What it takes to achieve clean, cheap, safe mobility for everyone (part 1)

Guestblog by Roy Cobbenhagen and Lex Hoefsloot, Eindhoven University of Technology

The 2020’s will be an extremely interesting decade for the car, mobility and how we perceive the world around us. The progress of the sustainable energy generation and artificial intelligence will cause a revolution in both the energy system and the use of cars.

This two-part blogpost is a summary of a report by Roy Cobbenhagen and Lex Hoefsloot into the trends currently developing in the automotive sector and the energy sector. The focus in these blogposts is how these trends may evolve in the 2020-2030 decade. The first part will deal with energy. Here it is argued that it is possible to switch to clean energy. We will also show what its challenges and its opportunities are. This is investigated together with the trends in personal mobility to paint a picture of how these two sectors will influence each other.

The second post will be about the growing intelligence in cars and how we will use cars. It will demonstrate the intricate relationship between autonomous vehicles, car sharing and ride sharing. It will also focus on the true challenges behind the introduction of the autonomous car.

Part 1: Clean Energy and Mobility

We are at the verge of a huge step forward as humanity as we are increasing the intelligence in technology and thereby its ability to help us boost our productivity and improve our wellbeing. To make this step even more remarkable, this step forward is accompanied with a switch to our ‘own’ means of energy generation (technology harvests energy directly from sunlight) instead of depending on what fuel nature gives us. We will be reducing our dependency on nature to make sure we can keep this standard of living for thousands of years. Growing food, making drinking water, combatting disease, increasing mobility and connectivity will benefit hugely from cheap renewable energy and cheap artificial intelligence.

Now back to the car. By giving the car more access to these two resources, the car will overcome many of its current problems. Because many of these developments are focused specifically on cars (electrification and autonomous driving), it will give cars a competitive advantage over other forms of transport. Electrification can make cars incredibly cheap to drive and automation will make mobility more accessible than ever. That’s why it is the car’s golden decade, the decade of individual transportation. This article will reason why that will happen.

Grand opportunity 1: Solar Energy will dominate before 2030

We found that from all energy sources, solar energy will play a dominant role in the upcoming 15 years with wind energy as support to solar energy.

By 2030, it is possible to not only match the entire electricity need, but the entire energy need of the Netherlands. The only other energy source that may trump this is nuclear fusion, but the prognosis is that this will not be ready before 2030.

There are problems with the fluctuating behavior of solar (and wind) energy.

Day and night buffering can be solved all throughout the world using batteries. But seasonal buffering can be difficult in countries far away from the equator as 1) there is less solar energy, 2) the solar energy is unevenly distributed between summer and winter and 3) the energy demand is higher in the winter due to heating. The conditions in the Netherlands are among the worst to make the transition to renewables due to the high latitude, high people density and high level of welfare (thus high energy consumption). The majority of people in the world will face fewer problems since most live closer to the equator. The buffer requirements are less stringent and in most cases there is abundant space for renewables. This combined with plenty of solar irradiance ensures that renewables could support a growing population because this will primarily occur in these countries near the equator: in Asia and Africa. Seasonal buffering is much less of an issue here and solar energy will be the best way to provide the energy.


Grand opportunity 2: The world switches to electricity

Electricity can be used much more efficiently to heat, cool or move than fuels.

Electric motors are 90% efficient compared to 25% efficient internal combustion engines and heat pumps have an energy consumption that is about 3 to 4 times lower than that of burning fuel. However, the main problem of electricity is its low density in production, distribution and storage. Each of these stages require relatively large volumes and areas compared to the use of liquid fuels. For instance, production requires large areas of wind or solar energy, distribution requires very thick cables (~ 10 times thicker than their fuel pipeline counterparts) and storage requires large and heavy batteries. Fortunately, clever solutions are being introduced to tackle these problems. High power distribution cables can be avoided by decentralized energy generation. To facilitate decentralized energy generation, battery technology is rapidly advancing and renewable energy sources (as solar energy) are becoming more efficient. This enables home owners to install their own reliable energy generation system, combining seasonal and daily buffering with solar energy on the roof. It is expected that such a system will be profitable in northern Europe from 2018 onwards since solar panels and battery prices will keep declining.


This progress and the necessity to transition away from oil makes the world finally capitalize on the potential of using electricity as main energy carrier.

The advantage of switching to a sustainable energy source like the sun is that the term sustainable can be (within some degree) translated to ‘abundant’. Since price is usually coupled to scarcity, the opposite of abundant, renewable energy sources will likely become cheap. There are of course some constraints that can cause scarcity like 1) ground area to put solar panels and wind farms, 2) production costs and 3) material scarcity. Expectations are that these constraints will not play an important role in the near future. 1) The Netherlands (almost a worst case scenario for solar energy) has enough ground area to support its dense population needing only 6% of its surface. Filling the designated wind-farm areas in the North Sea with solar panels is sufficient to cover the entire Dutch energy demand (see table). These numbers will probably even decrease as buffering and solar energy will be more efficient in the near future. 2) Production costs of solar panels have been steadily declining since the 1980s and will keep doing that by introduction of new ways of manufacturing (printing, growing of panels) and installing (large pre-fab modules, rolling out flexible panels, integrating them in roof tiles and walls). What sets sustainable energy sources like solar power apart from traditional fuels is that they are a technology rather than a resource. 3) Research done by MIT[1] shows that enough material is available to cover the world’s energy supply with silicon solar panels.


