Monthly Archives: January 2017

The real value of energy sustainability

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Andreas Sumper. Professor & Researcher. CITCEA UPC

All human activities are associated with the concept of sustainability. This concept is closely related with resources and our use of them; such resources could be natural, human, economic or social, among others. As we need to consume a certain amount of resources to carry out any activity, conflict inevitably arises if we do not replace the resources at the same speed as we consume them. In fact, an imbalance between the use of resources and their regeneration capacity is parallel to the history of humanity itself.

Energy sustainability requires the joint efforts of industry and political leaders, who must establish strategies and polices to bring about the shift needed in the energy system to support sustainable economic and social development. Energy sustainability evaluates how its three intrinsic goals are balanced: energy security, energy equity and environmental sustainability, which is what the World Energy Council (WEC) defines as the Energy Trilemma.

Sustainability, and energy sustainability in particular, has been addressed by industry in recent years as an environmental topic, relating to legislative pressure due to the political initiative of reducing environmental impact. Thus, sustainability is considered an essential framework to manufacture and create traditional products. However, industry is gradually realising that energy saving can increase the competitiveness of industrial processes. However, we need to go beyond this concept: the role of energy in the knowledge society needs to be redefined by sustainability. Digitalisation of operational processes provides a large amount of data and information so that all of those involved in a product’s life cycle can find out about the production processes. This traceability empowers consumers, who are interested in a product that not only meets their needs, but also respects their lifestyles. Thus, it is the individual who has the power to decide which product to purchase and may pay a premium for the product that best fits their philosophy of life. The legislator is no longer an intermediary creating environmental laws for the common good: the consumers themselves will select products that, in addition to meeting minimum standards, have the added bonus of being sustainable. Thus, a new ecosystem is created, with different new services and products that have a greater profit margin. This is what is behind the interest in a circular economy. Therefore, energy sustainability creates new business models, and the energy companies that can adapt to this new framework will be those that will succeed in the market.

Finally, a key factor to achieve energy sustainability will be the use of renewable energy resources that are available locally and then distributed. Electrical energy is an essential vector to achieve a shift to a low-carbon society, as most renewable technologies generate electricity.

Andreas Sumper, Professor & Researcher
CITCEA UPC

Article published in the journal “Automática e Instrumentación” of November-December 2016

2017: the innovation of the future

One of the main instruments for funding science at continental level, the European Research Council (ERC), will have been running for ten years in 2017. The programme forms part of Horizon 2020 and selects and funds the best basic research projects.

The ERC has become the jewel in the crown of fundamental research. Through this programme, scientists from around the world (the programme is open to citizens outside the EU) can obtain funding under excellent conditions for their projects. The financial aid, which may be granted for up to five years, can amount to as much as 1.5 million euros. Consortiums do not need to be created, as the funds are awarded to specific scientists and areas of research, regardless of whether the recipient changes the entity for which they work (as sometimes occurs).

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The programme has evolved over time and is based on a kind of funding called “proof of concept”, which enables researchers to direct their results to products and services that can be transferred through innovation processes.

In contrast to this model of funding basic research, most financial aid for innovation (read technology transfer) is organised through projects funded via the Spanish National Plan for Scientific and Technical Research and Development. The main subsidies are distributed among companies through calls for applications organised by the Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI), in the form of very low interest credits. Funding instruments such as the RETOS programme or the NUCLIS initiative developed by the Government of Catalonia are other examples of public grants available for innovative activity.

In all cases, the funding processes are carried out on a competitive basis. Applicants must submit, and in some cases defend, their proposal for obtaining resources.

Innovation is a very expensive activity that takes place with a high degree of uncertainty because it involves the development of new utilities and tools to resolve or improve processes in the productive sector or in government departments that provide services for all of society (for example, in the area of health). Innovation leads to substantial improvements in systems or elements that need to be replaced.

All states in the world encourage the work of researchers and technologists through competitive funding for projects. Without instruments of this type, most companies, among them almost all SMEs, would not consider carrying out these initiatives.

However, innovation in the twenty-first is no longer carried out in isolated processes. Previously, collaboration was limited to that which was necessary to advance, and great care was taken to maintain the resulting competitive advantages. Now, through the open innovation model, the various agents in the system (companies, but also universities, technology centres and government departments) share knowledge to promote more ambitious and competitive projects.

Similarly, the boundary between basic and applied science is blurring, because knowledge transfer to innovation cannot be conceived without a solid basis in fundamental research.

The ERC has reached its first decade, and the results are very positive. Likewise, collaboration with companies on innovative projects, which slowed-down dramatically during the recession, has been reactivated in recent years through programmes to promote innovation at local level.

So we face a 2017 full of expectations and challenges. At the CIT UPC, we shall continue to work to maintain and increase the growth trend through technological innovation as a driver of a sound, modern economy that has the capacity to boost business activity and employment.

In this process, as in the last five years, we are also entering the New Year “making technology real”, as our motto states.

CIT UPC