Our ability, as homo sapiens, to harness energy is deeply connected with our own history and evolution as a species. Controlling fire enabled us to cook easy-to-digest food, which some anthropologists argue is one of the reasons why our brains could grow (in favor of shrinking jaws). So in a sense, our ability to harness energy made us human.
Before the industrial revolution, human energy use was mainly about extracting useful work from energy flows. Such as using mechanical energy from wind and water to sail ships and push millstones. Or thermal energy from burning wood to melt iron. The industrial revolution was, at its heart, about energy conversion from thermal to mechanical. Fossil fuels are easily stored and transported, which enabled the widespread adoption of machines doing work that once only humans’ and animals’ muscles could do. Fossil energy has, rightfully so, a bad reputation today because of its emissions and adverse externalities. But the truth is that the fossil economy has created vast amount of private and societal wealth for industrialized countries.
During the last century, we have also mastered electrical energy conversion and built up the biggest machine ever in history - the power grid. An unreasonably effective machine that transports energy across vast distances close to the speed of light. There is only one problem, the grid was designed and built up with large-scale and centralized fossil generation units at its base. Today, the energy sector accounts for more than 70% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. With the last 8 years all being the hottest years ever recorded in human history and the recent redrawing of the geopolitical landscape, there is no doubt about the urgency to shift away from fossil energy.
The good news is that there is a wide consensus among experts on what needs to be done: electrify all possible sectors and power those electrons with low-carbon technologies. We rapidly need to rebase the energy system on sustainable energy sources. It is not easy to fully appreciate the magnitude of this undertaking. The execution of the energy transition and alignment with the Paris Agreement is estimated to be a 9.2 trillion dollar opportunity per year until 2050. It is the biggest project ever embarked upon in human history.
The technologies we need are already here today. The cost of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) such as solar PV, wind, batteries, heat pumps and hydrogen have been (and still are) experiencing steep learning curves and cost reductions. The economics makes sense and the deployment of 100s of millions, if not billions, of DERs has already started. Recently committed governmental initiatives such as RepowerEU and the Inflation Reduction Act will further fuel the race to zero emissions.
The massive influx of DERs into the energy system turns old assumptions and truths on its head. The concept of baseload is now dead. And with rooftop solar PV, the scale barrier that energy companies have been relying on by producing electrons with capital intensive centralised generation units is nothing but a distant memory. The shift of the energy system, with all these decentralised and connected energy devices, is looking increasingly similar to the shift in computing during the last decade from localized servers to the cloud. Some even call this new energy system the Energy Cloud. But tomorrow’s energy system also comes with multiple new challenges: a large amount of small-scale decentralised and weather-dependent assets that are operating with multi-directional flows of energy and information. The challenge to efficiently plan and operate such a system is immense.
The evolution of the human enterprise is about building tools and machines, whether it is for cooking, transportation, heating, producing goods or more lately digital tools. Steve Jobs famously said that “computers are like a of bicycle for the mind”. This bicycle is acutely needed to help us plan and operate the new complex energy system. Only then can the energy transition project live up to its full potential of sustainability and continuous prosperity for mankind. This is at the core of our vision at Rebase - making these digital tools omnipresent and maximizing their impact to accelerate the energy transition.
The stakes of climate change are high, at the same time, the energy transition represents a generational opportunity and a privilege for a whole industry to be working on such a consequential problem. I would like to finish on that note with a quote from, one of my long-term role models, Al Gore’s TED talk on climate change back in 2008:
How many generations in all of human history have had the opportunity to rise to a challenge that is worthy of our best efforts? A challenge that can pull from us more than we knew we could do. We ought to approach with a sense of profound joy and gratitude. That we are the generation about which, a thousand years from now, philharmonic orchestras and poets and singers will celebrate by saying: they where the ones, that found it within themselves to solve this crisis and lay the basis for a bright and optimistic human future
- Al Gore
Let’s rebase the energy system - together!