Clean energy innovation: could Europe become the world leader?

Clean energy innovation: could Europe become the world leader?

For Frank Gielen, InnoEnergy’s Education Director, inspiring the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs is crucial to ensuring that Europe can be a world-leader in the clean energy transition. Gielen argues that Europe can be the global centre of clean energy innovation – but it needs a spark.

The European Union is the second largest economy in the world, behind only China. It has some of the world’s most prestigious universities, a vibrant culture, and has been responsible for countless innovations and inventions that have changed the world. It has also led the world in fighting climate change, from the EU’s emissions trading scheme to Germany’s Energiewende.So, it should not be controversial to say that Europe can be the global centre of clean energy innovation. All the ingredients are there.

But there is one crucial ingredient that we are a little short on: in Europe, we need more clean energy innovators and entrepreneurs.

Dark without sparks

Entrepreneurship is like good sleep – you can never have too much. So, while in Europe we already have lots of fantastic clean energy innovation entrepreneurs doing great work, we still need many, many more.

The energy transition is not a slight change after all; it is a fundamental shift in how we approach one of the fundamental pillars of society. Change is root and branch and if we’re to keep up a pace that allows Europe to be an environmental and business leader in clean energy, we need more hands on-deck.

So, what’s stopping them? First let’s be clear what is not the cause. There is a stubborn misperception that Europe is not entrepreneurial. The very word is French, yet if you say ‘entrepreneur’ to a person, most will think of America and Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. While Europe has fewer new companies of that size, this is not the only form that innovation and entrepreneurialism take.

Europe is full of bright sparks, such as low-cost, high-performance computer manufacturer, Raspberry Pi; navigation app, Waze; and mobile payments revolutionary, iZettle – all hard at work to change things for the better.

But more of these people should be going into clean energy.

The energy industry has long been a fairly steady one. It was dominated by centralised, large incumbent players whose only concern talent-wise was to attract enough engineers to keep the system running and make incremental improvements. It was fit for purpose and didn’t require start-ups or innovators to come in and change things. In fact, many incumbents had a vested interest in postponing change for as long as possible.

That had the duel effect of not producing many entrepreneurs and innovators from within the sector and putting off the already-entrepreneurial from entering it as there were few opportunities. It is also worth noting that the entrepreneur’s credo of ‘move fast and break things’ does not apply when the ‘things’ are critical infrastructure.

Now though, the world is changing. Very soon we could – we should – have a world of prosumers who produce their own renewable energy and sell it to their neighbours or use it to power their electric vehicles (EVs). A world where any energy consumer, from household to factory, can participate in dynamic pricing and demand response programmes. A world where power is supplied by renewable sources of every scale in every location rather than a handful of hulking fossil-fuel power plants.

That world needs innovators and entrepreneurs.

Making bright sparks fly

As the new energy world develops and so do the market opportunities that come with it, the sector will gradually produce the innovators it needs. However, that process is far too slow.

So, how to accelerate it? One answer is through education.Traditional education equips students with an array of academic skills, but not necessarily those to spot and capitalise on opportunities to innovate or create a business. That has to change. The InnoEnergy Master’s School programmes are designed to fill this gap by providing students with hands-on, challenge-driven courses that see them tackle real problems in clean energy innovation. There are students right now working on solar powered boats, and others on off-grid projects in Africa. They are learning skills you cannot get from books.

In fact, 12% of graduates already run their own start-ups – a comparable level to Ivy League institutions in the USA. Four entrepreneurs made the Forbes 30 under 30 list.

But it is not just about start-ups; it is also about taking those skills and that flair for innovation to every corner of the industry. InnoEnergy’s Talent Partnership Programme connects companies with students and graduates to help companies solve challenges. Students solve real issues and learn in a live, business context.

And it is working: 76% of Master’s School’s known graduates are currently working within the EU, including 57% who are non-EU citizens. This shows that Europe is a fertile environment for young innovators and entrepreneurs to forge a career in the clean energy innovation sector, bringing in ambitious talent from around the globe.

Furthermore, Europe can export that expertise too. 24% of known graduates now work beyond the EU, many of them in developing countries. This includes one in 20 known graduates from the EU: Europe is leading by example and by the hand.

Ahead of the S-curve

Innovations are often talked about in terms of an ‘S-curve’, where early uptake is slow before rapidly accelerating then tailing off as the market saturates, ready for new innovations. It will be a similar process with creating Europe’s next wave of innovators and entrepreneurs. Soon, other educational institutions will adopt similar methods and the market will soar. We welcome this – our role as an accelerator is to get Europe to that point faster, then move on to nurturing the next wave of talent and innovation we will need.

That means anticipating what comes next for the transition and the types of skills gaps and innovation gaps it will create. We combine industry roadmaps, partner feedback and trends to analyse using artificial intelligence and data science techniques to try and predict the near future.

The trick is to consider the whole value chain, not just the headline topic. For example, we certainly need more innovation in EV batteries – and we are seeing that. But what about firefighters who will have to deal with EV crashes? They will have to cut people out the cars, exposing themselves to new risks of electric shock. Will this require new training, or new equipment, or perhaps both? And what about the skills and businesses involved with recycling those batteries at the end of life?

The scope of the energy transition is magnificent. It changes everything. It will not just be tomorrow’s bright new engineers revolutionising wind turbines or solar cells, it will be a full range of new skills and businesses. From vocational, to professional, to academic; from sales, to engineering to technical support.

Europe can be a world-leader in the energy transition. In some ways, it already is. But we need to think carefully about how to inspire the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs to make their mark on the clean energy innovation industry. And even as we are doing that, we need to be looking ahead again to the next wave of clean energy innovation, businesses and skills that our rapidly transforming society will need. At InnoEnergy, we aim to do precisely that.

Frank Gielen
Education Director
Tweet @InnoEnergyEU

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