stock.adobe.com/Артур Ничипоренко
2023-04-01 publication

All-Electric Society: Electrified

The vision of an all-electric society is turning the economy and society on their heads. Curiosity is growing, the technology is ready – but the idea itself could still use a reality check.

VDE dialog - the technology magazine

By Manuel Heckel

Just three letters stand for one huge vision: AES – the “all-electric society” – is occupying the minds of more and more companies, associations and politicians, and consumers won't be far behind. The idea describes a sustainable, CO2-neutral world where nearly all the power generated and consumed is electrical: Electromobility and heat pumps have supplanted the internal combustion engine and gas power stations, and even heavy industry relies on electrical storage units and systems. That's just the purely technical aspect of the scenario, though. Behind the concept lies a far-reaching transformation of our present world. This is a vision “where all the socially relevant sectors promote prosperity in climate-neutral, CO2-free circular economies,” says Dr. Gunther Kegel, CEO of the sensor technology company Pepperl + Fuchs and president of the German Association of the Electro and Digital Industry (ZVEI).

A noble goal. However, one thing is also clear: The more the vision of the all-electric society takes shape and the more industries and sectors discover the topic for themselves, the more intensive the discussions about the obstacles and difficulties involved will become. This lofty aim goes hand-in-hand with major tasks for the drivers of the AES. After all, the term covers a wide range of transformational projects that the realms of politics, business and society are already calling for now. The transition to renewable energies is indispensable, comprehensive digitalization is a necessary prerequisite, numerous regulatory issues are not even close to being settled, and consensus about the impending costs is also a long way off. Taking stock of the current situation, it's clear that the all-electric society holds a great deal of potential, be it for nations, companies or consumers. However, the vision needs to hold up in the real world.

The AES concept is working its way out of a niche

Supporters of this vision argue that it not only will gain traction, but must. “It's clear that the time has come, but we need to drive home the notion that something needs to happen now,” says Roland Bent, who was chief technical officer at the electronics specialist Phoenix Contact for many years and chairman of the German Commission for Electrical, Electronic & Information Technologies of DIN and VDE (DKE) until the end of 2022.

For a long time, the concept was mainly discussed at the DKE, the standardization organization supported by VDE, and in electronics-related sectors. Last summer, the DKE committed to aligning its future actions entirely with ushering in an all-electric society. One of its main motivations was energy prices, which were ballooning due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and prompting many companies and politicians to consider fundamentally new concepts. Another reason had to do with the current and potential consequences of the climate crisis and how they are having more and more of an impact on the everyday lives of many. With Germany planning to achieve climate neutrality by 2045, an ambitious schedule has been set for accomplishing a number of related political goals.


“Focusing on an all-electric society would involve considerable additional costs.”

German Energy Agency pilot study “Towards Climate Neutrality”, 2021

| stock.adobe.com/Mike Mareen

Unlimited electricity, available practically for free

Worlds of difference remain between the aims of the AES and the current reality, however. One area that makes this apparent is the key issue of power generation. At present, this concerns companies and consumers in equal measure – but in an all-electric society, calculations would be made on a totally different cost basis. At some point, electricity “would no longer be a restricting factor associated with negative consequences,” explains Roland Bent, “because it would be based on renewable electricity that could be generated in a carbon-neutral manner with virtually no marginal costs.” That would transform business models, not to mention society itself: You could essentially travel from A to B without any consumption costs. In setting their prices, industrial corporations would no longer be affected by global disputes with major suppliers of oil or gas. Private households and commercial businesses would become both consumers and generators of power.

Even though this vision of unlimited power is enticing, we currently live in a world of energy shortages that is finding it difficult to develop renewable energies quickly enough. For the foreseeable future, energy efficiency will therefore be an important factor in the transformation to an all-electric society. Due primarily to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, power consumption has been rising again in Germany since 2020. The more sectors are electrified, the more these numbers will continue to increase: For instance, the Federal Ministry of Transport anticipates that if all the 45 million cars on German roads were powered by electric batteries, they would need at least 100 terawatt-hours per year. Meanwhile, the Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) has demonstrated that companies’ energy consumption increases with their use of information technology. The solution: obtaining power from renewable sources. Once the process is fully electrified, the overall energy efficiency will increase, even if more power is consumed.

The problem is that in order to make progress along this path, renewable energies would have to develop much faster. Dr. Kegel says that the power generated from wind, water and the sun would have to increase by a factor of five between 2022 and 2045. In his view, devising a much more streamlined planning and approval process would be one way to get there.


