Why (and how) cheaper solar power, batteries, electric and autonomous vehicles are going to change our world over the next 5 years

This will be the best hour you’ll spend in front of a screen this week, I promise. Tony Seba explains how the plunging costs of battery storage and solar power generation, coupled with the rise of electric vehicles and autonomous driving technologies are going to first disrupt and then transform both the transport and power industries worldwide, and very, very soon. Watch this, and then ask yourself why this isn’t being reflected in the policy discussion in this NZ election. Why are we not encouraging rooftop solar? Why are we still building motorways? Drilling for oil? The timeline on this stuff falls within the lifetime of the next parliament!

Shamelessly lifted from Peter at Climate Crocks. Thanks for the lead, Peter, you just delayed my Sunday work programme by an hour!

30 thoughts on “Why (and how) cheaper solar power, batteries, electric and autonomous vehicles are going to change our world over the next 5 years”

  1. Pretty amazing! And hard to fault for most of it.

    With regards to the end of vehicle ownership – I think that applies probably mostly to the big cities and societies that have fairly uniform driving needs.

    In rural NZ this is unlikely to make a significant inroad soon. Even for the city dewllers, the model of weekenders leaving their city workplace to spend the weekend at their batch at the beach, tow the boat or the trailer full of holiday gear, this use of a vehicle will be difficult to replace by the “transport as a service” model. We can’t even get a decent bus service in rural NZ that operates more than once a day. Let alone a system that permits peoples discretionary use of transport as part of their recreation, hobbies or frequent short holidays.

    But that is not to say that in NZ significant parts of the population will find that owning a car becomes no longer useful, most of the time… But in the ‘most of the time’ lies the problem. People will be well happy to pay the premium price of ownership so that they have the freedom to use it ‘anytime they want, anywhere, for any length’. It is a matter of potential and the empowerment it creates.

    And many people will still regard their own vehicle as a status symbol, and looking at it sitting in the driveway will have tangible a benefit of a perceived potential for many. A bit like the yacht in the Marina, used 10 times a year….

    1. And to add to this: Currently commuting to work twice a day with a stop on the way home at the supermarket is what a large proportion of cars do. The fact that we will have driving-as-service at low cost will not eliminate the rush hour transport need for a majority of users nor will it spread the vehicle use neatly across time. There will for the foreseeable future be two daily peak transport need times and unless the drive-as-service model can get the workforce reliably to and from work, it will not reduce the number of vehicles required in total that much. That is unless ride-sharing becomes a lot more commonplace. I guess the drive-as-service industries will automate that to a large degree. Nevertheless, people will find the premium cost of owning a vehicle worthwhile, for quite some time to come I believe.

    2. I agree with your caveats, Thomas. It’s hard to see how transport as a service can work for rural communities (beyond, perhaps, improving bus-type services), as it must depend to an extent on population density to be viable. But for cities that already have good public transport, it might well take off… But as you say, there are many reasons – good and bad – why people like owning their own vehicles. Nevertheless, the potential impact on the economics of vehicle ownership is huge.

      His views on solar power are even more radical – and far reaching.

      1. Yes, I agree. He is most likely right on many fronts regarding the future of energy as well as transport. The end of the ICE as the standard means of propelling vehicles is neigh. And I also believe that self-driving cars will be commonplace.
        And the energy revolution cannot come early enough if we want to bring this whole bus of the human journey to a screeching stop before the cliff…

        1. I am one of those who have added “800 cars a week to Auckland”, mayor Goff. Although I try to pick my times I am impressed by the apparently unavoidable congestion as well as the huge number of cars parked on the street so that some streets are difficult to navigate. I suspect Auckland is grinding to a halt and no amount of roading will fix it.

          Conversely I visited some relatives (mainly dairy farming background) on a “life style block” South Head, (Kaipara harbour) north of Helensville. It consists of a tree garden and a windy grassed hill. Spread through several buildings, the residents consume approx $500 worth of electricity a month, suffering they said about 200 outages a year. I saw only one other car on the lengthy road while visiting. Their fuel bill is also shocking. Consequently I was grilled for hours on my electric car, solar installation and battery storage. I had my paper record of it all with me (no kw hrs imported yet :). Climate change issues were part of the debate, no denialism. There is no doubting the interest.

          1. I have lived in Auckland on and off for more than 40 years. I own a car so guess I contribute to the problems, but I get public transport a lot as well.

            I have seen traffic congestion go from almost non existent to our current nightmare. In the 1970s once got the occasional slow down on motorways in peak hour, but often even then traffic ran quite smoothly much of the time. Other roads were half empty. Now motorways slow down dramatically even in the middle of the day sometimes, and other roads are so busy I find I have to really concentrate, and it takes all pleasure out of driving.

            Parking has gone form literally rarely a problem in the 1970s, to a constant nightmare today. The change has been massive.

