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DC not AC. Electricity not petrol. Regional not central. According to Frank Steinbacher, the energy system is facing an imminent and radical change. With his company eLoaded he supports energy projects in Europe.
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Few will disagree with the hypothesis that the mobility industry is undergoing a sustained period of change. But opinions differ sharply on exactly how this movement will look tomorrow and beyond. A few things, however, seem at least to be likely. User data will play a significant role, the mobility of the future will be much more modular and decentralised and electrification will be essential.
There is now a new focus for rural areas. Commuters used to travel from home to office door in their (petrol-driven) cars. But this could all change: drive in an electric car to a nearby energy or mobility hub, park the car at an automated car park and then transfer to an electrified shuttle train or bus into the city centre. The benefits include comfort, reduced environmental impact, efficiency and cost. This, or something similar, is how Frank Steinbacher envisages tomorrow’s transport system. As the founder of Innsbruck-based company eLoaded, this vision is not just a dream for him; it is the essential requirement for the success of his company. eLoaded supports and implements projects all across Europe. These are all concerned with questions of energy, energy storage, energy utilisation and mobility in “energy hubs” – from small companies up to entire neighbourhoods. The most well known example is located in the Bavarian town of Zusmarshausen. There the largest fast charging station for electric cars and a new roughly 160,000 m² self-governing energy hub is under construction in the Sortimo Innovation Park. When complete, there will be 144 charging stations available for public use, which will legally be able to supply up to 4000 electric cars.
... studied civil engineering at the Technical University of Munich, following it with a doctorate at the University of Innsbruck. Born in Augsburg, he is managing director and shareholder of three companies: the water surveying company AirborneHydroMapping, his parents’ engineering consultancy Steinbacher-Consult and eLoaded, the energy specialist.
But the problem is that only around 83,000 electric cars are licensed in the whole of Germany. Supply thus greatly exceeds demand. By way of comparison, in 2019 there were some 47 million cars throughout Germany and around 14,400 filling stations. Steinbacher does not see this as a problem; he is convinced that the technology will catch up. The real challenge is much bigger than that. eLoaded is not only banking on electrification of the mobility industry, but on a revolution across the entire conventional energy supply. While the European energy supply is to a large extent based on the concept of alternating current (AC), this is not viable for the digital future: “The conventional world of alternating current is no longer working for our future conditions.” This is because all digitally-controlled consumer devices - from smartphones to the production machinery in a factory - use direct current (DC). Add to this the electrification of the mobility industry and the shift from fossil to renewable energy sources.
Managing all this with a 12-person team from Innsbruck is impossible, and not only on paper. But Steinbacher has one advantage: his parents’ company, Steinbacher-Consult, where he is both managing director and shareholder in addition to his role at eLoaded. Based in Augsburg, the engineering consultancy Steinbacher-Consult employs over 300 people. Anything related to project planning and structural implementation that becomes too large for eLoaded in terms of services or project size is carried forward in conjunction with Steinbacher-Consult. “With Steinbacher-Consult we plan and construct energy, mobility, traffic and room concepts.” Customers include Deutsche Bahn and Highways Agencies, but commercial businesses are now being added to the mix. In addition to production, these companies are needing to redevelop their “hub” as part of the energy and mobility revolution, which includes the effects of future carbon pricing as well as energy consumption. “We can offer an end-to-end service, from concept creation to planning, from the transport infrastructure to electronics and from the provision of energy to the software, all in order to guide and move the user forward.
“Actually Frank Steinbacher was “only” intending to take over his parents’ company. “It is a medium-sized engineering consultancy employing over 300 people.” Originally Steinbacher was on the right track. Having grown up in Augsburg, on leaving school he went to Munich to study civil engineering at the Technical University. He majored in hydraulic engineering and particularly the topic of hydropower. However, his professor insisted that Steinbacher follow his first degree with a PhD, rather than immediately going to work at Steinbacher-Consult. With his supervisor, he then moved to Innsbruck for his doctorate where he became increasingly interested in the subject of measurement optics. “At that time, around 15 years ago, we developed an optical measuring device with an industrial partner. This device is able to survey bodies of water from the air.” The project went well and we intended to take it forward when the research work was complete. “But we couldn’t find a business partner. So we founded our own company.” 2010 saw the birth of the company AirborneHydroMapping (AHM) in Innsbruck. “With our aircraft and the associated measuring equipment we are not only able to survey surfaces from the air; we can also measure water depths.”
And there was a lot of demand. Today the European market leader surveys lakes and coasts from Scandinavia to North Africa and from France to Poland.
People who live in regions with a poor energy supply will be disadvantaged in the future.
But the scalable aspect of the activity was not the survey work. It was the software running in the background. This is because geodata creates vast amounts of data that cannot be processed using conventional systems. “We have actually become the only player in the field of bulk processing for geological data, regardless of the type and volume of data. This has become an important business area. We are in demand from Japan to the USA, where there is already much greater focus on the handling of data.” Eventually the three strands – energy solutions, data processing and engineering consultancy – came together. Steinbacher had arrived in the area of power electronics.
“The question we asked ourselves was how to control and administer energy as efficiently as possible and to make it usable for as many independent consumers as possible. The topic of e-mobility is just one aspect of this.” As a company and technology expert, particularly in the area of DC supply, eLoaded analyses projects in the broadest sense concerning energy production, storage or provision in the fields of production, heat and mobility. Energy is always linked to infrastructure planning, so the engineering services are taken forward in conjunction with Steinbacher-Consult. If there is bulk data to be processed and software services are needed, then the team of developers from AirborneHydroMapping helps with the infrastructure projects. The Innsbruck-based planning consultancy, which was founded in 2018, currently generates around 1 million Euros of sales. “We want to multiply that by ten over the next few years.” Steinbacher also says, “We no longer want to think in the AC world. We are moving to the DC world.” This migration alone should allow us to increase energy efficiency by 20-25%. Steinbacher regards e-mobility as a “massive wave” coming towards us. “This is increasing the significance of energy since we would rather spend money on mobility than on other processes.”
For Steinbacher the change is even more radical, however. While the conventional energy supply system is centralised, the future will work more on a decentralised and regional basis as renewable energy plays a more important role. For this reason, Steinbacher doesn’t like to discuss individual projects; the expression always on his lips is “energy hubs”. Even the fast charging point is for Steinbacher simply one aspect of an overall innovation park that should add value to the region. According to eLoaded’s founder, a reliable and safe energy supply will be one factor that determines the attractiveness of a location in the future, and will thus help the revitalisation of rural regions. “In the future, electrification will be just like an Internet connection. Anyone who lives in a region without reasonable access to energy sources will be at a disadvantage.”
Steinbacher only partly agrees that he is taking a large risk with eLoaded. “In this respect, all of us are only talking about private vehicles. Only very few are thinking about public passenger transport, such as buses, trains and trams.” To practice what he preaches, Steinbacher has owned an electric car for six years and all company fleets and premises are fully electrified. But Steinbacher, who also holds a commercial pilot’s license, doesn’t want to stop there. For example, the design for the hub charging station has a landing pad for small flying objects such as drones or gyrocopters. “So in the future it will be possible to fly with the drone to the charging station and then continue from there in a rented electric car. That has been technically possible for a long time. Perhaps the wager isn’t so large after all?
Text: Klaus Fiala
Photos: Sophie Spiegelberger