Research vision

Rick Harwig, former director of the strategic area Energy, talks about the challenges in the preparation for the coming energy transformation.

Everything will change
“Everything we have built and learned to do will change in the next 50 years. Saying farewell to fossil energy is not just a matter of exchanging one energy source for another. It’s a real transformation.”

Broad coverage
“People make a lot of the fact that Eindhoven is the focal point of solar energy or fusion or whatever happens to be in vogue. But we think it’s wrong to focus on a single field. It’s the combination that matters. Broad coverage is an important indicator of the importance of this issue for the university, for industry, and for society as a whole”.

Six orders of magnitude
“Few people are aware of just how wide a spectrum of solutions we need. In one place, a kilowatt-hour of electricity might cost several euros. In another you can buy the nightly surplus of a nuclear power plant for less than 0.001 cents or even get payed to use it. The difference is at least six orders of magnitude. The solutions themselves are just as varied. New technologies will always slot somewhere into this spectrum.  And reaching distant markets is easier than ever: that’s the merit of our globalized economy”.

Always a place to start
“We tend to absolutize the problems and focus on the hardest parts. But a small island with a dozen inhabitants also needs energy and might well be the perfect market for a new solar device. And when that market starts to grow, you can enter other markets as well”.

Markets for sustainable technologies
“We also tend to absolutize the price of new technology. People compare new solutions with the cheapest available technologies on the market, but that’s totally wrong. Many companies buy expensive sustainable solutions, because they know they will be better off in the long run. Even governments don’t simply go for the cheapest solutions. Look at the newly built power plants in Europe. They are almost exclusively gas-fired power plants and wind turbines, which are far more expensive than generating electricity from coal. There is clearly a market for flexible or clean technologies that cost more than the average”.

“Similarly good markets exist for electric cars and LED lighting. It’s the whole range that counts – all six orders of magnitude. You need to see the whole picture if you want to meet the energy challenge. It’s a question of different scales, in different markets, with different technologies. Only a few players in the field share that kind of comprehensive view.

A community can decide to be sustainable

“We are rapidly moving away from a “one-size-fits-all” energy infrastructure. It’s no longer simply the utilities or governments that determine the direction. Increasingly, consumers are making their own decisions. Consumers are just starting to buy solar panels, wind-turbines, and biofuel installations. Anyone who builds a house can also afford to invest in sustainable energy. Communities themselves can decide to be sustainable – a possibility that didn’t exist twenty years ago. We will have a consumer market for energy technologies, which changes the nature of the economy.”

From knowledge to skill (and counter)
“The different stages – from ideas for a niche market to mass consumption markets – form a chain, which I refer to as the knowledge to know how to cash economies. For a well performing society you need to play in all three economies. We need considerably more R&D than we have right now in order to guide us through energy transformation. Given the major changes that lie ahead, it is shocking that hardly any R&D is being done by energy suppliers. And the sparse money applied is largely spent by existing industries that don’t have an incentive to change. That’s a recipe for stagnation”.

“Those who pioneer new models of growth and progress, or who focus on renewable resources will have a clear advantage. They will be the leaders in the years to come. Even more importantly, they will guide us through the transformation process. Our civilization is at stake. That’s a huge motivation to work on sustainable energy to help meet our future needs”.