Energy Convergence In Progress

Right now, we are going through a fundamental shift in our energy system. A transition driven by the need to reduce carbon emissions and powered by innovations in renewable energy and electrification. The end result will be a convergence of our current energy systems into a single, carbon-free energy platform that can support all energy-consuming activities.

When we think of the “energy system,” we generally think of our electric utility – the Grid. The supplier to our home’s electric panel. But we currently have three primary energy systems: electric utilities; gas utilities; and pumped petroleum.

Every energy system has three components – storage, transmission, and generation:

  • The electric utility uses stored energy, like coal or natural gas, to fuel the generation of electricity that is put into transmission lines that connect to your house, where you use it to turn on your lights or television. It has fossil fuel storage, large central generation, and uses the electrical transmission network.
  • Gas utilities store energy as natural gas and transmit it through pipes to where it is needed. Power generation occurs at the point of use, generally burning the gas to create heat.
  • The pumped petroleum energy system uses energy stored in gasoline that is trucked and pumped (transmitted) into a car, which generates energy to propel itself.

Each system was built and optimized to support the primary activities that require energy. If you are like most people, you use all three systems all the time. You wake up in the morning and turn on the lights (supplied by the electric utility). You take a hot shower (supplied by the gas utility). Then, take a car or bus to work (supplied by pumped petroleum). The energy systems are so much a part of our lives that we don’t think about them that often.

But all these systems were built on the historically most abundant source of energy: fossil fuels. In order to decarbonize, we have to think about the future of these three systems. In order to decarbonize, we need to do all these things without relying heavily on fossil fuels.

This is driving an unprecedented amount of innovation and creating a new converged energy system: a single platform that supports all our activities. It will fundamentally change how we do things: light our houses, heat our water, and drive our cars. And it will make all these activities more accessible and less expensive.

Electrification is the backbone of the converged energy platform. And although that may sound like just an expansion of the current electrical grid, it is significantly different. Our current grid is centralized, and all consumption must be synchronous – every use of energy is coupled to large central turbines generating electricity at 60 hertz.

Our new converged energy platform is different in three key ways:

  • Powered by renewable clean energy sources – sun, wind, rain, tides, and geothermal.
  • Decentralized, enabling a drastic reduction in transmission distances.
  • It operates asynchronously, meaning it can handle energy flows that are not in sync with each other.

Some cities have banned gas hookups for new construction, and in those homes, electricity has already replaced natural gas. Heat pumps are used for home and water heating. Induction stove tops and ovens with resistive heating cook all your food without any need for a gas utility. If you live in such a home and drive an electric vehicle, you are already getting all your energy needs met from the converged platform.

To support all our existing activity, the converged energy platform will need to provide significantly more energy than our current electric grid provides. More than double, in fact.

A big part of that is changing the way transportation consumes energy, from combustion engines burning fossil fuels to electric vehicles using electricity. Transportation consumes fossil fuels today, equivalent to 70% of all the energy in our electrical system.

Producing this amount of clean electrical energy may seem daunting. But as I’ve written in prior blog posts [] we have more solar and wind currently under development than all fossil fuel-based electrical generating capacity combined. There are over 10,000 projects representing 1,350 GW of generating capacity. Add to that 680 GW of active storage projects, and it gets easier to see how we can have enough to support all our activities with the new energy platform. These are just the current committed projects. This doesn’t include future projects that will increasingly include emerging sources like offshore wind, next-generation nuclear, and pumped hydro storage.

Migrating to an asynchronous energy platform also supports a plethora of distributed energy generation and storage. It allows for the matching of generation and consumption to optimize consumption with reduced electrical losses. For instance, rooftop solar can be matched with EV charging. So, cars parked during the day can utilize local solar power from rooftops and parking structures. Batteries in residential and commercial buildings can be charged during peak solar hours and utilized for local consumption when the sun isn’t shining.

There is also significant innovation in integrated energy systems that are part of the new energy platform. The combined requirements of EV charging and energy resilience are driving innovations in micro-grids that can aggregate local energy production and storage; and marry it to managed demand. EV charging, water heating, and HVAC can be integrated with aggregate local generation and shared storage to optimize the available power. The batteries in EVs can be utilized when electricity is less abundant or interrupted entirely.

In our energy transition, the form of the emerging energy platform is already visible. It will include a broad diversity of carbon-free energy sources. It will be diverse and distributed. Generation and consumption will be integrated in sophisticated and highly efficient ways. And it promises to be far more abundant and less expensive than our current fossil fuel-based energy system. The shape of this new energy platform is already coming into focus, and it’s nothing short of transformative.

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