            In my view the causes are used japanese imports putting huge numbers of cars on existing roads, you really noticed the impact of this on congestion. Then we had high rates of immigration, and roads never kept up. You have the considerable difficulty of building new roads or widening roads, in areas that are already urbanised.

            Our public transport struggles because of the linear spread out nature of Auckland designed around low rise living and cars. Many trips need two or more buses, which becomes very frustrating.

            I don’t have any magic answers, and I suppose all we can do is try to improve roads and public transport on a pragmatic sort of basis. I do think NZ needs a breather from such high immigration, but on the other hand I like a more connected world, and there’s value in immigration and being welcoming to other people, so its a tough challenge and not a simple thing. But right now infrastructure is clearly not keeping up.

            Driverless cars may mean its easier to get cheap taxis or cars for hire to do the shopping and doctors visits etc. This will reduce the need to own a car.

            I’m not entirely sure that driverless cars will reduce traffic congestion. In theory they allow faster speeds and closer following distances maybe and more orderly, synchronised traffic flows I’m guessing, so that would help reduce congestion. But what if their convenience means people want to use driverless cars more than buses? This would increase congestion!

            Overall driverless cars may not improve congestion significantly.

            1. A lady from Nissan phoned me for feedback re my Leaf. I told her I charged the Leaf with electricity obtained from my solar system backed up by a Tesla Powerwall 2 battery, all the time never drawing any kW hours from the grid this month.

              “You’re perfect!” she exclaimed.

              To think that I have lived 78 years and at last heard a woman say I’m perfect 🙂

            2. Priceless! 🙂

              It connects to the yet unanswered deep question:
              “If a man talks in a forest and no woman can hear him, is he still wrong?” 😉

            3. Walking in the forest is likely to have been procrastination, so yes, on the balance of probabilities, still wrong.

        2. I envisage a future where I can use an app on my iPhone and a car magically appears and takes me to my destination with no money changing hands except electronically

          It’s called Uber and it’s here already

            1. That’s true, and I was thinking along the same lines that this might be the only difference between autonomous vehicles as a public fleet and Uber.

              If that’s the case, we can expedite the driverless car revolution by providing a “no speak” version of Uber.

              On a serious note though, my point is that products like cell phones fulfill a user need. I’m not convinced that a public fleet of driverless cars does this

            2. AndyS, in what way does a fleet of driverless cars not fulfill a need?

              They are fulfilling several needs at once, cheaper transport, time to relax and read a book, potentially greater safety.

              Or are you thinking it’s rather impersonal? Or you like driving?

              I must admit I will be taking a deep breath before I first use a driverless car. I’m getting older and a bit cautious and set in my ways.

          1. Uber is losing billions. The business model uses investment money to keep fares low by subsidising them. This cannot be sustained indefinitely.

            Uber is also in court in several countries for all sorts of violations.

            I would be careful before investing in this outfit.

            Cheerful chap aren’t I.

            1. AndyS, in what way does a fleet of driverless cars not fulfill a need?

              It replaces the Uber driver with a computer. Other than putting a driver out of work, and that you don’t have to talk to it, I’m not sure what difference it has.

            2. I think part of their problems is their employment vers subcontractor model of their drivers and the regulations with that regard in many countries. That’s why they are so keen on the driverless system. Once they get this working and approved as a safe transport, then they are in a very different situation with regards to all this.
              While I do believe that very well working driverless cars are coming, I am still unsure about the “unknowns” in all this. How often would a skilled driver make moves to alleviate a situation and resolve a problem such as briefly drive over a curb and onto the footpath say, to make it reasonably around an obstacle and solve an otherwise lengthy stuck situation? In a city such as AKL that would happen hourly somewhere for sure. Once we have a high % of driverless cars, there will be many “blond” moments of these things that’s for sure. And erring on the side of caution and safety as they must, we will see situations of ridiculous waits in front of otherwise easy to solve situations arise. How would a cop wave a driverless car around an accident scene and over the footpath or otherwise? “Come on car, it’s all good… ” won’t work…
              Road rage against dumb stuck driverless cars will become a new spectator sport with its own youtube channel…. 😉

            3. Andy

              “It replaces the Uber driver with a computer. Other than putting a driver out of work, and that you don’t have to talk to it, I’m not sure what difference it has.”

              You also have advantage of better driving safety ultimately, and no physical abuse etc.

              You cant stop the march of automation and robotics and it will make for cheaper taxi fares. However I know where you are coming from.

              But I think the driverless Uber is a fair way away. Following article is about uber driverless taxis now under testing, and the driver is still having to take over frequently for all sorts of things and progress improving this is slow.

              https://www.recode.net/2017/3/16/14938116/uber-travis-kalanick-self-driving-internal-metrics-slow-progress

              Things have a way to go before these driverless taxi things hit the mass market, especially as they really are totally driverless when you phone them up. Gulp!

              I think Thomas is right there will be dumb moments, but as computers improves these will decrease, and benefits will increasingly outweigh risks.

