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Jos Keurentjes is director of the Center for Energy Innovation at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Under his leadership, four programs have been launched that take a broad approach to specific energy issues. We spoke to Keurentjes a week after the presentation of a package of measures (Fit for 55) from the European Commission, which further exacerbates our continent’s climate targets. Fossil fuels will become more expensive, there will be a ban on gasoline cars from 2035 onwards and emissions trading are to be tightened up.

What are the most important impacts associated with Fit for 55 and the Green Deal?

The most important impact is a clear direction. Do we want to achieve the Paris climate targets? Then we are not going to get there just by cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions. That is the message. We have to move towards a situation where CO2 emissions are negative. This realization will lead to a plethora of innovations.

Surely everyone was already aware that we need to evolve?

The difference is that innovation now needs to be applied in a very targeted way in order to ensure that we are no longer dependent on fossil sources in 2050, and possibly even in 2030. It is no longer just about reducing carbon emissions, but about actually rendering CO2 emissions negative.

In which areas in particular can we expect a boost to innovation?

Especially where replacing fossil sources with biochemical sources is concerned. The world we have now is a carbon-based system. We need to do something about atmospheric CO2. Some of that CO2 is absorbed by nature. For the rest, it entails Direct Air Capture. That is a major battle that for a very long time was seen as something unfeasible. Or it was put on the back burner. Now it’s going to happen at an incredible speed.

Is Fit for 55 propelling technological innovation?

Absolutely. Fit for 55 shows that becoming more sustainable is not enough.

Take the discussion about the energy consumption of data centers, for example. It depends a bit on who you listen to, but it’s fair to say that if data growth continues at its current rate, data centers will account for 10 percent of global energy use in 10 year’s time. Data centers often respond to that with words along the lines of ‘we’ll put a windmill on the roof or connect to an offshore wind farm’.

But now we know those are the only solutions. We need a lot more intrinsic solutions in order to be able to shift away from heat-producing electronics. Then you have to think about innovation in terms of such things as quantum photonics. As long as you keep sending electricity through a copper wire, I sometimes say, then it will stay warm.

Which parties are going to focus on innovation in particular?

You would think that traditional companies, such as those in the chemical and oil industries, would be guiding the way because it is their field. But that’s not the case. Although a club like Microsoft is particularly committed to new technologies with the aim of bringing their own footprint down to zero.

Again, it is not surprising that established companies adopt a wait-and-see attitude. Years ago, I was involved in discussions between the operator of a large harbor and the senior managers of companies based in the harbor. The port authority was surprised and also rather disappointed that the managers saw little point in their sustainable plans. What the port authority did not understand was that together, these companies had about 500 billion euros worth of facilities in the port area. They wanted to profit from these for as long as possible. So, there is an understandable, yet intrinsic resistance to making major changes. The Green Deal is going to help significantly in clearing this resistance barrier.

Can we also expect non-technological innovations?

Yes we can. The way academic research is conducted, for example, will have to adapt. In recent decades it has mainly been about independent research. That is a limiting factor for the pace of innovation.

We need to move toward mission-driven programming of academic research. In other words, the use of the knowledge is actually considered a priority in the development of that knowledge. That is the way to ensure that innovations filter through the entire chain more quickly and that innovations are realized at a rapid pace.

Is this still happening not enough?

Academic researchers experience this as an infringement of their academic freedom. That’s a real pity. This means that quite a bit of applicable knowledge ten ends up falling between the cracks.

Is there more interest in innovation amongst the business community?

There is increasingly more interest in it. But there is a big difference between a company that picks up a nice new invention and a company that ventures out and finds one. I myself spent 15 years at AkzoNobel and in that last job, I was globally responsible for innovation and technology.

I did see it there, but you see it everywhere in business that companies do not have a long-term vision. In fact, this kind of programmatic approach is nowhere to be seen. After all, companies tend to look at the here and now; at best, they might take the next step in business development, but very rarely do they ever look at long-term development.

Take the way we look at patents as well. It is always hoped that one or more patents will materialize out of a particular project. We need to turn that idea around. We ought to think upfront: What do we need to patent to make sure that we are creating something new? We need to steer the process of innovation much more forcefully than we have done so far. Leave less to chance and more to programming.

Nevertheless, a lot of projects are being jointly undertaken by universities and companies.

Like you already said: They are projects. But stacking up projects is not the same as having a program on which you then hitch projects to. Programming means you go into the innovation process in a different way, because innovation becomes part of the bigger scheme of things.

Doesn’t programming of innovation, to put a name to it, already does exist?

At our university, almost 1,000 researchers are working in the energy field. That spans across all five faculties. In order to create cohesion, direction and visibility for these specializations, a few years ago we established the Center for Energy Innovation. In it, we have bundled a number of specializations based on the knowledge we have available in-house. We identified four areas of focus: Negative emission technology, battery technology, digitalization of energy systems, and energy-neutral data centers. This approach is proving successful. For example, we are currently in talks with Facebook. The company came to us because, according to them, there isn’t a holistic approach to this kind of program anywhere in academia.

Also read about energy storage as the key to the carbon-neutral society.