Why an ex-Tesla VP has turned to storage, blockchain and Virtual Power Plants to 'save the planet'
Last month a UK start-up announced that ex-Tesla vice president Ben Hill was joining their team. Here, edie discovers why he has swapped the world of mobility to embark on a vision to transition the world to 100% renewable energy.
Changing jobs is never easy. There’s an air of uncertainty involved in upping sticks that people either dread or revel in. However, moving from one of the most disruptive and recognisable companies in the world to a UK start-up focusing on innovations yet to embed themselves as mainstream solutions requires an immense knowledge of a particular field and extreme confidence in the new opportunity.
In September 2018, Tesla’s former vice president of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Ben Hill, was announced as the new commercial and technical advisor to Solo Energy, a fledgling company aiming to assist the global transition to 100% renewable energy through the creation of Virtual Power Plants (VPP) - cloud-based distributed power plants that enhance power generation and trading.
Hill is joining Solo Energy to help the company establish routes to market for emerging technologies that can combine small-scale battery installations and vehicle-to-grid (V2G) charging infrastructure at homes and offices and combine then with blockchain-enabled VPPs that can balance demand for renewable energy. Storage is viewed as a key enabler to integrate more renewables onto the grid, while VPPs are set to create decentralised energy markets that encourage communities to invest in solar or wind projects.
In his role as Tesla VP of EMEA, he founded and ran Tesla Energy across the EMEA region. Hill, a graduate of the IESE Business School, has acted as an integral part of a company that has evolved from electric vehicle (EV) disruptors to an established driving force across the areas of mobility and low-carbon energy.
Hill spent two years as Tesla’s VP of EMEA between 2015 and 2017, where his remit was to “save the planet”. But as the US company surges ahead with a “masterplan” that delivers a "sustainable energy economy", Hill has moved his focus to the transformational technologies on the cusp of wide-scale rollouts that could accelerate the transition to this envisioned economy.
“Save the planet, that was the actual remit I was given,” Hill tells edie. “The mission of Tesla is quite high-level and everyone who works their buys into the sustainability and the ‘make the world a better place’ mentality. The owners of Solo Energy have the same mentality and drive to want to change things.
“The things that Solo Energy is working on – blockchain and VPPs – these aren’t at Tesla yet. But the boat is moving now, and you need to jump on it. Distributed energy is something I very much believe in, and it’s happening now and today. I wanted to be involved in something where I was able to fully dedicate time and resource.”
Hill has immersed himself in the world of renewable energy. Previous roles as Trina Solar’s global commercial operations and running BP’s European Solar business has equipped him with the knowledge and expertise to identify and act on exciting new innovations.
His passion for solar energy came from his father, an academic that Hill describes as “one of the leaders in the solar world”. Hill has gone from playing with solar cells when he was three years old, to exploring new technologies that can enhance the efficiency of renewables further, starting his own solar company at 16 years old along the way.
“These technologies are things that he would’ve dreamed about,” Hill notes. “When my father started out in solar in the early 70s not many thought it would be a reliable energy source, now look where we are. You don’t need to be a small cog in a big wheel, just get out there and make a difference which is what Tesla and Solo want to do.”
Solo Energy’s offering is exciting, if unproven. It combines technologies that are likely to act as the cornerstones of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in relation to energy; utilising small-scale batteries and EVs as distributed energy storage systems to store excess renewable generation sourced from nearby wind and solar farms.
Solo’s FlexiGrid software can control these systems, creating a VPP that structures and shapes demand for stored renewable energy. Finally, blockchain technology is used to create a “peer-to-peer energy trading economy” that enables consumers to share renewable energy across the grid, while ideally generating economic returns.
The company has also appointed former RWE boss Julia Lynch Williams - who helped create and support new businesses through RWE's Innogy incubator - as its chair.
The technologies are exciting, but in a business world where leaps of faith are hard to come by, concerns remain as to what role VPPs, blockchain and even storage can have in decarbonising grids and enhancing sustainability efforts.
Hill believes these technologies are ready to cause disruption in the energy sphere that enables decentralised energy storage and trading to become commonplace. But with the company’s vision being to kickstart the “transition to 100% renewables as quickly as possible”, Hill notes the importance of pilot projects and enabling regulation.
“The transition is happening very quickly,” Hill says. “Government policy changing on a regular basis can scare people, but it’s changing in the right direction towards access to clean energy. It’s the role of companies like Tesla and Solo to make that happen.
“The understanding of what’s possible and doing pilots before taking the bigger plunge is happening a lot right now. I think people want to see the results and are buying batteries, which is wonderful. Then the whole industry can move forward.”
While EVs have strengthened their position in the mobility market in recent times, the storage and blockchain markets are still largely looking to the horizon. While only a handful of consumer-facing businesses are actively using storage for energy efficiency measures, the global market for battery storage is predicted to double six times by 2030.
As for blockchain - which creates a verifiable and irrefutable audit trail of transactions – the market for this technology is expected to reach £5bn in the UK by 2030. However, there is still a lack of clarity and understanding of the technology.
Instead of examining the processes, Hill believes that businesses should be looking at the transformational impact that these technologies can have on profits and costs. Fortunately, nations and businesses alike have already proved that decoupling emissions from economic growth is achievable, paving the way for these markets to lower costs.
“Ultimately this all comes down to money. There are businesses that want to make a statement on being low-carbon, but [purchasing renewable energy] is now one of the lowest-cost ways of doing so,” Hill adds. “They’re driving the costs down and making the system much more competitive.”
Solo Energy’s own offering attracted its first energy supplier partner last month. UK-based Our Power has agreed to partner on the rollout of battery storage units that will make up the first VPP through an asset-backed Security Token Offering. Hill notes that the UK market is mature enough for Solo’s 100% renewable grid vision, but that the ambition is to take it global.
As of 2015, the world obtained 17.5% of its total final energy consumption from renewable sources, of which 9.6% represents modern forms of renewable energy and the remainder is accounted for by traditional biomass. Based on current policies, the global renewable share across all end-uses is expected to reach just 21% by 2030, meaning that Solo’s hunger for its vision will likely need to be replicated across the market.
Energy storage can overcome the intermittency of renewables and increase uptake across the globe, while blockchain can facilitate decentralised VPPs that create prosumers of energy. As saving the world is the name of Hill's game, part of his focus will always be on the horizon.
“The way we use and generate energy is changing fundamentally, it’s really exciting times,” Hill adds. “There’s a lot of visions and wants and numbers we have internally for our plans. with my Tesla and Elon Musk training, I keep bringing in some challenges and we talk about executing them. Nothing’s off the table.”