            4. Change happens in many places and often is unexpected.

              The new Brompton Electric folding bike looks interesting and taps into a rapidly growing market of commuter e-Bikes

              https://www.wired.co.uk/article/new-brompton-electric-bike-review-uk-price-release-date-top-speed-range

              The great think about the Brompton is that you can take it on trains in the UK as hand luggage. I even took my non-electric version on the plane from Christchurch to Wellington once, after biking to and from the airports. It makes public transport a lot more flexible, and also park and rides a lot easier.

  2. Yes definitely a pretty amazing video.

    One other challenge will be long distance trucking transport. This would currently require pretty massive batteries, but its probably fair to say the technology will improve fast.

    Convergence of technologies is very important, but little things cause new devices to really take off. The first touchscreen smartphone was actually the IBM Simon produced 15 years before the iphone. Google it and be amazed or read below.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_Simon

    But it was big and clunky and geeky like early nokia smartphones. Good devices, but designed for nerds and executives, not the general public. It never took off, so although there was a convergence new technology this wasn’t quite enough for this device.

    The iphone took off. It was a strong convergence of technology, but was also cool looking, sexy, small enough to put in a pocket, user friendly and things operated smoothly. This was as much a reason for it taking off as the underlying technologies. It was a fashion statement as much as anything. Android picked up on these things, and then low prices really boosted things.

    An interesting related book is “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell.

  3. Cheers for UK canning coal but “Drax will live on, but only by burning biomass – mostly wood chips imported from the southern United States.”

    I thought the EEC (still including UK) had wised up to the fact that burning biomass obtained by cutting down forest in southern USA results in more CO2 emissions than burning coal in the first place.

    1. The Drax plan is that its fuel is waste wood (in pellets) so ok… But not scaleable and that waste wood in North America would be better used for energy generation in North America. And wherever there is an abruptly increased value for a ‘waste’ there is the perverse incentive to create more ‘waste’, and the North American timber industry has shown very willing to profitably trample on environmental protections before.
      Drax is a wheeze to try and preserve value in a very big plant (4 600MW power plants at one location) but it repeatedly failed to access the higher incentive rates that it wanted at a time when the incentive needed by its low carbon competitors was dropping fast (except for nuclear). So dont worry about Drax, it was only ever a one off and time has passed it by.

      1. Drax Plan. Wasn’t Hugo Drax one of the Bond Villains? Something to do with wiping out humanity with a virus or something.

        I think you are right there’s nothing nothing wrong with burning waste wood and a few old branches, as its carbon neutral.

        The problem is some operators are burning entire trees, including hardwood trees that take ages to grow. This defeats the purpose of growing more trees to provide an increased carbon sink doesn’t it?. And the practice appears to be widespread. Very good article below;

        http://e360.yale.edu/features/wood_pellets_green_energy_or_new_source_of_co2_emissions

        1. In addition fossil fuels are used in the harvesting and transport.

          “I think you are right there’s nothing nothing wrong with burning waste wood and a few old branches, as its carbon neutral.”

          That’s the rational but carbon neutral is not good enough though better than burning fossil fuels if the wood source is local. Why not shred it and put it in the ground?

          1. Noelfuller on second thoughts you are right there about putting the pellets in the ground. Strictly speaking it would reduce emissions.

            It’s similar to the arguments about methane from cattle cycle and how neutral it really is. However regardless of the cycle, at the end of the day less methane is better right now, although whether it can be practically done is a tough issue.

            I thought the pellet burning idea was primarily designed to enable third world countries to continue to burn wood. I’m not sure why its found its way into western countries. Lobbying from industry I suppose.

            1. I think it was seized on as a direct alternative to coal or oil for heating and in that sense is better but as far as I can see, only if the wood supply is local and regrows fast. Businesses saw opportunity in our ability to deceive ourselves in this regard, like with biofuels. I note that an author of a recent paper on the possibility of keeping a 1.5°C target notes that this is only possible if we can reduce emissions heavily without delay and also extract carbon from the atmosphere to a significant degree – i.e. go carbon negative.

              I put my green woodchips in a pile with a heavy plastic cover over them to keep the moisture in. Given enough moisture, breakdown is fairly rapid but any tree close enough then makes a meal of it, grows higher and shades my solar panels so then has to be topped again.

              People put fertilizer on lawns plus heaps of water. My lawns have never been watered, or fertilised, except by pigeons, are an exhibition of biodiversity! but began to look heathier after I stopped using a grass catcher.

            2. The rapid composting of the wood chips is returning carbon to CO2, only burning it is faster. It is also soaking up available N from anything else it is composted with. If burning waste wood genuinely displaces a fossil fuel then good, but it is not scaleable so only a fringe activity. Your chippings may be a situation where biochar is an improvement, turning a lot of that C in the wood into a recalcitrant form that can persist in the soil and benefit soil functions.

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