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I am very honored and pleased to be here in Vuollerim in Lapland and very grateful to my friend Etienne Verbiest and his business partner Epi Ludvik Nekaj to be part of this unique Crowd Sourcing Week event and be allowed to share with you my energy story.
When I started my engineering studies at the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium in 1974, some forty (40) years ago, my dream was to help find a solution for the growing energy needs of the world, a solution that was cheap, readily available, ubiquitous, abundant, clean and safe. The book “The Limits to Growth” of the Club of Rome had just been published a few years earlier (1972).
Fusion seems to be something we cannot grasp. The possible commercialization always stays fifty years ahead of us. It is about creating and maintaining a complex, heterogeneous plasma; difficult to confine; with tremendous temperature gradients. A real engineering nightmare in terms of material stresses, heat transfer and maintenance. It is somewhat archetypical of the megalomaniac human mind to think one can create a sun on earth and be able to control it. Fusion was my first great disappointment and disillusionment as a graduate student at MIT.
I went on as Director General of the Nuclear and largest Research Centre in Belgium, in Mol and was immediately confronted with the fall-out of the Tchernobyl accident (1986), the ramifications of a large European nuclear waste, so-called Transnuklear scandal (1988),the lack of accountability of nuclear weapons and increased proliferation risk after the fall of the Soviet Union (1991). The size and scale of all these nuclear liabilities and risks and all these events combined lead eventually to a nuclear moratorium in most European countries. My third disappointment and disillusionment. I would move on to other ventures, waste & water management, and energy from waste and biomass, but in the meantime the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan (2011) led a lot of European countries, e.g. Belgium and Germany, to phase out nuclear energy completely.
If we look at the world energy balance, overall more than half of the energy is wasted. In power generation, only 1/3 of the input energy is converted into electricity. In transportation, it is even worse: 75% of the energy is rejected. But the absolute worst is incandescent lighting, where 95% of the energy is converted into heat rather than visible light. So there is a lot of room for improvement, which is hopeful.
In order to find the characteristics of a new energy paradigm, I went back to my high school dream: to find an energy solution that was cheap, abundant, ubiquitous, safe and clean.
Looking back at the onset of my talk, scientists and engineers including myself looked too far for a solution that was just in front of our eyes. Rather than trying to create a sun on earth and trying to control her, why not leave the sun where she is and just try to capture her radiation? The first advantage is that solar radiation is very abundant. Total solar power the earth surface receives is around 23,000 TW or the equivalent of 17,250 Billion toe each year. In comparison, world annual energy consumption in 2010 was 16 TW or 12 Btoe. The second advantage is that the sun shines everywhere on the planet. It definitely is ubiquitous.
Third, solar PV has the potential of becoming cheap. Cost have come down already with more than an order of magnitude since 1980 and prices are expected around EUR 1/W installed in 2015.
Solar radiation has only one disadvantage: at each moment in time, only half of the earth’s surface is oriented towards the sun while the other half is in the dark. So either energy has to be transported half around the earth or stored half of the time. To be really disruptive, a solution will also have to be found for storage. (Today, all forms of renewable energy combined, such as solar, on & offshore wind, tidal, etc… only represent 1% of world total energy needs. We still have a long way to go.)
When we look today, and compare with forty years ago, our dependence on fossil fuels has hardly diminished (from 87% of total energy supply in 1973 to 82% in 2012). Both total energy supply and fossil fuel consumption have more than doubled, resp. from 6,000 Mtoe in 1973 to more than 13,000 Mtoe in 2012 and from more than 5,000 Mtoe of fossil fuels to almost 11,000 Mtoe. According to British Petroleum (BP)’s energy outlook, our energy consumption will increase the next twenty (20) years even more, with at least 1/3, with the share of fossil fuels remaining almost constant. The most remarkable trend is undoubtedly the ever increasing share of coal (from 25% in 1973 to 33% in 2035).
