Storing up Trouble

Big technology news recently from Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, the electric car company, who announced that his company was now offering affordable storage for renewable energy. Considered by many commentators to be the 'game changer' that the world needs to transition to wider usage of renewables, Tesla's home battery packs or Powerpacks make it perfectly possible for most homes to go 'off grid' by storing electricity for using when it's needed once it's generated from solar panels and, less often in domestic situations, wind. This signals a turning point for the consumer, too, as the technology isn't prohibitively unobtainable, but affordable, within reach. Pre-order demand is such that, as Musk confirmed last week, Powerpacks are sold out through the middle of next year.

Hailed as a fundamental change to the way we think about energy, we are now beginning to see that the economic models we're all so familiar with are changing. Renewable energy is just that—renewable—and, as such, energy cannot be commoditised. A sustainable future involves two crucial determinants: who owns the technology and who drives the innovation. Musk is famous for maintaining a radical policy of shared IP (intellectual property). He's not interested in the expensive and complex issues that come with owning patents, recognising that the velocity of innovation will keep his business at the front of the pack as long as he stays sharp and continues to innovate.

If technology is where the money's at, it's worth considering what's happening in Masdar in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Here, an entirely renewable powered city is being built in the middle of the desert. It's effectively a massive research facility designed to rapidly progress technology for sustainability, where 'sustainability' is defined as “matching energy supply and demand”. Arrays of solar panels capture thermal energy to drive refrigeration units to cool buildings. However, 'passive' design, drawing on historical city plans where buildings are orientated toward as much shade and breeze as possible, means less energy is required. The UAE has the world's fourth largest oil reserves and the seventeenth largest gas reserves, so we'd be wise to wonder why sustainable technologies are of such interest.

In shipping there's a strong belief that as 'the most efficient mode of transport' there is little need to adapt to the renewable future.

But what we now see on land suggests that far-sightedness and adaptability are the way to build long term resilient business. Envisaging ships powered by renewable energy, of which there is abundance at sea, stored in batteries for use when needed, changes the whole business model for ship operations. Fuel can be free and innovation and technology can help liberate fuel and society at the same time.