The electricity maverick
Ex-Tesla boss Philipp Schröder is calling for a revolution. With intelligent storage technology for solar energy, his company ‘sonnen’ has become the world’s largest manufacturer of energy storage systems. His goal? To place enormous pressure on energy prices and to oust the dinosaurs of the energy industry.
Philipp Schröder, fossil fuels vs. renewable energy sources, corporation vs. startup: it seems we are in the midst of the War of Currents 2.0. Who will win this time?
There used to be just a few major central power stations that would generate electricity for hundreds of thousands of people. We all thought it would be like this forever. But suddenly there are 1.6 million photovoltaic systems in Germany also generating electricity. They do not belong to the corporations; they are primarily owned by citizens. So the number of ‘prosumers’ – producers and consumers in one – is increasing. Now is the time to create an intelligent network and establish a completely new energy system. This is what we are doing and we are very confident.
But electricity flows so nicely out of the power outlet. Why is a revolution of electricity even necessary?
Because people now care where their electricity comes from. They want clean, affordable energy and no nuclear power plants. If you generate your own electricity, you develop a completely new awareness of it. This shows that even decades-long habits can be broken with the right concept.
What should the major electricity providers fear most: the innovative strength behind the idea, the clout of a startup or the temerity of Philipp Schröder?
Even though it would be nice, the temerity of Philipp Schröder is probably the least of the major electricity providers’ worries. But on a serious note: we do not have our own expensive power plants – our customers contribute these themselves, we just network them. We are an energy producer without our own power plants, if you like. In the same way that AirBnB is a hotel without its own hotel rooms. If you need proof that we are innovative, look no further than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They included us in their list of the 50 Smartest Companies 2016 alongside Amazon, Facebook and Tesla.
Revolutionising mobility with Tesla or the electricity market with sonnen – which one is more difficult?
Both companies are fighting for the same thing: the rejection of an outdated, dirty technology in favour of a modern and clean one. There are decades-old structures and mindsets in both fields. Changing either is very difficult, especially in the beginning. Every mistake is seen as proof that it cannot work. But if enough people participate, it can accelerate the process. This is the same in both markets.
Which is the stronger driving force behind the fundamental change in the energy market: new technologies or new business ideas?
New business models are needed for new technologies. Until 2015, sonnen was ‘just’ the world’s largest manufacturer of energy storage systems. The unique business model was that we consumed this energy ourselves. Now we are also the largest energy-sharing platform with many completely new services beyond our own consumption. This is the only way we can continue to grow and help to change the energy market.
What has Philipp Schröder learned from Elon Musk? And what could Elon Musk learn from Philipp Schröder?
I don't want to unduly claim that Elon could learn something from me. I learned so much in my time with Tesla, and of course from the man himself. But one thing has proven to be well-founded time and time again: if you want something more than the others, then you can achieve it.
You are in your early 30s. Where do you get the energy to turn the energy market upside down?
I started at a young age. At 24, I had founded my first renewable energy company. But it’s actually pretty simple: you need to feel confident and want to change the world.
sonnen produces batteries that homeowners can use to store the energy that their photovoltaic system generates. Customers share their excess energy with others via the sonnenCommunity. More than 100,000 people have received an electricity supply in this way. Philipp Schröder, ex-head of operations in Germany for US electric carmaker Tesla, is responsible for the global expansion of sonnen in Germany, Italy, the UK, Australia and the USA.