To produce annually the equivalent of 3.9 Billion toe of coal in (torrified) wood pellets would require 1/3 to 2/3 of the total world forest area of 4 billion hectares, down from 5.9 billion hectares in the pre-industrial era. Knowing that the coal consumption will increase with at least 1/3, this leaves little wood for other sectors, such as housing, construction, furniture, paper & pulp. The story of oil is even much, much worse. To replace 4.2 billion tons of oil with bioethanol (from corn, wheat or sugar beet) and biodiesel (from soybean, sunflower or rapeseed) would require 5 to 50 times all arable land. [Agricultural land is about 1/3 of land surface, but the arable part is only 1/3 of that or 1.4 billion hectares.] Even trying to do this, looks totally absurd. To replace 2.8 Btoe of natural gas with biogas (from maize, potatoes or fodder beet) seems more feasible, but would still require ¼ to 40% of all arable land today, and between 40% and 2/3 in 2035.
Although second and third generation fuels may offer some relieve, it has become clear to me that this was not the path to follow either. Compared to the reserves that have been build up for millions of years and that we are rapidly consuming in only a few centuries, the earth land surface area (14.8 billion hectares) just isn’t big enough. My fourth disappointment and disillusionment. (Today, all forms of waste-to-energy and biomass conversion combined represent 10% of the world total energy needs.)
But even if we would be able to cut almost by half the energy consumption in the developed world with new technologies (from 5.5 toe per person to 2.8 toe), and even if we would be able to limit the energy consumption in the developing economies to this level of 2.8 toe/person, overall world energy consumption would still more than double to 25 Billion toe in 2050 (compared to 12 Btoe in 2010). As explained before, the reasons for this are the growing world population (from 6.6 billion in 2010 to 9 billion in 2050) and the growing demand for energy in the developing countries, from 1 toe/person in 2010 to at least 2.8 toe in 2050, due to the explosive growth in industrialization. Although energy efficiency is definitely part of the solution and absolutely necessary, it will be insufficient to avoid major problems (scarcity, rising costs) in primary input supplies or catastrophes with our environment (diminished bio-capacity of the planet, climate change, …)
After two decades in the energy, water, materials and bio-sectors, it became also obvious to me that the demand for energy, food, water and ores not only continues to increase, but more and more these primary input supplies (energy, water, food, ores) are increasingly interlinked and competing with one another. This increased consumption of oil, water, energy and ores is linked to the world population growth (from 6.6 billion in 2010 to 9.0 billion in 2050), and amplified by the rise of industrialization of the emerging economies.
McKinsey in its report on sustainability & resource productivity in 2012 identified ten (10) disruptive energy technologies: Market impact could begin as early as 2015 Unconventional gas Electric vehicles Advanced ICE (Internal Combustion Engines) Solar photovoltaics (PV) LED lighting
Market impact after 2020 Grid-scale storage Digital power conversion Compressor-less air-conditioning and electro-chromic windows Clean coal Biofuels and electro-fuels
More recently, in July 2014 GreenBiz made its list of twelve (12) disruptive innovators in the energy business:
Company Founded Disruption Comverge 1974 Adding intelligence to a not-so-smart grid Exxon Mobil 1870 Unconventional oil & gas First Solar 1999 Low-cost utility-scale solar Google 1998 Connecting tech and green-tech Hexcel 1946 Ultra lightweight materials for planes, cars and wind turbines NRG Energy 1992 Driving change in traditional energy supply Johnson Controls 1885 Creating energy savings at massive scale Panasonic 1918 Enabling EV and PV Philips 1891 Reinventing the light bulb Solar City 2006 Solar for the 99 percent Tesla Motors 2003 Advancement of electric vehicles Vestas 1945 Turning wind into the lowest-cost new power source
Interesting to note is that the majority of companies on the list were founded more than fifty (50) or even hundred (100) years ago. Only four (4) were founded less than twenty (20) years ago.
Building integrated photovoltaics First of all, I strongly believe in active buildings, buildings that produce more energy that is consumed. Photovoltaic cells will be integrated in all building materials such as rooftop tiles (e.g. Monier, Solar Slate Ltd), facade paints (Nano Flex Power Corp.) , and transparent glass (Onyx Solar, PolySolar,…). (But energy can also be captured from floors, stairs and doorknobs.)