“It’s clear that the time has come, but we need to drive home the notion that something needs to happen now.”

Roland Bent Chairman of the German Commission for Electrical, Electronic & Information Technologies of DIN and VDE (DKE), 2015–2022

| stock.adobe.com/Mike Mareen

Power grids, buildings, transport and industry will be networked electrically

It’s clear that the AES vision entails a fundamental transformation across all sectors. One important prerequisite of the success of the all-electric society is sector coupling, which means linking the areas of electricity, buildings, transport and industry (for more, see the article starting on page 18). "We’re trying to build the infrastructure systems in a way that makes it possible to provide most of the power in these four sectors electrically,” explained Tobias Teich, professor of networked systems at the University of Applied Sciences Zwickau (WHZ).

Today, most sectors operate in their own separate domains. The aim now is to at least try out how this coupling could work in pilot projects. In Jena, for instance, plans are in place to set up several strategically distributed photovoltaic and solar thermal systems in the coming years in order to supply houses, offices, businesses and charging points – all of which will be networked via a virtual platform. The JenEnergieReal project is designed to show “how the transformation of urban energy systems and the sustainable supply of power and heat to cities can be achieved,” said Stefan Wenzel, Parliamentary State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Economics, in November. To allow the vision of an all-electric society to become a reality, these new connections would have to be set up and expanded all over the country. This in turn would require major infrastructural conversions to make it possible to balance out generation and consumption. Storage technologies also need to be able to respond to fluctuations at both the regional and national levels, including with regard to the seasons and the time of day.

The major consumers in industry also have to play their part

In certain political and industrial circles, there is still a great deal of skepticism regarding comprehensive electrification. This is particularly true of the major consumers that operate things like blasting furnaces or steam crackers in Germany. The Federal Statistical Office calculated that, in 2020, the five industries with the heaviest energy demand in the country – including the chemical industry, the metal industry and glass and paper manufacturers – consumed 75 percent of the total energy required by industry while accounting for only 21 percent of the value creation in these sectors. Dr. Kegel is convinced that these sectors are the key. According to the ZVEI president, industrial decarbonization will have to be achieved in energy-intensive sectors and industries: “On their own, the large number of generally less energy-intensive companies can't make a significant contribution here.”

At present, however, renewable energies are unable to handle both load peaks and constant consumption. A report by the German Energy Agency (dena) in spring 2021 thus concluded that “focusing on an all-electric society would involve considerable additional costs”. Instead, the experts recommended a strategy based on three pillars: synthetic renewable energy sources and raw materials, more intensive efforts toward energy efficiency and more direct use of all types of renewable energies, including geothermal energy and biomass.

Supporters of comprehensive electrification don't believe this runs counter to their aims at all. As Dr. Kegel points out, the goal of the all-electric society “explicitly includes green hydrogen and synthetic fuels, which are produced using renewable electric power.” This puts the AES vision one step closer to reality. Even today, the first trains driven by hydrogen are rolling down the track in Lower Saxony, and steel corporations such as Salzgitter and Thyssen-Krupp are experimenting with direct reduction systems that convert iron ore into sponge iron using a reduction agent (hydrogen and/or natural gas in flexible proportions). Meanwhile, Shell and ITM Power have put Europe’s largest hydrogen electrolyzer into operation in the Rhineland region. “Green hydrogen ensures that renewable energies can be stored and transported,” says former DKE chairman Roland Bent.


“In technical terms, we already have everything we need.”

Tobias Teich Professor of networked systems at the University of Applied Sciences Zwickau (WHZ), Germany

| stock.adobe.com/Who is Danny

Smart algorithms will keep the complex all-electric society on the move

The obstacles on the path to a more electrified world are entirely manageable – even if regular operations are still several years away in many projects. “I don’t see many problems at all in technical terms because we actually already have everything we need,” says Prof. Teich. Plus, the journey towards a major vision always begins with small steps. When photovoltaic cells achieve higher degrees of efficiency and battery storage units with greater capacities arrive on the market, making these steps toward the all-electric society will be that much easier. “You have to start by focusing on the things that already work,” Prof. Teich continues. “Then you find solutions for the things that don't – yet.”

Here, one thing quickly becomes evident: The AES vision calls for an interdisciplinary approach. This is easy to appreciate if you take a look at the digital component. “The decisive determinants of the all-electric society will be the price of electricity – and the price of information,” Prof. Teich explains. In Jena, for instance, a digitally networked infrastructure is to be established in which all the participating systems constantly exchange data.

