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May 9, 2010

The last day of this intense and enriching program made sure that our delegation would once again be inspired by a Swiss institution’s leading research in the energy field, and the density of information was definitely held up all the way to this last afternoon.

A visit of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ), founded in 1855 with the mission to contribute to Swiss industrialization, exposed our guests one more time to a myriad of numbers, research data, graphs and innovative inventions. In a lively presentation that was sure to wake us all up at this early hour, Dr. Lino Guzzella, Professor of Thermotronics at the ETHZ’s Institute of Dynamic Systems and Control (IDSC) emphasized that mobility is one of the most important and difficult challenges facing future generations.
Indeed, based on a proven positive correlation between a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and the number of vehicles per person, it must be assumed that the developing world (particularly China and India) will face a demand for an additional 1.5 billion cars by 2050 – assuming that they desire the same freedom and mobility that the Western world enjoys, i.e. around 1 car for every two persons, which is a fair assumption. Even though we have achieved significant reduction in pollution from cars (especially NOx) thanks to the catalytic converter, the problems that have not been solved are those of CO2 emissions and the energy problem.*
(*This last statement provoked some controversy among our delegation members, which was thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time)

In order to tackle both problems, the IDSC seeks to explore the potential for saving fuel at a cost that is affordable to those additional 3 billion people that will desire cars in the  developing world. Hybrid cars, which use a small engine but have an added electric motor for extra acceleration power, are 35% more efficient that regular cars (30% efficiency gains from downsizing the engine only) – and, at a high cost, are a good solution for wealthier drivers. Fully Electric cars must still be further developed to be a solution to conventional cars, as batteries must be recharged every couple of hours (plug-ins are better), and, again, the environmental impact of electric cars still depends on what the source of the used electricity is. And, the truth is that today, many country still predominantly run on coal.

The IDSC invented an engine that seeks to find solutions to many of the above mentioned challenges at a reasonable e cost – hence, at a cost that is affordable for the 3 billion people in the developing world that will require cars in the next four decades. The pneumatic-hybrid engine system replaces the battery by airtank pressure. With a small engine with a turbo charger, where breaks build up pressure, the price to milage ratio is much better than with for the electric hyrid car (were the price is higher) or a regular small engine car (where the milage is lower).
While the pneumatic-hybrid engine is recognized as a potential solution to the demand for mobility in low-income countries, it still needs around 10 to 15 years to be fully developed. One remaining challenge is that a car with this engine would be much lighter, which makes it less safe. However, Professor Guzella emphasized that in the future, cars will generally become more “intelligent”: there will be increased car-to-car communication through sensors, as well as communication between cars and other traffic participants and infrastructure obstacles, which will, overall, improve safety through increased automation.

After a visit of the laboratory, where the delegation was able to get a visual impression of the discussed engine, Dr. Noembrini, Managing Director of the ETHZ’s Energy Science Center, gave us a broad overview of the Center’s activities. The Center, which encompasses 40 active research groups from 11 different departments (mostly engineering, but also economics and social sciences), aims to enhance communication between departments and foster interdisciplinary collaboration. With regards to the energy challence, the Center builds its research on the “4 R” strategy: 1) Reduce (increase efficiency); 2) Remove (through processes such as sequestration); 3) Replace (e.g. non-carbon energy carriers); and 4) Recycle.

More concretely, the Center’s research focuses on increasing efficiency in every step of energy conversion, moving towards a zero-carbon heat sector (e.g. electrical heat pumps and ambient or solar heat), and – as pointed out previously by Dr. Guzella – promoting low-carbon mobility. To reach these goals, Dr. Noembrini emphasized the importance of electrification. Indeed, processes driven by electricity are most often more efficient and the portfolio of sources for electricity are multiple. Hence, he states that “electricity is the backbone of the future energy system”.

Dr. Noembrini’s presentation was followed by three presentation of concrete research projects that the Energy Science Center is involved with. The ARTEMIS project, which researches the interplay between traffic systems and the electricity grid, works on a system that can simulate traffic situations and the model transport system of a whole city through initial demand research and scoring.
In the area of building efficiency, one research project  has come up with a simulator of a self-sufficient home (SELF), which is based on a built-in power station with seasonal storage, a fueling system and its own water supply through water collection.
Finally, in a last presentation, Dr. Carmeliet, Chair of Building Physics, presented his research on multiscale building physics, from nano to the urban scale, which focuses primarily on microclimates. His research work aims to find solutions to the “heat island effect” in cities can be reduced with green roofs, water, and specific shapes of buildings, thereby reducing the need for energy for cooling.

After this very information and theoretical morning, the afternoon led the delegation to ETHZ’s Science City Campus on the Hönggerberg. The campus has been coined a “beacon for sustainability”, which provides students, researchers and member of the EHTZ with an important base to promote highl-level developments and modern research.  An earth storage system replaces fossil fuels, which allows the Institute to achieve massive reductions in CO2 emissions on this campus. Buildings are constructed and renovated with a view to be operated with greatest possible energy efficiency and the lowest possible consumption of resources. Undoubtedly, Science City impressed our delegation with its high-tech approach to reduce energy needs and reduce CO2 emissions, and several of our visitors expressed their admiration for the sometimes “detail-neurotic” but therefore highly effective Swiss way of achieving sustainability objectives.

Sustainable mobility – collective and individual

May 7, 2010

This Thursday predominantly covered the theme of mobility and took us from Zurich to Olten to the picturesque Emmental to Dübendorf – indeed, a mobile day!

