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Author: ​Alecia D McKenzie

Date: 26 January 2013



 ​Education can power renewable energy

Higher education will be key as the world attempts to move to low-carbon energy systems, according to experts at a recent international conference.

The World Future Energy Summit (WFES), which took place in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi from 15-17 January, brought together business leaders, government representatives, non-governmental organisations, teachers and students, many of whom stressed the importance of education in attaining renewable energy goals.

“We need broad-based education, but this is actually lagging behind the momentum for renewable energy in society,” said Professor Dr Kornelis Blok, a lecturer at the University of Utrecht and director of science of the Dutch-based Ecofys Group, an international consultancy in renewable energy and climate policy.

“We not only need to educate students who can work in future renewable energy areas, but we need to train already established professionals in how to use the new technologies,” he told University World News.

This is especially necessary as the United Nations project Sustainable Energy for All aims to double the share of renewables in the world’s energy mix to 30% by 2030. While most countries are expected to fall short of that goal, there will still be considerable growth in solar and wind energy, geothermal energy, hydropower and energy-storage technology, according to WFES participants.

“We will need all kinds of energy; there is no getting around it,” said Blok, who was a lead author for the Third and Fourth Assessment Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organisation that was co-winner, with Al Gore, of the Nobel peace prize in 2007.

“No single renewable source can meet all the energy needs, and that’s why universities need to offer programmes that cover a range of technology in the sector,” he added.

This is already happening, and a notable development is the global nature of some education programmes as well as the joint projects being established between universities and corporations. Educators at the WFES predicted growing European-Asian collaboration in the renewable energy field, for instance.

Didier Mayer, director of the Centre for Energy and Processes (CEPS) at the prestigious French engineering university Mines ParisTech,* said that China was becoming a major player in ‘green’ energy, and that Chinese tertiary institutions were working to produce engineers needed for the sector.

CEPS currently leads a project known as the China-EU Institute for Clean and Renewable Energy (ICARE) at Huazhong University in Wuhan that was launched in 2010 to “strengthen cooperation between China and the European Union in the area of renewable energy”.

It offers a two-year masters programme that will train some 150 Chinese students each year, awarding them a double Chinese-European masters degree. It is also providing vocational training for energy professionals, Mayer told University World News.

Chinese and European professors teach the courses in English in their respective spheres, focusing on solar and wind energy, biomass and energy efficiency, among other topics. Students also participate in a six-month training period that is “crucial” in preparing them to work in an industrial environment.

Mayer, who is also director of research at Mines ParisTech, said that the programme includes a research platform whose goal is to “foster scientific cooperation and ideas exchange”. The research section will “facilitate exchange of PhD students between European and Chinese universities and co-supervision of research activities,” according to ICARE’s own manifesto.

The institute already attracts professors from ParisTech partner universities in Europe who travel to Wuhan to exchange ideas and to develop joint research projects, with a view to expanding sustainable energy.

“We were invited to participate through a tender with the European consortium with which we already organise a masters in renewable energy,” Mayer explained when asked how his school’s involvement came about. “As we already had activities in the country, we accepted and won the [European] Commission’s tender call.”

The European Union (EU) funding for ICARE totals €10 million (US$13.3 million), according to the delegation of the EU to China, and this accounts for 70.52% of the total. 

Sponsors include French oil giant Totale, which has a big presence in Asia. The multinational is not the only corporation involved in renewable energy education in China and other countries, as others have also set up projects with universities.

The Norwegian risk-management foundation Det Norske Veritas (DNV) is involved with Berkeley University in California, Delft University in The Netherlands and Shanghai Maritime University in China, among others. The company has also established a scholarship at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

“China is very efficient in the way they combine academia, business and government in their policies,” said Bjorn Haugland, DNV’s executive vice president and chief technology and sustainability officer. “In that sense, they’re very scientific-based in their approach.”

In fact, amid its own ongoing problems with air pollution, China has now become the world’s largest investor in renewable energy, even as global investment in the sector fell in 2012 due to uncertain policies in many countries.

Haughland said that governments needed to be investor-friendly by having a “legal, predictable and long-term” policy, and he pointed to Germany as one such example that may be followed by China.

Since 2009, DNV has boosted its climate change services, and during the World Future Energy Summit, Haughland announced the creation of a new research unit in The Netherlands that will focus on ‘smart grids’ and ‘super grids’ – tools that would respectively enable the efficient storage and use of energy, and the transportation of high amounts of energy over long distances.

“We believe that research and education are key in the transition to a low-carbon society,” Haughland said. “Even a kid understands this, so we shouldn’t complicate things too much. The young generation understands these basics and that’s why DNV focuses so much on education.” He said the company invests 6% of its revenue “back into research”.

For those who wonder whether the boom in setting up renewable-energy education programmes is sustainable, many experts at the Abu Dhabi summit said they believed it was.

“We’ve seen this sort of explosion to some extent before, in the 1970s, and it declined from lack of interest. But now I think the interest in sustainable energy is much more robust,” said Blok of Ecofys.

“It’s not one country, not one government, not one university that’s taking part. The industry has grown so much that I do not expect it to go bust. The focus now is on higher education and also all kinds of technical education programmes.”

* Mines ParisTech is part of a grouping of French grandes écoles known as ParisTech, or Paris Institute of Technology, which coordinates the project. Confusingly, Mines ParisTech is also known as École des Mines de Paris.)

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