Highly regarded battery storage firm sonnen was one of the big winners of the 2017 Zayed Future Energy Prize, winning in the Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) category. I interviewed sonnen CEO and co-founder Christoph Ostermann in January just after the company won the prize. It was a fun interview because of how futuristic sonnen’s vision is and also because of Mr Ostermann’s clear propensity for fun.
One phrase from the interview stood out more than the others, though: sonnen’s aim is to become the utility of the future. It slipped into the market providing “simple” battery storage systems for consumers, but it has evolved its offerings in broader and deeper directions. Its work now is focused on creating “virtual power stations” by connecting energy storage systems, renewable energy power plants, and consumers to allow prosumers to buy and sell electricity among each other.
Knowing that sonnen and Tesla had traded top personnel back and forth a bit, I was curious to find out what Mr. Ostermann thought was so appealing to certain battery experts at Tesla that pulled them to sonnen. He first focused his answer on “company culture.” He added that it may be about the business model, saying that sonnen doesn’t want to just be a hardware manufacturer — “the Powerwall is at the moment just a piece of hardware, hardware that is, by the way, commoditizing very fast.” sonnen’s aim is to provide energy services, to provide customers with clean and affordable energy.
In case you didn’t catch it by now, after I brought up leading energy storage software and management firms Younicos and Stem, Mr Ostermann distinguished that sonnen is focused on the residential level — whereas Younicos and STEM are focused on large commercial-scale or utility-scale business. He highlighted, “we think the energy transition — which is … some kind of modern revolution — has to start with individuals.” Certainly, energy democratization and grassroots energy revolution is something CleanTechnica is all about.
I asked about sonnen’s global expansion plans, and dug in a bit on the US market since it’s so diverse. One interesting thing to learn was that sonnen surprisingly discovered the US market beyond California and Hawaii had much more potential than people seem to indicate. In states from Utah to Nebraska to Florida, sonnen was finding there was plenty of room to get a foot in the door.
One final topic I explore with Christoph was how sonnen is working to advance and capitalize on the electric vehicle revolution. He said they’re already working on that to explore vehicle-to-home (V2H) options, but the main bottleneck for that right now seems to be how comfortable automakers are with the idea since that degrades the EV batteries to some extent (extra cycling — charging and discharging) and there are still a lot of question marks on battery longevity, degradation, value, and pricing. Notably, Tesla CTO JB Straubel has said that they don’t see regularly sending electricity from EV batteries to homes or the grid (V2G) as a practical option anytime soon, if ever. However, “smart charging” that is responsive to changes in electricity supply and demand is definitely something they are moving forward on — it’s not difficult or harmful for EVs to charge in periods of low demand and stop charging in periods of high electricity demand, and for customers to be compensated for allowing the flexibility.
My last question was about what cities could do to advance energy storage awareness and adoption. Not a fan of subsidies and not feeling a need for them, he encouraged the creation of technology demonstration houses, events, etc.