That will maintain balance in the networks, which will face much higher demands in the future. It will also make it possible for the infrastructure to respond automatically to any fluctuations. This can be achieved by switching photovoltaic systems on or off as required, for example, or by changing consumer prices – such as by making it cheaper to charge EVs or operate household appliances when there is a surplus of electricity. In many areas, artificial intelligence (AI) will be needed to carry out these complex calculations. “AI can play a crucial role in analyzing data and even recommending actions,” Prof. Teich reveals. Digital twins – virtual duplicates of products or systems – are also crucial in running simulations of a highly complex scenario like an all-electric society.


For the cautious, a “more electric” society would suffice

Outside the realm of technology, there are plenty of tasks waiting for AES visionaries. They see the concept as an opportunity to put a more positive spin on topics such as the energy transition or industrial transformation, which are associated with many fears. “At its core, the all-electric society isn’t a narrative about ‘doing without’; it's about the conviction that innovations in particular can help us accomplish a task that concerns all of humanity,” says Dr. Kegel.

Others, meanwhile, continue to argue for the merits of talking about a “more” or "mostly” electric society. These terms sound less radical, but describe the same journey. “At present, we’re observing a transition to a society more strongly characterized by electricity, with the ultimate goal being a fully electric society,” writes the European Center for Power Electronics, for instance, a research network closely associated with industry. A look at Zwickau shows us how important finding the right words for this vision can be. The city features one of the few locations in Germany that is already driving projects forward under the AES banner. The aim is to replan and network an entire city district. Buildings made with precast concrete slabs have already been taken down, and undeveloped areas have been revitalized. “We plan to test out several aspects of the all-electric society and sector coupling as part of this district development,” said Sven Leonhardt, the responsible project leader for the City of Zwickau.

To achieve this, the municipality is working closely together with the local university, municipal companies such as the local energy provider or residential construction company, and private corporations like Volkswagen, which operates a plant in the district in question. Things are not proceeding as quickly as hoped, however, due to a shortage of funds. “We hope to push forward with a few projects step by step – little strokes fell big oaks,” says Leonhardt.

This project is showing how many participants have to be taken into account in a city of just over 90,000 people. Following discussions with the city council, for instance, Leonhardt and his team had to go back to the drawing board. “We had a concept that was absolutely brilliant in terms of urban development, but in our first attempt, we hadn’t thought enough about the people,” he explains. A commuter route for automated driving has now been incorporated into the plan in order to better connect the district not only to the city center, but also to nearby lakes that offer nice places to go for a stroll or simply enjoy the outdoors. Following this revision, the concept is more or less similar to an all-electric society – but is now attracting political majorities.

The electrified world is to be the next success story

Ultimately, it will only be possible to turn the ambitious plans of the all-electric society into reality with broad support from politicians and society in general. To that end, Gunther Kegel from Pepperl + Fuchs is striving to redefine the power market in order to make it more attractive. “A competitive price is the only thing that will establish electricity as the preferred energy carrier,” he states. However, several experts in the field still see a considerable need for improvement in terms of the pace and direction of the transformation. “We’re still wasting a lot of time talking about objectives instead of how we’re going to achieve them,” asserts Roland Bent. Prof. Teich is concerned about how the interest in new concepts has waned in several committees in view of falling energy prices. “It’s really frustrating to see when you're highly involved on a technical level,” he admits.

If politicians and other decision-makers want to signal their clear support for an all-electric society, doing more to emphasize the potential benefits certainly wouldn't hurt. For one thing, a fully electrified society would have a better chance of achieving its climate targets. Second, employment opportunities would also grow in numerous sectors. A study last year by the credit insurer Allianz Trade showed that merely by changing legislation, the German federal government could create up to 400,000 additional jobs in the next ten years. And third, the path to the all-electric society could become an economic success story overall: “As I look at everything that's happening in the heating and solar sectors and in the field of charging infrastructure, there are excellent signs,” declares Roland Bent. “The road to the all-electric society presents immense opportunities for innovation and investment – it may even be the greatest economic growth program we’ve ever seen.”

MANUEL HECKEL works as a freelance journalist in Cologne, focusing in part on the impact of transformational processes on society.

Excited “as an engineer and a person”


Roland Bent, langjähriger Technik-Vorstand bei Phoenix Contact und Vorsitzender der DKE 2015 bis 2022

| Phoenix Contact GmbH & Co. KG (top)
2023-04-01 publication

Roland Bent, who spent many years as CTO at Phoenix Contact and was, until recently, president of the DKE, explains why he views the road to an all-electric society as an opportunity – and why lengthy discussions about how it should be implemented sometimes try his patience.

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