My second strong believe is that all our roads, bike lanes and pedestrian sidewalks will become photovoltaic and piezoelectric. In 2008, the first ecological dance clubs opened, Club Watt in Rotterdam and Club4Climate in London, powered by floor tiles (Energy Floors, Pavegen Systems) that harvest the kinetic energy from dancing feet. (It could be also running feet. Think about the energy released by 40,000 people running a marathon, each releasing 8 Watts with each of their 50,000 steps.) A first 100-meter long solar bike lane was constructed by SolaRoad in the Netherlands in one of the suburbs of Amsterdam in November last year.
But my absolute favorite startup is Idaho-based Solar Roadways, who raised USD 2.2 million in crowdfunding on Indiegogo last year. (The PV tiles have pressure sensors, led lighting and heating integrated in them. If the more than 80,000 km² of roads, parking lots & driveways in the U.S. would be covered with these tiles, more than 13,000 TWh of electricity would be produced, more than 3x current U.S. electricity needs.)
My third believe is that power transmission would become wireless, both on the road and in the home. Lately, I have become fascinated with the life and works of Nikola Tesla and some of the magic tricks he performed. He could illuminate a light bulb meters away from one of his coils without socket or wires. In Lommel, Flanders Drive built a 600-meter road track already in 2011 for testing inductive charging of an electric bus, both stationary (at bus stop) and dynamically (while driving). A MIT spin-off company WiTricity develops wireless power transfer technology for the home, automotive, medical and military applications based on ideas of Nikolas tesla that have been improved by MIT Professor Marin Soljacic.
As a MIT alumnus, I cannot finish without mentioning some other recent MIT research findings:
MIT associate professor Jeffrey Grossman et al. successfully created a new molecule called azo-benzene using carbon nanotubes to structure the molecules so that they “lock in” stored solar thermal energy indefinitely. An MIT team led by professor Karen Gleason has discovered a way to print a solar cell on just about anything using low temperatures and vapour as opposed to liquid solutions that are expensive, require high temperatures and degrade the substrate materials. Professor Gang Chen has been working on a revolutionary new way to make solar power – micro solar thermal – which could theoretically produce electricity at 8x the efficiency of the world’s best solar panel. Electric engineering professor Vladimir Bulovic has made a breakthrough that could eliminate two thirds of the costs of installing thin-film technology by incorporating a layer of new transparent organic PV cells into the window glazing. MIT graduate students recently engineered a virus called M13 that works to precisely space apart carbon nanotubes so they can be used to effectively convert solar energy. MIT researchers have engineered a new rechargeable flow battery that doesn’t rely on expensive membranes to generate and store electricity. Former MIT professor Daniel designed a so-called “artificial leaf”, a low-cost photochemical device to use solar power to split water (even dirty water) into hydrogen. The technology is being commercialized by Sun Catalytix.
But my final example is not from MIT but from the Swiss Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. Florent Baudoire et al. discovered last year a highly efficient solar absorbing cell based on a moth’s eye.
As a kid, when my father who was a pediatrician – he died ten years ago – heard about my aspirations to solve the world energy problems he advised me to study the human eye and how it converts light into electric pulses. So I am especially thrilled by this latest discovery by Florent Baudoire and his team.
Disruptive Energy Technologies & Models
CSW Summit Arctic Circle
March 12 & 13, 2015
Dr. Carl M. Malbrain
Paradigm shift allows for crowdsourcing
Centralised / Global
Decentralised / Local
[Source: Michel Bauwens,
With an engineering degree from the KULeuven, a
MSc in nuclear engineering and a PhD in energy
technology & policy from MIT, Carl has held senior
management positions in the energy, water &
environmental sectors for the last thirty (30) years
both in the U.S. and Europe
Currently, Carl is an independent consultant and
senior advisor, involved with start-ups in Belgium
and setting up a “energy for all” impact fund.
Carl is also exploring how alumni & social networks
could be deployed to help solve global problems we
face today, such as inequality, poverty & global debt
and to achieve energy, food, resource, economic,
financial & environmental security for all.
Carl is also President of the MIT Club of Belgium
and Chairman of Blijdorp, a non-profit organization
helping mentally and physically disabled children
and adults in Belgium and Romania.
Mobile: +32 474 98 44 17