Engineers face their greatest challenge as energy and transportation converge

Crafting new ways to rapidly shift from fossil fuels to electrification may well be the biggest challenge mankind will ever face.

(Image source: Paul Brennan from Pixabay )

Crafting new ways to rapidly shift from fossil fuels to electrification, most critically in the transportation sector, may well be the biggest challenge mankind will ever face.

If engineers can develop novel solutions that reduce, then eliminate, both smokestack and tailpipe emissions, we will have a fighting chance against climate change. If the world’s engineers are not up to this challenge, we will need to shift our focus to re-engineering our buildings and infrastructure to cope with the negative consequences. Either way, this is a time for engineers like no other before, where practical skills and imagination have the potential to shift the fate of mankind.

Lucky for us all, clean energy technologies have advanced dramatically over the last decade. Most importantly, the cost of batteries has fallen dramatically, and materials science and improved battery designs are providing us newer, better-performing batteries each year. Improved, affordable battery systems will become the building blocks of dramatic new engineering opportunities. Better batteries drive more affordable electric vehicles, for example.

But EVs require ubiquitous public fast charging infrastructure to serve this transformation in time to make a difference.

In a utility world, where energy storage has never been cost effective, engineers designed an electricity system that delivered power “just in time” out of necessity. Now the distribution grid, heralded as the most complex feat of engineering in the twentieth century, must adapt faster and go further than it ever has before – moving beyond the controlling paradigm of just-in-time production and delivery. The grid must be redesigned to accommodate not only affordable, ubiquitous energy storage, but also a proliferating array of onsite energy technologies like solar, fuel cells, and DC fast charging.

The new engineering frontier will be out on the “edge,” where we will integrate onsite battery energy storage and mobile EV batteries with EV charging infrastructure, the distribution grid, and buildings. In the face of wildfires, hurricanes, and “rain bombs,” engineers are creating more efficient, cleaner energy solutions to achieve a new quality that we will be hearing more and more about in the next year: regional resilience, which is, “the toughness to bounce back from unexpected events.”

We can already see the patterns of change in North America, as geographic hotspots emerge. California has a front row seat to a 180-degree turnaround in historic utility reliability, as public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) curb the risk of devastating wildfires, but also leave thousands to millions of energy consumers in the dark for days.

In the Caribbean, along the Gulf Coast and up the Atlantic seaboard, regional economies are now hostage to recurrent devastation from increasingly powerful hurricanes, fueled by hotter ocean surface temperatures and new weather patterns. In 2017 Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria introduced us to rain bombs and the awesome destructive power of a Category 5 hurricane. Two years later, Hurricane Dorian pounded Grand Bahama Island for 51 hours, decimating the island community’s buildings and infrastructure.

What new solutions will meet the urgent needs for resilience? For power continuity? For decarbonization? We’ve never before contemplated such a failure of conventional power systems. Resilience has moved from a concept to a distinct reality and necessity.

Examining a new era

Our new era of extreme weather and advancing climate change is motivating us to design and engineer new power and transportation systems that are better suited to our new critical needs. And new technologies and innovative business models are providing us with the necessary tools. We’re embarking on a journey to transform our economies and societies more rapidly than ever before.

As an innovation thought leader and author in the electricity sector, I’ve spent my career trying to understand the bleeding edge. It’s been a challenge, and timing has been critical – too often I’ve been too far ahead and had to wait as institutions and markets caught up. But now technology, innovation, and urgency have converged, and the time is right like never before.

As a smart grid pioneer 15 years ago, I helped showcase new applications of IP networks and data inside electric utilities. As the smart grid matured and became a widely accepted business practice inside the utility sector, an array of new digital technologies became commonplace and more clean energy was able to integrate with the grid.

But progress was slow. With more clean energy, we’ve been able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel generation (i.e., “smokestack emissions”). Our grand clean energy transformation is well underway, but now it must dramatically accelerate to address climate change. We have to go much faster.

There are so many facets to cover, which converge on a wide area of new technologies and new approaches to energy and the environment. I see the landscape as an unfolding innovation spectrum, where I will explore different applications of innovative concepts. The need for pilots and demonstrations among transportation companies, electric utilities, and solution providers has never been greater. We’re rapidly entering a grand age of experimentation.

And nothing will be more important than design and engineering. In the coming months, we will explore and reimagine this area, repeating a pattern of analysis and synthesis, going back and forth in iterative waves. Drilling down on specific technologies and business model innovations will provide insights on new capabilities and possibilities. At the same time, moving back up to 50,000 feet will allow us to chew on the impact of such significant changes.

Energy and transportation are converging, creating a new emergent reality as innovation becomes better understood and more widely applied. Engineers will need to design novel solutions that master new tasks that were heretofore unimaginable, solve old problems that were previously unsolvable, and conquer new problems that still seem impossible.

I’m excited to begin this adventure with the readers of Design News in the weeks and months ahead.

John Cooper is an energy entrepreneur and thought leader with 33 years experience in a variety of pioneering roles and projects, and a nationally-recognized innovator in energy. Since 2017 and 2018, John has worked with innovative startups to accelerate DER penetration and carbon mitigation in cities, regions and countries. John co-founded REgrid.global in 2018 to provide a product solution to Transportation Electrification that provides multiple benefits to the utility, transportation and public sectors. John now serves as VP Business Development Americas for Tritium, a global leader in the rapidly growing DC fast charging industry.

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