The future of mobility

The opportunity to power the next generation of transport is huge, and it will belong to those best able to innovate. Shell UK gathered a panel of experts to discuss where the smart money is being spent

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In 2017, the Saudi Aramco executive Yasser Mufti told the Financial Times that “the entire mobility chain” was “up for grabs”. Opportunities for disruption, he said, were unlimited.

Two years on, the disruption Mufti imagined has accelerated. Energy use is changing, and so are the types of transport people want to use. Electric cars are growing in popularity, but many millennials are less interested in driving than their forebears. Urban mobility is a complex mixture of needs that are changing fast. At the centre of all this disruption is the question of power – who is investing enough, and in the right places, to manage the switch?

A cleaner $2bn

Sinead Lynch, chair of Shell UK, observed at a Manchester conference to debate the UK’s future mobility challenges, that Shell invests up to $2bn a year globally into clean energy “making us,” said Lynch, “one of the biggest investors in clean technology.

That $2bn goes to clean energy projects with real commercial scalability. In the long term, business models for many energy players could be described as nuanced, or even provisional. Everyone in this area, it seems, is learning on the job.

Kevin Toye, advanced solutions manager at Transport for Greater Manchester, agreed that laying the groundwork for a transport revolution involved a lot of prediction. “We’re in a position of trying to plot and deploy an infrastructure,” he observed, “and to be flexible enough to meet demand.” This infrastructure, he explained, cannot be generic – it must be customised “to suit different charging requirements and different locations.”

While the resources for this kind of deployment remain limited, investment in the Manchester EV environment stretches back to 2011. “We’ve gone,” Toye adds, “to the extent of creating our own GIS [geographic information system] mapping tool, to help us be more defined about the locations and type of infrastructure we could deploy across the region.”

This involves pulling together a number of datasets, including existing power supplies and energy traffic flows, to ensure the local infrastructure can handle demand from any location.

The hydrogen alternative

While there are only around 100 hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles on the UK’s roads, hydrogen as a technology holds many advantages. Shell’s Sinead Lynch predicted that hydrogen could turn out to be an important power source for vehicles of the future.

“It’s safe”, she explained. “You can fill up a car, it takes a couple of minutes. The only thing coming out of the exhaust is water vapour, and you can drive 300 miles on that full tank.” The power giant is putting hydrogen points into some retail sites. Toye confirmed that his department, too, is looking closely at hydrogen.

Rebecca Todd, a lecturer at Manchester University’s Power Conversion Research Group, told the conference that battery prices are coming under pressure, which is likely to make electric cars more affordable. As part of Todd’s research, she checked 2014 prices against 2018 prices. “The battery price halved over that period.” In future, Todd predicted, “battery prices will continue to fall, though perhaps not at that dramatic rate.”

Power for the masses

Part of the price pressure on batteries is down to the fact that more EVs are on the road, supplying economies of scale and justifying the implementation of more grid-connected storage systems. “Almost every weekend,” Todd explained, “there’s a new multi megawatt system being installed somewhere in the UK. The sheer volume of batteries being bought”, she said, means “these costs will come down.”

Even among non-motorists there is pressure for cleaner transport. In Greater Manchester alone, 1,200 deaths a year are linked to air pollution, while congestion is thought to cost Manchester’s economy £1.3bn a year.

Alternative power sources are part of the answer to these social and commercial challenges, but communication also has a part to play. Charlotte Green, director of EV Charge UK, which develops and supplies electric vehicle charging stations, said the appetite for EV charging points in the last four years has soared. “People are more aware, but there’s a lot more to be done to promote the benefits of EVs. I come from a village – and some people still don’t know what a Tesla is.” Members of the public remain susceptible to “range anxiety” where EVs are concerned, despite newer, more affordable models offering close to 300 miles from a single charge.

Those same people may already, though they might not realise it, be using hybrid or electric vehicles when they use public transport. The patterns of use and demand may themselves be difficult to predict, but the one certainty is that the entire mobility chain is changing, and fast.

The Shell Springboard Awards

The Shell Springboard low-carbon enterprise awards, an initiative to fund UK SMEs with innovative, low-carbon business ideas, fielded eight entries at the recent semi-final.

Judge Professor David Newbery, CBE, of the University of Cambridge, said the quality and range of the proposals were deeply impressive.

“Some of the potential carbon savings are enormous,” Newbery said. “We have to take carbon out of the atmosphere – and we had two projects that proposed that, potentially on massive scales.”

The three finalists are:

BioCarbon Engineering - A drone platform for large-scale planting “which enables land restoration at 60 times the speed, at a cost five times less than current planting methods” according to the company. Revenues can also be generated through mapping and data sales to restoration and forestry management groups.

Anakata Wind Power Resources - Aerodynamic add-ons for wind turbines anywhere in the world. “Cost is based on the energy return of the hardware over a one to two-year payback period,” says the company, drawing on innovation from motorsport and aerospace.

Cambridge Photon Technology - An Organic Photovoltaics specialist that has developed a Photo Multiplier Film (PMF), increasing the capacity of PV installations. “There are several possible routes to market, selling either to PV module manufacturers or to their major suppliers of glass or encapsulant film,” says the company.