Forget hybrids and car charging points - the future is EIVs, says Peter Harrop of IDTechEx
We need to focus on energy independent vehicles - and get our heads around solar panel roads.
You probably ought to know that there’s a committed revolutionary at work in Cambridge. But don’t worry: what he’s committed to is the energy revolution, which he’s convinced is now well and truly under way, and which he believes will mean a better world for us all.
The firebrand is Dr Peter Harrop, founder and chairman of IDTechEx, a company with its HQ in Swaffham Bulbeck and a city office in Cambridge’s Station Road. It researches emerging technology, and Dr Harrop agrees that I may call him a futurologist.
Quite a few pulses were set racing earlier this month when the Swedish carmaker Volvo announced that from 2019 all its new cars would be partly or totally battery-powered. But if that sounded like a brave new dawn for renewable energy, it left Dr Harrop distinctly underwhelmed.
“Volvo will still make a lot of vehicles with internal combustion engines,” he says. “It’s preparing to do what it will have to do by law – and a bit more. The people most likely to succeed are companies like Tesla and BYD of China.” Both of them are makers of out-and-out electric cars, a distinct advance on the hybrid internal combustion/electric versions
which will make up much of Volvo’s new build.
Volvo apart, though, he’s in no doubt we’re already into a new era: “Solar and wind have already made the renewable energy revolution a reality. And they’re Trump-proof!”
There are obvious problems with energy both from the Sun and from the winds. One is what’s called “intermittency” – the fact that the Sun isn’t always shining nor the wind blowing.
Possible answers include batteries (which tend to be heavy) and charging points to top them up – if you can find one when you need it. Dr Harrop describes charging points as “a temporary pain” and thinks batteries come a poor second to the ideal: an energy independent vehicle (EIV), especially when it combines wind and solar power.
“I saw an example in Italy several weeks ago. It’s called the Restaurant Car,” he recalls. “Its bodywork is covered in solar panels and it has four propellors which capture the wind and generate more current. So it’s self-propelled, and it has enough power to cook hundreds of meals a day, with one microwave oven and two induction plates. EIVs are the world we’re moving into.
“Just wait and see what the Chinese do. Some years ago, when solar-powered wristwatches came onto the market, they were prohibitively expensive. Now they sell for $3 each in China. The cost of solar panels is falling in the same way.”
It’s not just using wind and solar power in tandem that appeals to Dr Harrop. He’s excited about their potential for entirely new applications as well – like solar roads, for example. They may sound unlikely, but they’re already a reality in several countries. Covered in special paving, they can generate enough energy from the Sun to power lane marking, traffic signs and nearby buildings. But that’s far from all.
With technology that should be available some time this year, a solar road can provide power to the traffic running on it, in effect turning a heavy truck into a version of a goods train with rubber tyres. The technology is called inductive charging and can work with the addition of a concealed coil to a vehicle. Another version relies on a pick-up
device, similar to those used by electric trains, which collects current from overhead wires to drive the lorry’s engine.
It sounds impressive. But what’s perhaps most remarkable of all is the scope of solar roads to do away with the need for highly-polluting diesel and petrol engines. “In Germany, Sweden and the US they’re trialling what’s called ‘an intermediate catenary system’,” says Dr Harrop. “That means that you provide the overhead wires at intervals along the road and the lorry works out when it’s beneath a stretch and then sucks up the juice. It’s incredibly cheap. The Germans say that if they install the system along 400km (250 miles) of their main roads, they’ll be able to power the entire country.”
That leaves the problem of what you do when you reach an unimproved non-solar road. But even the cost of transferring the load to an ordinary internal combustion engined vehicle could be offset by the huge savings in fuel.
So what could it mean in East Anglia? “If you turned the M11 into a solar road,” Dr Harrop says, “you could not only power every truck on it: you could provide enough energy to run every home in Cambridge as well.”
He sees a lot of potential in what he calls the reinvention of wind and solar power. One possibility that enthuses him is airborne wind energy, which is more straightforward than it may sound. It involves using kites and tethered drones to fly above the heights where conventional turbines operate and capturing the power of the winds found there – typically four times more powerful than those closer to the ground and much more consistent.
And with solar power there’s more potential to be tapped too, with the development of what are known as bi-facial solar systems. They are simply double-sided photovoltaic cells which collect energy not only from the front but from the back as well, exploiting the substantial amount of reflected light available from the Earth, rooftops, clouds and atmosphere.
What could all this mean for Cambridge 10 years from now? “Travel will be much cheaper, with autonomous cars, and buses as well moving to being driverless,” he says. “The buses will be electric: it’s outrageous that London has only just got round to testing electric buses when it should have made the switch years ago. There’ll be autonomous vehicles on the pavements as well, delivering pizzas and much more too. And we’ll be able to breathe again!”
Winds of change could help Eastern region farmers
The galloping energy revolution could transform the prospects of many East Anglian farmers, Peter Harrop thinks, especially with the use of airborne wind energy (AWE).
“AWE is portable,” he points out. “The really good winds are about 300 metres above the ground. So you take your kite or your drone to wherever it is you’re working, set it up and generate the power you need on the spot.
“Or you can replace some of the diesel-generating sets farmers have to rely on now. You could have something like a shipping container covered in solar panels and move it to where it’s needed, cutting out the diesel pollution and the flammability of the generating sets. And that’s something that could work very well to provide instant energy in disaster areas too.”
One gigawatt provides enough energy to power about 725,000 North American homes.
“There are about 700 gigawatts of power provided by diesel-generating sets worldwide,” says Dr Harrop. “Think about replacing them all with renewable electricity supplies. It’d be a huge business.”
More by this authorAlex Kirby