by Carl Binding and Han La Poutré

Modern, industrialized, society is heavily dependent on ubiquitous, cheap energy, which we expect to be readily available, not to be polluting, and to be convenient to use.

Since the invention of the steam engine by James Watt, this paradigm has lead towards tremendous improvement of life quality in the developed world, and developing countries eagerly aspire to similar energy standards.

However, the price of this hunger for energy is increasing. Fossil fuel resources such as oil or gas are becoming harder to explore, even leading to environmental disasters as with the Gulf of Mexico oil-platform, recently. Exploration of shale gas (“fracking”) causes negative environmental impact, beyond the well-known CO2 problematics. Besides the sheer availability of fossil energy, associated CO2 emissions have caused wide-spread concerns about impacts on climate and on human health (fine particle emissions).


Another kind of fossil fuel energy source, namely uranium-based nuclear fission, has been explored for about 50 years. It is CO2 neutral, but has additional risks and thus costs associated with its operations. More importantly on a longer time scale, the nuclear waste disposal has not yet found a satisfactory answer. Furthermore, nuclear fission is a large consumer of water for reactor cooling, which is considered a negative environmental impact.

It is against this background that concerned citizens, industries, and their political representatives have shown increased interest in the use of renewable, natural, energy resources. These are mainly represented by solar energy, be it in the form of photo-voltaic or simple heat, and by wind power. Other energy forms are based on bio-mass, wave energy, and of course the traditional hydro-power electrical generation plants.

An important challenge of wind and solar energy is their stochastic nature. Traditionally, power generation has been planned based on predictions of the aggregated energy consumption (load). Since wind and solar energy are hard to plan, their availability is uncertain. Hence, this fundamentally changes the traditional electrical power engineering equation of “generation follows load” into the challenge of “load must follow generation”.

In addition, new devices are appearing more and more in our energy ecosystem, which will influence its characteristics. For example, electric vehicles and heat pumps are characterized by heavy power consumption exceeding those of past domestic devices, but at the same time these new devices allow for the storage of energy. And micro-CHPs (combined heat and power) allow for efficient generation of power in addition to heat. These developments give new control problems to be tackled, but also open up new ways of handling our power systems.

In this special theme of ERCIM News, we are happy to present a wide spectrum of ongoing research activities which attempt to address today's energy dilemma.

Better building design and technology is seen as a path forward to further decrease the volume of energy consumed – always a good idea when a resource becomes scarce. In the same spirit, we see approaches to make better use of transportation means by giving the end-user tools to select a convenient yet ecological means of transportation.

The intelligent power grid is another large theme. By this, we understand a more optimal usage of existing power grid resources to minimize waste as well as to align demand with renewable energy generation. This amounts not only to a large control and optimization problem, in the form of market-based approaches and automated demand side management, but needs to be associated with a large communications and computer infrastructure. This, in turn, causes ample security concerns summarized under the notion of “cyber security” which is addressed by several of the ongoing projects.

A system as large as the electrical power grid – an example of which is the European ENTSO-E grid which ranges from Europe's North all the way to its far South and even Northern Africa (spanning 24 countries and 400 million users) – cannot be rebuilt in a short time, given the tremendous costs involved and given today’s often vocal opposition to power grid projects in many countries. Simulation, addressed in some contributions, thus also plays a role in planning and designing the future power grid.

The ultimate power users, however, remain individuals. How can we motivate humans to use energy in a more efficient way? We have included some papers describing how to make the end-user more aware of his or her power usage and the use of game theory to effectively tie the end-user into the energy markets of the future. The challenge will be to make the end-consumer price conscious – for a commodity whose generation and transport only costs percents of a family’s budget.

Use of bio-mass is addressed in an interesting project which uses algae for energy production as well as the issues arising with wide-spread exploration of bio-mass.

The challenges ahead are huge. Fundamental science has found solutions to many of the smarter energy issues. It is the large scale deployment in a cost-effective, safe, and environmentally sound manner which has to be addressed. Ultimately, the choice is ours: how much are we willing to reign in, respectively reconsider, our energy household of the future and how much are we ready to spend on more effective use of energy.

We hope that several of the projects presented here can make a contribution on the route to a sustainable energy system, which is, as the British physicist David JC MacKay terms it, “without the hot air”.

Please contact:
Carl Binding
IBM Research Lab, Switzerland
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Han La Poutré
CWI and Utrecht University, the Netherlands
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Next issue: January 2018
Special theme:
Quantum Computing
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