It’s two minutes to midnight as far as the energy transition is concerned. Governments, industry, companies and consumers do know and sense that something needs to be done to drastically reduce CO2 emissions, says Ludo Deferm, Executive Vice-President at imec and member of the Solliance Supervisory Board. “But the path to the 2050 targets is not properly mapped out.” According to Deferm, it will take an entire network of small cogs to combat climate change.
In the Dutch Province of North Brabant, companies, government authorities and research institutes are working closely together on new applications for solar energy. Those innovations need to find their way to the market faster, states Marc Glaudemans, managing director of the province of North Brabant. “We will only be able to make an impact if those innovations are adopted on a large scale. By doing that, you not only make an impact on this task for society, but you also build up a part of the industry. You develop a whole new ecosystem, creating new jobs and businesses.”
Solliance and the Province of North Brabant joined forces and organized the Brabant Solar Day. What was initially supposed to be a day-long event, with an exhibition, a networking lunch and work visits to SolarBEAT on the grounds of the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), as well as to Solliance Solar Research on the High Tech Campus Eindhoven, was narrowed down to an online TV broadcast on account of the corona measures.
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In a talk show-like setting, three panel discussions addressed climate change, global challenges, new solar technologies, the integration of solar cells into products and recycling. Among those seated at the table were representatives of the European Commission and the European Parliament, scientists, from the Netherlands as well as Germany, inventors and makers of innovations, and representatives of construction companies.
Funding and public support
Glaudemans: “The goal was to have a conversation with each other and to see where things stand in science.” For example, Solliance is working on solar cells on thin film, which will enable the integration of solar cells into building facades and sound barriers.” This innovative application is transparent and the possibilities are endless. We wanted to show the first production line and prototypes. So that, for example, construction companies can come up with ideas to apply these solar cells on a large scale.” The planned work visits were replaced by videos.
“If we want to bring the foil that Solliance is working on to the market, then you need the whole ecosystem. Not just the bright minds at TU/e and High Tech Campus, but also the people who know about funding and about the European programs that are supposed to make this possible. It’s not just about the technology, but also about public support: How do you get people to buy these kinds of products?” Glaudemans also cites the company Lightyear, which is developing cars that run on solar energy. “The thin foil can also be used on car roofs or trucks.”
Looking back, Deferm was pleased with the conversation that followed after Tom Berendsen was introduced, a member of the European Parliament. Berendsen stressed the importance of keeping innovation within Brabant, or even within Europe. In the case of traditional solar panels, Europe was in control of the market at first, until China managed to get the costs down and took over that market. Heleen de Coninck, professor of socio-technical innovation and climate change at TU/e, who is also affiliated with EIRES in addition to being associate professor of innovation studies and sustainability at Radboud University, disagreed with him on that point.
In her view, being overly dependent is “indeed risky.” “We may mind that China produces most of the solar panels nowadays, but if China had not done that, there would never have been such a drop in costs. China invested and we are now reaping the benefits of that.” According to the professor, it doesn’t help if you shut yourself off as a country. “If we really want the energy transition to happen all over the world, then all countries need to benefit from it. Local innovation is good if you can also get other countries interested in the fact that such technology is good for their own country.”
Deferm agrees with her. “It is a good idea for Europe to look at why China has taken over in the case of traditional solar panels. That has mainly to do with the approach that is taken over there. Europe should not isolate itself. I do recognize that use of knowledge from European players has been and is still being used, but I believe and I think Europe can learn from that instead of locking itself into a sate of isolation.”
Booster jab for innovation
As Deferm sees it, what the government needs to do is start promoting certain applications. “Like integrating solar panels into buildings, for one. By drawing up regulations that those materials should be used. And apply that to all government buildings. Then the government is setting a good example.”
Gerard de Leede took part in the panel to talk about product development. In his opinion, a different way of investing is what is needed. With the start-up Solarge, he is aiming to market solar panels made out of plastic. A solar panel made by Solarge weighs 50 % less than one made of glass. De Leede has set his sights on making the most sustainable panels in the world. “We have €23 million worth of orders – letters of intent – but our factory still has to be built. That constitutes a risk for investors. You see that investors would rather put their money into a solar or wind farm. That’s safer. But you don’t help innovation move forward that way.”
“Within Europe, a project can be given a so-called Important Project of Common European Interest (IPCEI) status. “With this, the EU says that a country may grant state aid to such a project under certain conditions. The Dutch government or the EU can then financially support a company up to the level that is really still needed to bring it to the market.” De Leede believes that this opportunity is not yet being made use of in the Netherlands. “Why that is, I have no idea, but it would be a booster jab for innovation.”
Peter Toonssen, program manager and business developer at TNO/Solliance, and Arno Dumoré, CEO of Duflex Mechatronics, are also troubled by the way investments and subsidies are currently handled. Recently, TNO started an initiative at Brainport Industries Campus (BIC) for a pilot production line dedicated to the fully automated production of flexible solar cell films. Duflex and Maan Group built the machinery that can produce films for a variety of purposes.
”Toonssen: “In discussions with manufacturers and construction companies, for example, I noticed that they do want to be energy-neutral, but cannot see a way to achieve this. They don’t get any further than simply buying standard panels. What they would like most is to go to the market themselves with a product that they can attach their name to. They’d like to be able to process a semi-finished product in their own factories. That’s the route we’re taking with the pilot at BIC.”
Financing for the machine came through. But Dumoré and Toonssen are now facing delays in taking the next step: actually putting it into practice. Dumoré: “Companies are willing, but a subsidy from, for example, the RVO (the Netherlands Enterprise Agency) is not forthcoming because it concerns a ‘pilot’. What the government probably thinks is: ‘We’ve bought a car and it will drive by itself.’ But it needs fuel, maintenance and there are procedures involved in order to get things up and running. That’s not something one company can pull off.”
To Glaudemans, the added value of a day like Brabant Solar Day lies in hearing what parties are up against. “The province is not a legislative authority, but we can lobby the national government to amend legislation. Or make a plea for temporary pilot areas to try out innovations. Regulations are always tend to lag behind, so you need to create a space where you can try things out on a temporary basis anyway.”
Deferm also hails it as a worthwhile day. Although he would have also liked to have had a discussion about storing surplus solar and wind energy. “These energy sources are not continuously available. How do you capture that energy and what do you do to store it? More solar panels and wind turbines alone are not the solution. You won’t be able to replace gas and petroleum power plants that way. We need to have discussions about how you can ensure a continuous supply of electricity to homes and buildings. But that could be something for another time.”
It took quite a bit of hard work to turn the original day into an online event, project coordinator Brabant Solar Day and policy officer International Innovation Cooperation for the Province of North Brabant Ulrike Lerche admits after the event. But she looks back on it with a sense of satisfaction.
“We, as the Brabant Solar Day organizing committee, have put on a wonderful and successful event. One of our main goals was to promote exchanges with known and new cooperation partners from home and abroad. Although the event could in the end only take place online, we have noticed that networking is still going on after the event. For example, Solliance is engaged in talks with German parties from the construction and energy sectors with a view to exploring concrete cooperation options. In addition, Solarge and Foundation Open are planning to visit a recycling technology company in Grenoble together. We’re obviously looking forward to that.”