One week to fix energy: #ETHWeek 2018

#ETHWeek participant has a look at the challenges we face in energy.

During the past week, 164 students from over 30 countries gathered at the #ETHWeek to learn why #EnergyMatters. The students came from all-but-one departments of ETH Zürich to think up new approaches to the most pressing challenges in energy. This is what they came up with.

The ETH Week is a project of the Critical Thinking Initiative at ETH Zürich. The project aims to foster independent thinking and responsible acting. Through interdisciplinary collaboration, the ETH Week gives students the opportunity to analyse and reflect important societal problems. This year, it was about energy.

The 164 students received inputs from energy experts from within the university and beyond, including from large firms such as GE or ABB, start-ups and NGOs. The Energy Science Center led the pack of experts, while the Sparks Lab guided the participants through a week of design-thinking that would carry them from a problem statement to a prototype. Along the way, a dozen site visits provided students with a reality check on the scale of the challenges and networking dinners granted the opportunity to strengthen bonds with the European community of energy students and young professionals.

The sixth day, all the inputs and learnings had to come together into a 5-min presentation in front of the jury and all other participants. Five minutes to convince their chosen problem was essential to progress towards more sustainable energy and their proposal an indispensable step in that path.

18 teams competed for being the most inspirational story, the most fascinating science, and, above all, to persuade their peers to vote for them. These were their proposals:

Change behaviours to change energy

Eco-lotto uses smart meters data to nudge consumers towards patterns of demand that enable a higher penetration of renewables and to reduce consumption. Consumers may win a big, weekly prize from their utilities! HardAware tries to do the same using a visual interface to provide real-time feedback to households on energy consumption and whether they compare badly to others. Office tree (winner of the most fascinating science) applies this philosophy to office buildings equipped with smart HVAC systems, and eco tags translate that to the supermarket, highlighting products with lower environmental impacts.

Green energy house game and Energy explorers think it is about education and energy literacy and start with the kids. These two projects suggest similar educational programs where young children learn about energy conservation and efficiency throughout one semester.

Graphical summary of the 18 projects, drawn live.


Give me more clean energy!

Dam solar and Solar tracks want to install more solar photovoltaics floating on top of a lake or shining along the sides of the railway tracks. WattBox, a rugged portable solar + battery device, aims to bring solar PV to remote conflict areas, where access to power could be the difference between life and death. Less dramatically, Banana hydropower (awarded most inspiring story) aims at making a better use of current hydropower plants through inflatable air balloons under the water that would relax operational constraints by keeping a constant water level. To exploit distant wind resources, Air Blade suggests airborne transportation for the turbine blades to leave behind road transport limitations. More exotically, Osmopower suggests using wastewater treatment plants as energy storage. Different pollutant concentrations could create enough pressure to run a small turbine. Wisely timed, it could help in balancing a high share of renewables. (Here a paper they got inspired by)

Three projects, Urbanvoltaics, Energy Pirates and E’vo intelligent energy distribution, focus on leveraging communities to increase the share of renewables. Urbanvoltaics proposes piecemeal financing of solar rooftops for those living in the city but eager to support solar deployment, Energy Pirates tries to get tenants together to install solar on their building’s rooftop, and E’vo intelligent energy distribution puts the focus on aggregating demand and generation of neighbours with distributed generation and storage.

Presenting the AirBlade project in all its prototypical beauty.

The cleanest form of energy: conservation

I saved my favourites for the end. Adon is a consumer electronics device that, when plugged in any socket, monitors the data consumption of anything plugged into it and turns it down if in standby mode. (Back in my time at EPFL, I remember seeing one prototype of this) The Conveyor Accelerator System project tries to reduce energy consumption in commercial aviation during a critical moment: takeoffs. The project suggests accelerating the planes during takeoffs by making the ground move as well (see picture).

Finally, the winner, Datanukes. To address the growing energy demand to keep data centres cool, Datanukes suggests the repurposing of decommissioned nuclear power plants’ cooling systems. With four plants already scheduled to close, their cooling systems save investment cost to the builders of the data centres, lowers decommissioning costs, and may even reduce operational costs compared to other refrigeration systems. A win-win project that earned the team the peer-voted award.

Final remark

Although the feasibility or novelty of some proposals may be debatable, all of them address key issues in energy. Built up in one week by multi-disciplinary teams with many members foreign to energy, I was blown away by the creativity and critical thinking involved in these projects. My hope is that this ETH Week ignites in the participants the curiosity for energy issues so that we can add them as brave new members of the crew trying to make energy more sustainable.

I want to thank, first, the participants for sharing with me their amazing experience during the ETH Week, second, all the organizers for their amazing job, and, third, my supervisor for giving me the chance to shape part of the input for the students.

All pictures by Allesandro Della Bella, shared online via ETH Week social profiles.

Published by Alejandro Nuñez-Jimenez

PhD & Research Associate in the Group for Sustainability and Technology, at ETH Zurich. @anunezjimenez

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