A Glimpse into a Greener Future: The “Swiss-US Innovation Days” Conference in Zürich
By Paul Lukez
As majestic alpine profiles come into full view, Daniel Lepori, CEO of Designergy, a building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) manufacturer, warns us as we glide onto the highway on-ramp, “Keep your heads up against the headrest, unless you want to bruise your brain.” But suddenly Nico Lauer and I find ourselves traveling over 100 km (≈ 62 miles) per hour – all in 3.2 neck-snapping seconds. Absent was the growling baritone of the Ferrari Testarossa. Instead, with noiseless efficiency the electric power generated by 362 horsepower directed all of its torque directly to the wheels of this Tesla Model S.
So began a journey that offered us a glimpse of a future where renewable energy can be abundantly available with little sacrifice of quality of life. Touring university labs, prototypical projects, and other noteworthy sites was part of the three day “Swiss-US Innovation Days” conference, held August 19-21 in Zürich. Sponsored mostly by Swiss government agencies, universities and corporations, and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, this event brought together over 300 guests and delegates from both countries to focus on encouraging innovation in renewable energy and integrated building systems. The goal was to generate policy recommendations to realize the technical and economic potential of the ongoing “great energy transition” (see Lester Brown’s “The Great Transition”) to cleaner energy systems. Attendees came from highly varied fields: academic, science and technology research, government and public policy, business and finance, real estate, and, of course, design and construction. The result of this Swiss mix was a lively, captivating perspective of what is possible now and in the not-so distant future. The conference also highlighted the challenges both countries face in realizing the full potential of these sustainable strategies and policies. An overview of the conference follows, as well as the issues and challenges these changes raise. (See http://www.energyinnovationdays.com/)
Future Green Vignettes
Imagine a building made of four concrete floor slabs, each supporting several self-sustaining units. Each unit encompasses the latest technologies and strategies for reducing energy consumption, generating surplus energy, and optimizing energy use by providing residents and users easy-to-use tools in their daily lives. Designed as sort of a 21st century “Dom-ino house”, the NEST project’s building platform and core enables companies and institutions to test new ideas in a living laboratory, accelerating innovation’s entry into the marketplace. The brainchild of Dr. Peter Richner, this futuristic project is built on the campus of EMPA, a quasi-public institute for materials science research supported in part by corporate partners, this project is scheduled to come online in 2016.
Nest, Dübendorf, Research Building and Guesthouse Hanes EMPA
Imagine a cabin not much bigger than Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin, but entirely self-sufficient: it generates its own energy and collects and processes water and waste. It is deftly designed so that every interior and exterior element serves multiple functions while providing a comfortably cozy living space. Hitchable to an electric car, the cabin can be taken to sites urban or remote. Handsomely designed and packed with high-tech systems, this Swiss cabin would make Thoreau jealous. (http://library.eawag-empa.ch/empa_berichte/EMPA_Bericht_212.pdf)
Imagine solar cells so thin (0.50-0.70 mm – the thickness of a few human hairs) they can be applied to thin / flexible substrate. This new EMPA -developed product uses polymer film and is malleable enough to be turned into coats, capes or other prêt-à-porter fashion items. Better yet, the possibility of introducing colors (besides black) into this product excites designers about how these surfaces can become part of our living environment. Best of all, this product set a world record for solar efficiency, capturing 20.4% of the sun’s energy.
Flexible CIGS Solar Cell
Imagine a new mixed-use community that is entirely zero-energy and adjacent to fast, convenient public transit. Scale is often hard to achieve in zero-energy construction, especially as the building types get taller, denser and more complex. Yet this 1 million SF project, developed by Zug Estates in Zug, 22 km south of Zürich, achieves this goal, thanks in part to its advanced geothermal systems. During the winter, heat is drawn from the earth to heat apartments and offices. In the summer, heat is taken out of the apartments and pumped back into the earth, thus maintaining a delicate thermo-dynamic balance below grade. This is not only ecologically sound, but also extends the life of the geothermal system itself.
