What if we accelerated energy innovation? What our community says
Most people in the energy sector would concede that existing technologies alone will not deliver the energy transition at the pace that is desired – nor needed.
And most too would agree that we need greater innovation to unlock the enabling solutions of the near future.
So how do we accelerate innovation in the energy sector? How do we make the next generation of entrepreneurs see the energy landscape as fertile ground for their innovations?
“The power sector has always been an innovation leader and has delivered unprecedented change over the last two decades”, says Joerg Gmeinbauer of Bureau Veritas.
“Who would have imagined in the 90s that offshore wind would one day easily beat cost from lignite power generation? But while large OEMs continue playing a major role, the decentralisation of energy systems has opened up a different path to innovation at a micro level that looks both at grid and generation – as well as demand and supply – in a more integrated way.
He highlights how the success of many start-ups has come as “large utilities are much more open to partnering with entrepreneurial ventures”.
And he says to accelerate this further “policymakers will need to work on the risk-reward balance. In many countries, the power sector is still too protectionist of the status quo and governments protect obsolete technologies. That heavily discourages true innovation and entrepreneurial behaviour.”
Matthias Zelinger, managing director of VDMA Power Systems, agrees. “Today the energy sector is one of the most dynamic businesses. Progressive players are combining the disruptive potential of renewable energies and digitalisation. To unleash the full potential of these innovations, open markets and up-to-date regulation is key.”
Francisco Puente, Business Development and Projects Director at energy consultants Escan, believes that new market entrants are needed to introduce innovative solutions in several key areas, including smart grids, energy storage and big data management.
But he adds that “the changes in the energy sector will have to take care of the customer’s personal data protection, write new regulations for the new conditions, find cost-effective products and be able to market specific solutions for each need”.
And Edouard Sauvage, chief executive of French gas distributor GRDF, says that “greater innovation can be unlocked by stronger partnerships between energy actors, tech start-ups and R&D institutes”.
“International cooperation and open-innovation will be accelerators to bridge gaps and make the energy transition faster, easier and cheaper.”
Sergio Olivero, head of the Finance & Business Innovation Unit in the Energy Centre at Turin university Politecnico di Torino, cautions that “technology related to the energy transition is a powerful tool to accelerate innovation… but technology without finance is not enough”.
“The economic crisis caused by the coronavirus is showing the limits of speculative finance”, he says, “and shows the need to put the real economy back at the centre of investment policies for the recovery after the crisis.”
He says that funds will be available soon at European and world level, “and innovative business models are needed in order to exploit this investment capacity. A comprehensive strategic approach must, therefore, rely upon short-to-long term initiatives that are capable to involve local supply chains, where all stakeholders can play an active role and reactivate their production processes.”
Nathalie Samovich of renewables innovation developer Enercoutim says that existing technologies are only partially addressing the current needs of the energy transition. “The greater innovation need stems from the fact that the societal challenges we are facing are cross-domain and of cross-border relevance. What we innovate on – and the integrated solutions we are currently working on within the energy sector – have broad reach and scale-up potential… an incentive and driver to all stakeholders.”
And she adds that more significant innovation can occur “within the environments where implementation barriers are eliminated along the way. Our effectiveness at mission-oriented targeted research and innovation should follow an effective scaling-up across Europe.”
Mark Howitt is chief technology officer of compressed air energy storage firm Storelectric, which like Enercoutim and Politecnico di Torino is a member of ETIP SNET, the European Technology & Innovation Platform for Smart Networks for Energy Transition.
He is keen to stress that “the issue is not innovation per se – it is the roll-out of innovative solutions into the field”.
“The valley of death is broad for both large-scale prototype construction and, especially, full-scale, first-of-a-kind commercial plants”.
He says this valley “is particularly deep for technologies that cannot be built small” and adds that he believes that the European Commission should fund the ‘risk’ element of such projects by match-funding their construction regardless of whether income will be generated from the resultant prototype.
Read more about the Enlit Europe What If series here