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.