Imagine older housing renovated in slickly designed solar skins, generating sufficient energy to be free of the grid. The community’s fabric and scale are maintained, while new life is infused into urban neighborhoods. For this purpose, Karl Viridén of Viridén + Partner AG has also created a special revolving, investor-supported development fund, where profits from one green renovation fund the next project, and projects increase in size. As this model is more widely accepted, its investment risk is reduced. In fact, this model raises the question whether it is riskier to develop projects that do not use renewable energy or reduce long-term energy costs (www.EcoRenova.ch).
PlusEnergieBau (PEB), Hofberg 6/7
Imagine buildings wrapped in surfaces that not only provide building skins’ typical benefits – e.g., protection from the elements – but also generate and save energy. Two new sets of products do this in clever, elegant ways. The Solar Activated Façade (SAF) developed by Lucido is a beautiful wall panel system with an R value of over 150, and sometimes over 200. Made of glass and elegantly natural and sustainable wood strips, this product has an integrated ventilated air space between the exterior glass surface and the custom-milled wood panels. Air circulates in this space to optimize the temperature delta between exterior and interior conditions. A BIPV roof system, as designed by Designergy, simplifies roof construction and PV installation by integrating the entire roof assembly (structure, insulation, roof membrane) with the PV panels and its ancillary components. Contractors love it for its ease of use, while clients enjoy the slick, streamlined appearance of its roof: the solar panels blend seamlessly into the neighborhood roofscape.
Designergy Triactive® Core Technology
Imagine new lithium batteries that are five times more efficient, thanks to figuring out an older lithium-ion technology developed out of the cobalt-oxide cathode in 1980 by solid-state physicist John Bannister Goodenough. This would allow cars to go five times as far on the same battery size, or reduce the weight of a car’s battery by four-fifths, which in turn improves performance while lowering cost. Young researchers at IBM’s Zürich center are dreaming up cutting-edge ideas like this. Other enticing research efforts include Quantum and Neuromorphic Computation (Memory + Computation). These new advances in computational power will give us even more efficient tools to manage big data and complex urban systems, allowing us to better utilize our natural and financial resources.
The last day of the event was held in the former Toni Areal dairy factory that is now the Zürich University campus. An A-list of esteemed speakers synthesized many of the themes and ideas discussed in the previous days.
Dr. Walter Steinmann, director of the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE) could not contain his enthusiasm and belief in the promise new renewable and sustainable technologies offer, encouraging all to overcome the challenges of bringing these ideas into everyday practice.
Dr. Felix Moesner, Swiss Counsel in Boston, reminded us of the similarities between Switzerland and Massachusetts. Beyond the similarity of their sizes and populations, they share a common commitment to excellence in education and research. Felix is also CEO of Swissnex Boston, a Swiss networking facilitator and forum nestled in the shadow of Harvard’s campus. Swissnex helps foster Swiss research and cultural and business connections in the US marketplace. Why can’t the Commonwealth of Massachusetts support such an effort overseas?
ETH Zürich, Hönggerberg, House of Natural Resources, Gebäude, Aussenansicht
Dr. Lino Guzzella, president of ETH Zürich, highlighted the many advances his university was making in the field of renewables. Its House of Natural Resources (HoNR), supported through corporate partnerships, is a living research laboratory for sustainable construction. Guzzella also cited the work of Prof. Arno Schlueter, whose proposal for a “3-for-2” floor slab system in Singapore could significantly increase density and building efficiency. His newly developed low-profile mechanical systems reduce interstitial space in floor and ceiling assemblies, thereby saving lots of space, building volume and materials.
U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein Suzan G. LeVine focused on the many program initiatives the Obama administration has promoted in addressing climate change. Clearly the EPA’s capacity to establish climate-friendly regulatory policies has helped to circumvent a more recalcitrant Congress.
Finally, Minister Doris Leuthard brought to light the comprehensive approach to sustainability the Swiss government has promoted in recent years. Lacking natural resources, Switzerland must rely on all viable options. To date it has depended heavily on hydropower (55%) and nuclear power (40%) for its heating and cooling needs. As reliance on nuclear power diminishes in a post-Fukishama world, renewables will fill the gap. Therein lies the challenge and opportunity.
