Interview: Manuel Heckel
VDE dialog: The vision of an all-electric society sounds promising, but also like a lot of work. Why are you so intensely committed to it?
Roland Bent: Since the invention of fire, energy has been the driving force behind every human development and advancements in human welfare. Unfortunately, our use of energy is also the main driver of many negative consequences, all the way up to climate change. In the all-electric society we’re working toward, electricity is no longer a limiting factor associated with these consequences because it’s based on renewable, carbon-neutral energy that can be produced at marginal costs from almost nothing. What fascinates me is that a lot is already possible with today’s technology. Making the switch to climate-neutral energy doesn’t have to involve sacrifices; we can use the idea to help us look to the future. I find this very exciting, both as an engineer and as a person who has been captivated by technology for his entire life.
The topic is being discussed more intensively, both at companies and in political circles. Why is this happening now?
The current geopolitical situation clearly demonstrates how continuing to cling to fossil fuels makes us highly dependent on authoritarian regimes. Renewable energy can materialize and be generated almost anywhere. That means a comprehensive energy transition is the only way forward. On the one hand, the time has come – but on the other, time is almost up. We can see as much when we talk about the effects of climate change. At this point, everybody is aware of the catastrophic consequences. We have to act.
Has the message really been received everywhere?
We’re still wasting a lot of time talking about objectives instead of how we’re going to achieve them. That does try your patience. Everything we invest in a future energy system today will save at least the same amount in future costs. It’s clear that the time has come, but we need to drive home the notion that something needs to happen now.
Why are people still so cautious?
Highly developed industrial nations like Germany have to take the lead and demonstrate the technical and economic feasibility of the energy transition. Communication is certainly part of the problem. The energy transition is often associated with the fear of having to make sacrifices, or with appeals that focus solely on people’s conscience.
Can this be changed?
By contrast, when I talk about the all-electric society, I can talk about the great potential of this sustainable transition and the unlimited availability of energy. When I look at what’s happening in the heating or solar power industry or in terms of the charging infrastructure, there are positive signs. 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.
What will it take to bring together the many puzzle pieces of the all-electric society?
We need comprehensive sector coupling. If it makes sense to electrify something, we should electrify it. In addition, all sectors that generate, consume and store energy need to be connected and steered together. That means taking advantage of the possibilities afforded by digitalization and information technology in order to access to the networking and intelligence required to coordinate everything. The overall idea is like a giant building where people from different trades work on different parts simultaneously. This only succeeds when a good architectural framework is in place, and the only way to ensure that is through standards.
What could this look like in practice?
It would look exactly like what the DKE has pledged to do in its Commitment 2023! We need experts from companies to get even more involved in the standardization process. Here, it’s important not to lose sight of the overall picture. Today’s standardization is still very vertical and focuses on individual products.
What do companies need to do today to get on board? What can they do?
Basically, the opportunities for companies are as diverse as the whole notion of the all-electric society. They can offer products and solutions that support this transformation, of course, and many are already doing so. However, companies should also think more about how they can integrate their parts into an overall system.
How can this succeed despite the scarcity of resources, particularly when it comes to skilled workers?
The extreme shortage of skilled workers is a real dilemma right now. At the same time, many young people are worried about the future. With the all-electric society, we can demonstrate that technology is the key to effecting change and solving numerous problems. If we show young people how meaningful these efforts are, we have a tremendous chance to win them for the cause.
How do companies benefit?
Companies that take this route will be more successful, and so will economies that adapt to the all-electric society at an early stage. That should be a good incentive to be among the pioneers of this idea.
Roland Bent is the chief representative for international standardization at the electronics specialist Phoenix Contact. Previously, he spent many years as the company’s CTO. From 2015 to 2022, he was president of the DKE (the German Commission for Electrical, Electronic & Information Technologies of DIN and VDE). He has long advocated for a sustainable, reliable supply of energy and intelligent networks – in keeping with the vision of the all-electric society.