Utilities Hot on the Trail of Disruptive, Distributed Solar, Clean Energy Technology
An international group of 10 power utilities is in the midst of conducting the second edition of Free Electrons, a unique, utility-sponsored accelerator program that offers distributed, solar and clean energy start-ups worldwide the opportunity to further develop, refine, test and prove their technology alongside utility executives and technology development specialists.
Disruptive, distributed renewable energy and digital information and communications technologies (ICT) are fueling a fundamental transformation in power markets and industry the world over. Some electric utilities are embracing agents of change to a greater degree and extent than others in a bid to stay a step ahead of the curve and change with the times.
Solar Magazine spoke with Luis Manuel, a Free Electrons founder and executive board member of EDP Innovation, the venture capital R&D arm of Portugal’s EDP (Energias de Portugal), to gain and share insights regarding Free Electrons and how technological and business model innovation is fueling EDP’s transformation.
Utilities as multinationals
The services footprint of power utilities has tended to be local, then regional in geographic scope with the advent of large-scale hydroelectric, coal-fired and then nuclear power plants and building out of long-distance, AC power transmission grids. That’s largely down to the nature of producing, transmitting and distributing electrical energy. The nature of electricity hasn’t changed but how we produce, distribute and store it is changing rapidly, as is the structure and composition of power and energy markets and industry globally.
Innovative distributed solar and other clean energy technology and start-ups are cropping up the world over, in developing and industrially developed countries alike. Utilities would be well served by following suit and transforming themselves into genuinely multinational organizations, Manuel told Solar Magazine.
Naming the utility-clean energy start-up accelerator Free Electrons says a lot about the utilities’ shared perspective and view regarding the evolution of power and energy industry and markets around the world, Manuel pointed out.
Electrons as a commodity will tend to lose value over time. We need to develop new business models and new services in order to add value for our shareholders, and they will certainly revolve around digital data and digital data management.
That has led utilities worldwide to launch in-house, digital, distributed energy tech R&D projects and centers, as well as step up venture capital investments in promising start-ups. “We [EDP and its Free Electrons utility partners] realized the future will be a lot more distributed/decentralized and digital, and that we all need to integrate or partner with companies that skills and tools we currently do not have.”
Free Electrons’ Utility Partners
American Electric Power (AEP, US)
AusNet Services (Australia)
CLP (Hong Kong, PRC)
Dubai Electric and Water Authority (United Arab Emirates)
Electricity Supply Board (ESB, Ireland)
Energias de Portugal (EDP, Portugal)
innogy New Ventures, LLC (Germany)
Origin Energy (Australia)
SP Group (Singapore)
Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO, Japan)
“Everyone is looking for new offerings…All of us tend to look at emerging companies, at startups, to bring new ideas and new business models and benefit from our experience, expertise, financial and other resources,” Manuel explained in an interview.
Spurring solar and distributed clean energy innovation worldwide
A group of 15 finalists recently passed through Melbourne and Sydney, Australia where they completed the first of Free Electron 2018’s four, one-week program modules. Each is working with one Free Electrons’ utility partner to craft a final demonstration pilot project plan that may pave their way to commercial success, and for their technology to contribute to a global transformation in the way we produce, distribute and use energy.