Sparking an Energy Ecosystem

Illustration by Jennifer Vandersteen

In the age of intelligence, connected and sustainable living go hand in hand. We as consumers now have a greater ability to effect a positive impact on the planet as we rethink our global production and consumption behavior. Companies are making sure they give us the tools to take responsibility, too, from the pioneers of smart home systems to energy distributors who make homes more efficient while creating access to affordable renewable energy around the world. Many see sustainable development as a business opportunity.

“We design and build intelligent products that are engineered and manufactured with sustainability in mind,” says Engelina Jaspers, Flex’s VP of Corporate Marketing and Global Citizenship. Jaspers and her team oversee the company’s corporate sustainability direction. They also create Flex’s annual Global Citizenship Report. “Our aim is to grow in areas that have a potential to contribute to sustainable development, including renewable energy, connected homes, autonomous vehicles, smart agriculture, and supply chain optimization,” she says. Innovations in these industries will enable the consumer and global behavior change needed for a more sustainable future.

81% of IT decision makers agree that IoT opportunities for renewable energy solutions will have the most impact on global communities.

Meeting global demand also means rethinking the value chain. Rather than a linear approach to the supply chain, Flex and its partners are exploring something more akin to a value web. “If today’s customer is tomorrow’s competitor, and tomorrow’s competitor is a customer, then our suppliers can also be our customers,” says Scott Graybeal, Flex’s senior vice president of Energy. “These relationships are dynamic, and enlightened companies are figuring out how they can operate in this ecosystem.”

“There are several megatrends at work today that create sustainability challenges and opportunities,” says Bruce Klafter, VP of Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility at Flex. Climate change emphasizes the increasing need for access to clean water, food supplies, and health care. Such needs present immense opportunities in areas such as clean tech. Meanwhile, urbanization has prompted some countries to seek intelligent transportation and infrastructure solutions. “The opportunity for connectivity to help address those challenges is huge and the recently concluded climate negotiations in Paris reflect the urgency,” he says. Flex designs and build intelligent products that are engineered and manufactured with sustainability in mind. Illustrations: Jennifer Vandersteen Flex’s global partners are anticipating future needs as they construct intelligent infrastructure worldwide. “There will be 9.2 billion people on earth by 2050,” says Graybeal, “and a majority of that growth is actually going to come out of sub-Saharan Africa…which is going to become a larger and larger component overall of the energy demand mix.” This growing global demand exacerbates the need to connect people to each other and to natural resources.

Rolling out telecommunications in developing countries is no different. It’s why Nigeria, Africa’s largest country by GDP, moved quickly to implement a widespread 4G cellular network—to meet increasing mobile subscriber demand—instead of investing valuable time and resources into hardwiring its communities. For every 100 people in Nigeria, there are 78 mobile-phone subscribers and virtually no landline subscribers. “[Nigeria] didn’t go down the path of putting in poles and wired infrastructure,” Graybeal says. “They went down the path of the most advanced wireless network available....We can see a parallel in developing economies where similar decisions are being made for distributed generation.”

10.6 million kWh of solar power was generated at Flex facilities last year.

One example is the community solar program currently being deployed throughout Minnesota. Households can subscribe to and draw power from a local solar farm, creating an on-demand microgrid. “As costs for renewables decrease, they become a more logical choice for the infrastructure needs of developing and growing economies without the effects of pollution,” Graybeal notes.

By 2050 the International Energy Agency estimates that photovoltaic solar could generate 16% of the world’s electricity. That means that, on average, the world has to install roughly 124 gigawatts of solar every year for the next 34 years. “We’re almost on that pace now,” says Graybeal. “We’re at roughly about 50 to 60 GW installed globally. It’s not going to play out linearly; it’s going to accelerate.” It’s why Flex started looking into an acquisition that would help jump-start this energy ecosystem. Flex’s global partners are anticipating future needs as they construct intelligent infrastructure worldwide. Solar-tracking-technology company and Flex subsidiary NEXTracker offers a glimpse of all that’s possible with a new ecosystem. By providing an intelligent, cost-effective, and plug-and-play energy solution, NEXTracker modules are revolutionizing power plants and the communities they serve across the globe. Other partners such as solar micro-inverter company Enphase and distributed-energy company Varentec are also forming the synapses that create an intelligent energy ecosystem. “It’s all for the betterment of society, because you’re going to be able to hopefully create a lower-cost solution that’ll help enable the proliferation of these technologies,” Graybeal says.

Flex’s energy portfolio includes many companies that potentially fit into this web. Beyond energy, imagine how intelligent-solution areas such as transportation and agriculture could apply. The unexpected opportunities demonstrate the ability for intelligence to improve our lives, from the consumer level all the way up to global communities. “I can’t think of a single device that we have within the portfolio, with the exception of the modules themselves and even they are upgradeable, that doesn’t have communication and intelligence as part of its feature set,” Graybeal says. “That’s going to continue to accelerate and evolve. If I think about the amount of data that NEXTracker puts out every day, it’s in the terabytes. It’s lots and lots of data.”

There are several megatrends at work today that create sustainability challenges and opportunities, says Klafter.

“Today, sustainability is not just about compliance, cost, and risk reduction. It is increasingly about recognizing sustainability as a key differentiator, a competitive advantage, and a driver of new growth for our companies,” Jaspers says. “Doing so requires us to lead an effort to institutionalize sustainability thinking into our companies’ core business processes.”

From Graybeal’s purview, leading that effort starts with evolving companies’ perceptions of the value chain.

Says Graybeal: “You have to have more of an ecosystem relationship of all these different potential participants in the value chain, and try to find ways to work together and really optimize each other’s strengths and miniaturize each other’s weaknesses.”