Observations and Conclusions:
Bringing together such diverse voices and backgrounds enabled delegates to gauge the differences and similarities of our respective countries and communities of action. Here are some final observations:
Regulation: This was a commonly mentioned, especially among Swiss delegates. In the US, some consider ‘regulation’ a dirty word and prefer to incentivize consumer, investor and corporate behavior. Even then, some of our most successful incentive programs, such as the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) are in danger of discontinuation. With a US Congress mired in inaction, environmentally friendly regulations implemented through executive orders have become the recent norm. Closer examination of Swiss regulations reveals that many regulation policies are also layered with incentive programs.
Renovations and Renewable Energy: Switzerland was fortunate to avoid wartime damage. In addition, the Swiss mindset is to build for 50-100 year life cycles. (Prof. Arno Schluter of the ETH pointed out how Swiss developers typically work with an ROI analysis of 25 years.) Consequently, the building stock is quite stable, requiring only 1-2% new construction per year. While this new construction is very energy-efficient, the older stock is not always so, nor must it abide by the energy standards for new construction. A major challenge for the Swiss, then, is to encourage owners to renovate their existing building stock. Ironically, the US markets’ more ephemeral building stock allows for more frequent new construction and renovation.
Role of Innovative Research in the Renewable Energy Field: Touring three research-intensive environments (Hochschule Luzerne, IBM Research–Zürich, EMPA) shed light on the differences among Switzerland’s university, private, and government-based research efforts. In all cases, the quality and ambition of the research was impressive. Hochschule Luzerne’s approach was highly integrated, given its resources as a school of architecture, planning and engineering. Bringing well-funded projects together on one campus yielded impressive results. IBM’s $6 billion research efforts are well known, especially the Watson project. IBM’s research facility overlooking Lake Zürich appears to have found a good balance between adjusting to rapidly changing forces and developments in science and the market and harnessing the company’s rich resources of intellectual, technical and financial capital. The Swiss Government chartered EMPA as a regulatory and testing lab. But beyond that, it actively develops and promotes new ideas, research and prototypes in the renewable energy and mobility sectors. Their labs and facilities are well-funded and would be the envy of many countries.
The Swiss showed excitement and interest in Somerville-based Greentown Labs, which was also represented at the conference. This center is an incubator space and organization for startup companies focusing on renewable energy innovation. Led by Emily Reichert, Ph.D., Greentown Labs have successfully launched more than 40 new cleantech hardware startups. Where the US government is weaker in supporting innovation, private investors and innovators are stepping up to the plate by developing a mix of public and private funding strategies.
The Cost of Swiss Innovation and Application to a larger market: Swiss society is highly evolved, having attained high levels of education and quality of life, but is also challenged by high production costs. As expert engineers, scientists, and developers create new clean technologies, the cost of implementing them in markets beyond Switzerland can be daunting.
Setting Green Standards: Great advances in promoting and evaluating sustainable building strategies have been made in many countries through a variety of programs like LEED and BREEAM. In the US, LEED is becoming a new norm in many areas of the building market. The Swiss use a system called the Verein Green Building Schweiz. Most delegates emphasized developing and monitoring a point system, or energy-efficiency ratings, which make CO2 output the ultimate measure of design, engineering and building strategies’ efficiency in combating climate change. Guzzella encapsulated the challenge we face in combatting climate change with the following equation:
Guzzella argues that if we want to reduce the amount of CO2 produced worldwide, we must address all three factors in this equation: we must lower energy demand while creating greater energy efficiency, and use fuels that lower total carbon output.
COP 21 Paris – UN Conference on Climate Change – A new future?
Our national leaders will be assembling in Paris in December 2015 to discuss the future of the planet’s environment. Will the results of this meeting chart a new, more hopeful path to a more sustainable planet, given that the technologies, know-how and tools are available to meet these objectives? The Swiss have provided us with a glimpse of our dream of a fully self-sustaining, pollution-free society and have shown us how they are taking action on it. Capital and political will must now be leveraged to realize that vision.
With special thanks to Nico Lauer, Rick Gilles and Marianne Zuend of SFOE. Thanks also to SIA, and SFOE for supporting the trip. And with gratitude and good wishes I thank Eric Nelson and Daniel Lepori for providing me with such great tours of renewable energy sites.