

Firstly, it could be anywhere in the country (based on who wanted to go where that day), what if instead of taking that last passenger, it diverted to an area of the network that is currently under strain – let’s assume it’s a sunny day and a whole street in Hampstead is generating vast quantities of solar power – it could plug in, charge up on low cost green power which otherwise might need to be curtailed to prevent the network going pop, meaning that less money needed to be spent reinforcing to take account of those solar installations. Even lower energy bills become possible.

To go one step further, rather than taking passengers the next day, maybe it’s more valuable for our little AV to drive a mile or two across town and put power into the local network (discharge its battery) – solving the problem of a small area of higher than expected demand (to support some building work or maybe, something more exiting like a festival…).

Transport and energy have always been fundamentally linked – that link is set to get much, much, stronger.