A portrait

«The energy future won’t happen by itself»

Feb 12, 2015 | RAINER KLOSE

Urs Elber, Managing Director of Empa's Research Focus Area «Energy», explains how the energy supply will change in the years to come and how Empa supports this transformation.


Mr Elber, why does Empa’s energy research need a managing director?
There are various  reasons for the new position: around 40% of all Empa research projects are related to the energy sector, mostly with external partners from research and industry. These include the new demonstra- tion platforms “NEST” and “Future Mobility”, where sytem aspects play a crucial role. Energy research is thus becoming increasingly complex. It is obvious that, the longer the more, we need to think, do research and act in a much wider context than we’ve done so far – i.e. from the harvest and transportation of energy through its storage and conversion all the way to managing its consumption.
Ultimately, as citizens, not only do we have to decide which kind of energy we want, but above all which paradigm shift we are prepared to put up with in return. After all, every option will also have its drawbacks.

Can you expand on that? If I put a solar system up on the roof and use it to harvest eco-power – where’s the disadvantage?
Firstly, solar panels still have an enormous amount of room for improvement: modules that are even more efficient, cheaper and easier to integrate, production methods with a lower carbon  footprint etc. And then, especially  in the summertime, when  a lot of solar power is fed into the grid, it is very likely that more solar power is generated than is actually  required at  that  particular point in time. This means that the energy system needs to become  a lot more  flexible. For instance, we have  to develop storage systems, including seasonal ones, to absorb these surpluses. We need to look for new ways.

Such as?
You can never really have “too much” solar energy; you just have to channel the amount that  isn’t absorbed by the  power  grid or can’t be stored directly into other areas  – such as mobility. You can charge electric cars, produce hydrogen for full cell vehicles or, together with the greenhouse gas CO2, make synthetic natural gas from it. We don’t need any solar power for heating on during summer – but we can still drive with it and thus substitute more and more imported fossil energy. A second possibility is efficient long-term storage systems.  And finally we can manage consumption in such a way that it coincides better with production. So if more and more solar cells are installed on house roofs, it raises these follow-up questions. But not to worry, they can be solved.


  Urs Elber at a small Axpo hydropower plant in Kollbrunn/Tösstal, which he used to run.


Where does Empa come in here?
Several projects are currently on the go at Empa: “Future Mobility”, a demonstration platform for sustainable mobility; the test building “NEST”; the “Energy Hub”; and the reconception of the energy supply for the Empa campus. These activities are ideal to combine different research fields in an interdisciplinary, conceptual way. Networked research is hugely important here, both within Empa and with external partners in the ETH Domain, and within the scope of the new Swiss Competence Center for Energy Research (SCCER). My job is to support these activities and interlink them even further.

You mentioned the role of inter-institutional pr jects. How important is this collaboration?
It’s pivotal. In 2006, for instance, with the Competence Center for Energy and Mobility (CCEM), the ETH Domain already recognized that not everyone can do everything in the same depth and that our increasingly complex world calls for more and more systemic considerations. That’s why, within the ETH Domain, complementarity is key. Through networking, we minimize – or even exclude – parallel research, which saves both time and money and enables the institutions to focus on their core competencies. There is already a very close collabo- ration in the energy sector with the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) and the other ETH institutions. I see it as my job to push this collaboration further.

Finally, a look to the future: what do the next 35 years hold in terms of energy supply?
My best guess is that we will experience a drastic transformation, quite similar to the one that took place in telecommunications in the last two decades, with paradigm shifts on the part of both suppliers and customers. Back then, there was a state monopolist who owned all the infrastructure and services and supplied the technology all the way to the customer. And today? We have to be careful transferring this model to the energy sector, though. The transformation will happen much more slowly and in a different way because the energy infrastructure is very much geared towards the long term and its effect on the landscape can’t be concealed. Nor can we predict exactly what will happen at what point in time. Technical progress will yield numerous new technologies in the next 35 years, the importance of which we can’t even fathom yet. Just think back: hardly anyone could imagine a Smartphone back in 1992. We have some exciting times in store for us – and there will be plenty to do for everyone involved.

Urs Elber was interviewed by Rainer Klose. You can find the complete interview here



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About Urs Elber
Urs Elber has been Managing Director of Empa’s Research Focus Area “Energy” since September 2014. It is his job to launch new research activities in the energy sector. At the same time, he is Empa’s prime contact for partners from industry and academia on matters of energy management, research and planning. In over 20 years of experience, Elber has ac- quired a profound knowledge of the Swiss telecommunications and energy industries: he ran various hydro, wind, solar and biomass power plants, was CEO of the “Holzenergie” group at the electricity supplier Axpo and still manages the ETH Domain’s Competence Center for Energy and Mobility (CCEM) at PSI. He is now looking to pool Empa’s expertise in the field of energy research and create closer ties with the sister institutes in the ETH Domain. Elber also puts his money where his mouth is: on the roof of his house in Wangen near Olten, a first-generation photovoltaics system has been working for over 20 years.