Power Play

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Its Industry in Transition, Energy Utility EON Plots Revolution From Within

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    German utilities are applying innovative approaches to energy, using companies such as SAP, Google and Samsung as role models.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The German energy industry is shifting from from a centralized to a decentralized system of energy supply.
    • The German government’s decision to phase out nuclear power and promote renewable energy has energy suppliers scrambling.
    • German utility Eon has created an internal, entrepreneurial division to foster new business ideas.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Volkswagen E Up Electric Car at a German dealership in 2013. Source DPA

 

The box that Artur Sychov has suspended from the ceiling looks unassuming.

It’s 1.20 meters (about 4 feet) long and roughly 30 centimeters deep and wide. Nevertheless, the box is just as clever as its inventor. It hangs above a parking space in an underground garage, where an ordinary fluorescent light was hanging just a few weeks ago. The new box includes a light, but it also has an additional feature, as Mr. Sychov demonstrates by unfolding a metal arm downward from inside the device.

“It’s a power outlet,” the 28-year-old explains. “If you drive an electric car, this is where you can recharge your battery.”

Electric car drivers currently have their choice of high-tech charging columns on the side of the road or complicated charging boxes for public and private parking garages. Mr. Sychov’s charging station, on the other hand, is easy to connect to the lighting system of any garage. The basic version is expected to retail for less than €1,000 ($1,340), and it’s capable of charging an electric car overnight.

In addition to being resourceful, Mr. Sychov is also quick. He founded his company, Easycharge.Me, only six months ago, and he expects to have the first small series of 100 charging devices ready for the sale by the end of the year. At that point, they’ll probably feature the logo of Germany’s largest energy conglomerate, Eon.

Right now the box isn’t just hanging in any garage, but in the underground garage at Eon headquarters. What’s more, the car attached to the charging box isn’t a small car but the Eon CEO’S Tesla. Until a year ago, Mr. Sychov worked for Eon as an electricity trader, but now he runs a startup company financed by his employer. The unusual, symbiotic relationship is an opportunity for Mr. Sychov. For Europe’s largest energy company, it’s symbolic.

The Ukrainian-born entrepreneur’s seemingly simple idea has potential, because it addresses one of the biggest problems of electromobility: the establishment of an uncomplicated, reasonably priced infrastructure for charging batteries. Until recently, however, a company like Eon would have paid little attention to the 28-year-old’s idea.

Like its competitors, RWE, Vattenfall and EnBW, Eon derives most of its profits from the operation of giant power plants that generate electricity for cities and industrial complexes. This has led the industry to structure itself around highly centralized units. But then came the nuclear disaster at Fukushima and the German government accelerated the advent of the Energiewende, a program of public subsidies to transition Germany from fossil to alternative fuels, and suddenly everyone was talking about a future-oriented, decentralized energy supply. The effect on companies such as Eon and RWE, Germany’s two largest energy companies, has been disastrous, as their profits have melted away. Eon’s market value has been cut in half, from about €100 billion in early 2011 to €52 billion today, and dividends are crumbling.

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