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'Driverless cars... the electric battery to power the world'

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Generating and storing energy in electric cars, buildings and even home appliances is the most promising solution to the world’s power problems, English futurist Richard Watson argues.

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Watson – an author of five books and credited with predicting the 2008 Global Financial Crisis – gave the keynote address to an audience of more than 600 attendees at InDaily‘s South Australian Business Index yesterday.

Watson, here for the Open State festival, argued that electric vehicles could act as a battery for the world, and the catalyst for “a system where ordinary people are able to store power and sell it to each other”.

He said that the world was not suffering an “energy crisis”, but rather an “energy storage problem”, which could be addressed through localised energy production, where artificially intelligent vehicles and devices could trade electricity autonomously.

“Battery technology is improving rapidly, although I think this only solves part of the problem,” he said.

“The decentralisation of energy, and the development of smart energy grids, along with smart buildings, smart cities and intelligent appliances, I think, is the larger part of the solution.

“Energy anarchy could be a very small step away from energy democratisation and energy equality.”

He told the audience that “at the moment, the grid, our cities, our buildings and our appliances are not very intelligent – and neither are we”.

“Power generally comes from centralised sources and we plug in and switch off our devices willy-nilly, and then we complain about the size of our energy bill,” he said.

“But imagine for a moment if everything that used power had a level of intelligence and autonomy.

“Imagine if devices, dwellings and local energy ecosystems could instantly switch energy supplier – and what if these devices and micro-grids could trade energy with each other, selling any excess energy they have stored, or deferring or time-shifting their use of power in return for small micro-payments.

“Instead of devices being on or off, they would decide themselves when they are on or off – they would decide for themselves the optimum time to be switched on or recharged.

“These devices might have a conversation with us about this, or, I think far more likely, they will talk amongst themselves, and they will collectively agree how to best use the power that’s available on a national, local or hyperlocal basis.

“Your washing machine, for example, might shift being on by 10 or 20 minutes, or even half a day – or it might decide to buy electricity from your neighbour’s electric car.

“I see a world where energy sources become more diverse, more local, more transparent and more democratic.”

He said it was unlikely that electric vehicles would overwhelm sales of petrol-powered cars any time soon – but they could plausibly act as the world’s giant battery.

“I think they (electric cars) are a very long way from becoming a game-changer when it comes to fossil fuel dependence,” he said.

“There are about two million electric cars globally at present. The forecast is 100 million electric cars by 2035, which may or may not be self-driving.

“This pales into insignificance compared to the one billion cars we’ve already got that are not electric … the forecast is for two-billion cars by 2040 that are not electric.

“(However) if you have millions, perhaps billions of electric cars whizzing around globally, you effectively have one really big battery – it’s an awful lot bigger than the one you’re currently building (in South Australia).

“And it’s a battery that’s highly mobile, locally owned and potentially the beginnings of a system where ordinary people are able to store power and sell it to each other.

“If you add in nudge prices (and) energy tariffs that vary by season … you can offer financial incentives for people not to use power at certain times.

“You could end up, theoretically, with an era of energy abundance rather than an era of energy scarcity, and that’s clearly a bit of a game-changer.”

However, he added: “Don’t think for a second that such a system will run primarily on renewables.”

“In my view, fossil fuels will continue to dominate globally … out to at least 2030 – maybe 2035, possibly even 2040,” he said.

“(However) we would easily solve all our current and future energy problems if we act together and think boldly enough.

“We can harvest microenergy – vibration energy from our footsteps, from our body heat, or from the waste heat from our devices.

“We might even be able to collect wind high above the earth using giant kites, or you really want to get sci-fi, collect energy in space using trillions of mirrors, and send it back to earth using microwaves or lasers.

“Implausible – but not impossible.”

He said that if humans covered just 0.3 per cent of the Sahara Desert with solar panels, they could “power Europe indefinitely”.

“If you raised this … to one per cent, you could power the world indefinitely,” he said.

“That’s with existing technology.

“Imagine for a moment if every single window in the world was a solar panel – that’s the sort of thing that we need.

“Unfortunately, our thinking just isn’t bold enough.

“We need to think differently, we need to think creatively … and we need to think at a very large, large level.

“We can’t predict, but we can’t create – but for that we need vision and we need political willpower.

“The power is, quite literally, in our hands.”Save

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