Area [km2] Percentage of total area
How much area is needed for a

100% renewable energy supply?

Only solar (17% efficiency) 2539 6,2%
Only wind 32102 77,2%
Total area 41543 100%
Usable rooftops of built environment[2] 400 0,96%
Parking places [3] 111 0,26%
Agricultural land 22644 54,51%
IJsselmeer 1100 2,65%
Markermeer 700 1,69%
Waddenzee 2400 5,78%
Total water 7478 18%
Windfarm IJmuiden Ver[4] 1170 2,82%
Windfarm Hollandse kust4 1225


Grand opportunity 3: Using cheap solar energy requires enormous storage capacity to compensate fluctuations.

Solar energy will soon become the cheapest source of energy available, even in cloudy northern countries.

Solar panels have been following an exponential decrease in price since the 1980s and are reaching grid parity (prices equal to electricity grid prices) in the coming few years. It is possible that solar energy will cost only a few cents per kWh in 2030. Wind power will also become exponentially cheaper but its price trend is far less steep compared to solar. Since solar energy is not a continuous power source, both seasonal as well as daily buffering will be needed to capitalize on this ‘cheap energy source’.

Seasonal buffering is difficult (mainly needed in northern Europe)

Seasonal buffering means storing solar energy in the summer so it can be used in the winter. These are actually huge amounts of energy (>1000 kWh per household), and will therefore require a dense and cheap form of energy storage. Batteries of this enormous size will probably be too expensive the coming decades. Hydropower (using lakes to store energy) is not energy dense enough to store this amount of energy, as the entire area of the  country would be needed! Hydrogen storage is very difficult because the small hydrogen atoms diffuse through almost any tank.

Seasonal storage will therefore need to be done using hydrocarbons (gas, petrol, diesel) or ammonia.

The conversion from electricity to these fuels is quite inefficient at this moment, with about 60 to 70% of the energy lost in the storage process. However, very low solar energy prices make up for these losses. This makes it still lucrative to invest in these buffers. The potential and size of the energy sector make both batteries and electricity to fuel conversion a very attractive market.

Daily buffering can be done in batteries since the amount of energy that needs to be buffered is considerably smaller.

Very efficient liquid buffers however (>80%) could however make batteries unnecessary.

Grand opportunity 4: Decentralized power generation will be cheaper

The electricity grid will lose its importance if production, storage and usage of renewable energy can be done locally at the same prices as centrally.

This seems to be the case in the near future. Buffers and solar panels at home will reduce the stress on the electricity grid and therefore reduce the costs of the grid. The consumer has a strong incentive to ‘go off the grid’, since they pay about 6 eurocents per kWh (The Netherlands) for the upholding of the grid.

Another incentive for decentralization are the increasing power demands on the grid at neighborhood level.

Electric cars withdraw high amounts of energy in a short period of time. Home buffers can relieve the strain on the grid by providing energy for the charging electric cars.

Households will use more electricity besides charging cars. The energy consumption will go down by electrification, but the electricity demand will therefore go up.

Grand opportunity 5: By 2020, almost all cars sold will be electric and carbon fiber will begin its large scale introduction

Electric cars use their energy more efficiently than fuel cars and are therefore cheaper to drive. Considering that the world will switch to mainly solar PV, electric cars require only a small area of solar panels compared to the size needed by inefficient energy carriers like hydrogen, petrol and artificially produced fuels. They therefore have the highest so-called ‘sun-to-wheel’ efficiency. The electric cars’ main problem today (range) will be solved before 2020. Exponentially decreasing battery price trends indicate that by 2020 electric cars will have a 400 km range for the same affordable price as its combustion counterparts.

1. Massive shift to electric cars around 2020

Since the powertrain of the electric car is superior to that of an internal combustion engine on almost all fronts (such as efficiency, performance, comfort, noise and sustainability), fixing the last hurdles (price and range) will cause a massive shift to electric cars.


2. Electric cars will be very cheap

Electric cars will continue to get cheaper after 2020 because of its simple mechanics (less components = less complexity). Batteries will become smaller in size but also in capacity, as developments in electric cars will continue to focus on lower energy consumption.

3. Energy consumption of cars will decrease with the introduction of carbon fiber

The energy consumption will decrease mainly because of the introduction of carbon fiber. Prices of CFRP (carbon fiber reinforced plastics) have been declining even faster than batteries and can result in a car’s weight reduction of 30 to 50%. It will also lead to a downwards positive spiral since the components of a light car require smaller load requirements: if the car gets lighter, then the motor and brakes can be smaller and therefore lighter, which makes the car lighter, etc. In other words, at a certain point it becomes cheaper to invest in carbon fiber for cars instead of more battery capacity. Both help to increase the range and after 2020 it will be cheaper to use carbon fiber to do so.

