From Walkmans to PlayStations to open energy systems: Sony’s leap into the utility of the future

From Walkmans to PlayStations to open energy systems: Sony’s leap into the utility of the future

Last week, Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Japan brought together 15 energy leaders from 10 countries to share, explore and advance the organization’s new open energy system concept. The diverse group included entrepreneurs, thought leaders on design and business strategy, marketers and utility executives.

Sony kicked the symposium into high gear with extremely inspiring video footage: a five-minute documentary about Sony teams that travelled to villages in Ghana with simple deployable solar equipment, batteries, wiring and projectors to put together direct current (DC) power systems for screenings of the FIFA World Cup. The footage included incredibly powerful and emotional visuals of wide-eyed children gathered together, watching and celebrating each goal with pure joy, excitement and awe. Their cheers put sports stadiums around the world to shame.

The film also showed the Sony teams deploying single light bulbs in homes that were previously without electricity. The images of light shining over schoolbooks and parents reading to their children demonstrated the true power of electricity. As the video ended I looked around the room to confirm that I wasn’t the only one with watery eyes. The video was followed by a timely message from our host: “We brought all of you here to help us change the world.” It was a statement that would have seemed silly and absurd only five minutes earlier.

The symposium took place in Okinawa, where Japan has invested heavily in building the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST), a world-leading graduate school. Sony Computer Science Laboratories jumped on board with the plan and has recently commissioned its first DC-powered micro-grid. Sony has equipped the on-campus homes of 19 OIST faculty members with solar panels and lithium ion batteries. The residences are three-bedroom North American–style homes with all of the bells and whistles; they would make Thomas Edison proud. The homes are wired together with a buried 350-volt DC power line. If one home’s battery reserve drops to 30%, one or more of the 18 neighbouring homes that are at 70% capacity start sharing their power—the energy deals are automatically negotiated by the system controllers. It’s a brilliant low-cost, zero-emissions peer-to-peer community energy system that does not put limitations or restrictions on the amount of energy used by each residence.

Sony solar panels
Sony has equipped the on-campus homes of 19 OIST faculty members with solar panels and lithium ion batteries.

In the late 1880s, Thomas Edison fought Westinghouse on the merits of DC versus alternating current (AC) power. For the past hundred years, AC power has powered homes around the world. However, if we could rebuild our infrastructure from scratch we could create cleaner and more efficient systems with DC power, and Sony is now showing us how.

DC power’s downfall is that it is challenging to transport it over long distances. However, the advent of distributed generation has eliminated that barrier. We could also improve the efficiency and lower the cost of 90% of our in-home energy-consuming devices—TVs, computers and mobile phones all require DC power—by removing the AC to DC conversion step that is built into these devices or their charging cords. We could also eliminate at least 20% of the cost of typical solar power installations by eliminating the need for a DC to AC inverter, and improve efficiency and reliability at the same time.

Shifts in the ways that we produce and use power have led Sony to veer away from Westinghouse’s path of AC power. The company recognizes that what may have made sense in the late 1880s may not make sense now in either the developing or developed worlds.

  • Energy consumers in the developed world may be ready to embrace the sharing mentality we see happening in other sectors (take Uber and Airbnb, for example).
  • In the developing world, simple solar-powered low-voltage DC systems are all that is needed for households that want only a couple of LED lights, a TV and a fan. With a $50 initial hookup fee and a cost of $5 per month, a 50-watt connection with prepaid smart meter–enabled technology works. Three-kilowatt systems that can power 50 homes at a time are now being deployed in Bangladesh.

Sony’s open energy systems strategy is one way to add flexibility to infrastructure. The company sees the ongoing developments around smart grids as too focused on improving the efficiency of centralized grid systems. Its open energy systems approach strives to do much more: Sony wants to enable a simple and reliable two-way flow of energy with multiple, distributed and modular subsystems. The company believes that Amory Lovins, co-founder and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, was on to something over 30 years ago with his concept of soft energy paths, and it has shown that the concept is technically feasible and practical.

Sony’s dramatic leap into new areas of business comes with increased pressure from competition and a significant decline in the use of the company’s conventional product lines. Televisions now compete with Facebook, YouTube and other uses of people’s screen time. Sony Computer Science Laboratories was set up to explore new cutting-edge research that could lead to completely new products and business lines. When touring the lab in Tokyo I saw that the pioneering project on DC micro-grids was only one of these leap projects. The Sony team is also exploring virtual reality games that combine Lego with the PlayStation platform; prosthetic limbs for both super athletic capabilities and low-cost solutions for the developing world; and the future of agriculture.

Sony is on the leading edge of some big paradigm shifts. The possibilities of generating and distributing electricity to one another makes for a diverse, dynamic and extremely exciting future for electricity in both the developed and developing worlds.

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