4. Driving speeds can increase because of increased vehicle safety and cheaper energy (electricity).

Vehicle to vehicle communication can drastically improve the safety and stability of strings of cars which can enable cars to drive faster and closer to each other. Driving faster will require cars to be more aerodynamic to keep energy consumption low and therefore range high, since aerodynamic drag is proportional to the square of driving speed.

5. Challenge: business case for charging points is difficult

The business case for car chargers will get worse when more practicality is desired. More practicality means that you can leave your car at the charging point the whole (working) day. This means every car will need a separate charging point instead of the multiple cars per charger as we are currently used to. Current business cases are focused on relatively low numbers of EVs on the road. Eventually we would like to get rid of the gasoline car and have a 100% EV fleet in the world. The current business cases generally do not hold for high numbers of electric cars and the quest is therefore to find a sustainable business case for high volumes of EVs.

6. Challenge: the grid cannot cope with a high number of charging electric cars

The country as a whole can cope with the electricity demand of all the electric cars charging. But one charging electric car can use as much power as 240 households (Tesla Supercharging) and the grid at street level was not designed for this. Even slowly charging multiple cars in one street is problematic. The biggest problems are at the outskirts of the electricity grid since the variability of the electricity demand is large at street and house level (unexpected charging of multiple cars at once).

Grand opportunity 6: Solar cars become viable and most attractive option to tackle the challenges of the electricity grid

Increasing performance of batteries, solar panels and lightweight materials are making solar cars more attractive every year.

Energy positive prototype cars that generate more energy than they consume over a year, have been developed and can now drive up to 350 kilometers a day on only the solar energy they generate that day (way more than the average use of a car). The fact that it is possible to have a car that produces more energy a year than it uses is not only good from a sustainable point of view, but it also reduces the costs for the user. In fact, it makes the user a profit if the excess energy is stored into the grid.

The solar panel helps to generate more range but more importantly, it increases practicality. A solar car has to be charged by the user only a very few times in its lifetime, but this is even most likely not necessary! In the vast majority of days, the sun provides enough energy and the car is always ready to make a long trip. This is a huge turnaround in mobility as transportation devices have always needed the user to replenish the energy. Whether that was a horse in need of hay, a train in need of coal, a combustion car in need of gasoline or an EV in need of electricity. Not having to worry about recharging/refueling gives the user much more freedom and peace of mind. One could argue that, from a product design point of view, this is what mobility needed.

Due to its long range and self-charging, the solar makes a very good car for car sharing. EV car sharing is currently difficult due to the fact that they have to be charged. This can take more than an hour in which the car could have potentially served more customers. Thus more people can be served with less cars when they are solar powered. Another advantage is that due to the free energy, the costs per kilometer driven are also very low. This makes the solar car the cheapest shared car (even if the purchase price were to be higher than that of a regular EV, but estimates show that it will be only marginally higher).

In addition to practicality, aerodynamic and light-weight solar cars have a triple advantage in usage cost.

While aerodynamics and light-weight design decrease the energy use of the car itself, the solar panel on the car eliminates the need for an inefficient electricity grid and therefore provides a cheaper form of solar energy than the energy that can be extracted from the grid. It also eliminates the need for expensive buffers, chargers and electricity cables since all of these systems are integrated into the car. Where the energy production, distribution and use where initially kilometers apart, they are now contained in a small ‘box’ within the car.


Bigger picture: The energy chain will start with electricity instead of fuels.  Light transport will benefit hugely from energy transition

Whereas electricity is mostly a derivative of fuel at the moment (coal, gas or oil converted to electricity) it is likely that fuel will be a derivative of electricity in the future. Because of low electricity prices, fuel can be generated at lower prices than it can be extracted from the ground. However, because of the efficiency that is lost in the conversion process, liquid fuels will be more expensive per kWh of energy than electricity. That’s the opposite of what it is today.

An important implication of this is that vehicles that can directly utilize electricity without the need for (liquid) fuels will have huge cost advantages. In other words, vehicles that can be equipped with battery will benefit the most from the energy transition. At the moment, heavy vehicles like trucks, ships and planes cannot yet be equipped with large enough batteries to meet their demands. Suppose this situation will continue in the near future, these heavy forms of transport will have a relative disadvantage compared to lightweight transport. This means that driving a car might be a lot cheaper in the future than a trip by airplane.

[1] http://pubs.rsc.org/en/Content/ArticleLanding/2015/EE/c4ee04073b#!divAbstract

[2] http://www.dnv.nl/Binaries/14-1932%20DNV%20GL%20%20PBL%20-%20PV%20Potentieelstudie_final%20(3)_tcm141-611298.pdf

[3] http://publicaties.minienm.nl/download-bijlage/5083/parkeren-in-nederland-408903.pdf

[4] http://www.rijksoverheid.nl/nieuws/2013/12/20/kabinet-wijst-nieuwe-gebieden-aan-voor-windparken-op-zee.html

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