After a comfortable train ride to Olten, the main connecting axe between the cities of Bern, Basel and Zurich, Markus Halder of the Swiss Federal Railroads‘ (SBB CFF FFS) Environmental Center convincingly presented to us the advantages of SBB’s electric railway system. Indeed, Swiss trains are four times more energy efficient than cars, and emit 20 times less CO2! Nonetheless, the SBB is facing many challenges in the coming years with an expected increase in demand of 130% in a transportation system that is already highly developed, coordinated and exploited.
In order to meet the increasing passenger demand in a sustainable manner, the SBB has hence launched its Energy Saving Initiative, which aims to save 10% of energy through various measures: 1) improved operations management (even smoother traffic flow); 2) energy efficient driving (training of locomotive drivers in the use of regenerative brakes); 3) technological optimization of locos and coaches (such as better insulation, ventilation control and energy management of parked trains); and 4) refurbishment of buildings and fixed facilities.
Through these measures, the SBB can not only gain in terms of cost, but also in terms of corporate image, which is of utmost importance for this state-owned company that relies on support from Swiss voters to continue delivering first class services.

The railway then took us reliably and perfectly on schedule to the small town Huttwil in the Emmental, home to the famous Emmentaler cheese. The delegation was delighted to visit the highly innovative and all around sustainable company electric bike company FLYER there – which won the Federal Office of Energy’s prestigious Watt d’Or price in 2009 for its achievements in sustainability. Indeed, this highly dynamic company does not only produce a creative and energy efficient alternative to commonly used motorized vehicles, but its production plant is also a highly impressive MINERGIE labelled building: it is fully solar powered with a beautiful solar plant on its roof, and is heated with heat pumps using ground water.

Flyer’s CEO Kurt Schär explained that the bikes are not fully automated, but need constant pedaling to be trigger the electric motor – which in the eyes of our very health conscious and active delegation was met with great excitement. The bike’s electric motor, which is powered with a rechargeable lithium-iron battery, can be adjusted manually by choosing the amount of assistance, from 50% to 150% (the latter can be very useful for steep hills, as we later discovered). The battery has an average recharge time of 3 to 5 hours at a normal electric docking station and lasts for 40-60 km (ca. 60-90 miles) on average.

After visiting the various rooms of the production plant, admiring the building’s green design and learning about the bike’s simple but compelling concept, our American visitors were very keen on going on a test ride with the electric bikes, which proved to be not a good (and at the same time easy) exercise, but also a very fun and entertaining adventure. The ride took us over the hills of the Emmental, past typical charming farm buildings, over hills and through valleys, and, as Kurt Schär had promised, the bikes put a big smile on everyone’s face – which easily compensated for the cold and humid weather.
Delegation members from the East Coast, Georgia and California were equally eager to discuss with Kurt Schär how they could best bring these appealing and practical bikes to their states, and many ideas were discussed as to how the company’s entry into the U.S. market could be facilitated. The company has experienced very high growth over the last few years, and while they are currently running at full capacity, there is a strong interest in partnering with American individuals to bring more U.S. citizens onto Flyer bikes.

After some steep hills, which we bravely mounted with the help of the electric motor, a fantastic typical Emmental farm welcomed us for a fully homemade, organic lunch cooked with local produce, which was very much appreciated. Over lunch, the discussion over mobility in the U.S. and best practices were continued passionately, and many seeds were sowed for potential future collaborations.

Our last visit of the day was at the Swiss Science and Technology Center (EMPA) in Dübendorf, an institute that is liked to Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (EPFL and ETHZ), the Swiss government, industry and SMEs, and national and international laboratories with a view to promote applied research, test materials and promote their transfer into the market place. Predominantly funded by the Swiss government (65%), EMPA also acts as an incubator for start-up companies by offering office / laboratory space at reduced rent, and access to instruments and tools that would not be affordable to these young companies otherwise.

A short tour took us to the Center’s hydrogen laboratory, as well as the solar energy laboratory, where our participant Ken Zweibel was – once again – mentioned as one of the inspirational forces and main contributors to the recent breakthroughs in solar technology.

Overall, it was – once again – a highly inspiring day full of activity, fruitful discussion and cross-pollination between our American guests and our Swiss hosts!

Tales of waste and wine

May 6, 2010

Unfortunately, the swift raindrops were once again our loyal companions on this morning’s walk through the  first European city to be awarded the European Energy Award Gold for its achievements in sustainable development, Lausanne.

One of the many infrastructure projects that contribute to Lausanne’s claim to fame as an innovative city is the M2 automated metro system that links the lakeside to the higher altitude parts of town. Due to its rather unique geographic location on the shore of the Lac Léman, Lausanne stretches from 372m to 929m above sea level on a small surface of only only 41.4km2 or about 16 square miles – which poses particular challenges to city planning and transportation. The M2 is the backbone of Lausanne’s public transportation system and links the various main connection points vertically with a fully automated, driver free technology that ensures flexibility (ease and speeed of adaptation to usage fluctuations) and safety (the human element is removed). Quite impressively, this open access system has a low cheat rate of only about 3% – which is lower than most public transportation system with rigid access control.

After a short metro ride up Lausanne’s steep hills, our next stop was the waste incineration plant Tridel SA. A public-private partnership, Tridel recovers and incinerates post-recycling urban waste of the city of Lausanne and 144 towns and municipalities of the canton Vaud since 2007. Due to its location inside the city, Tridel had to come up with an innovative model to transport the waste to the plant, avoid smell and achieve maximal reduction of emissions. The waste is collected by trucks within the communities, loaded on to the Federal railroads and transported via a newly built underground train tunnel directly to the plant. This method keeps CO2 emissions from waste transportation low and avoids any interference with the city’s traffic system.
In a highly sophisticated filtering process, the smoke is cleaned of dust, ashes, as well as environmentally harmful emissions such as mercury and dioxides. The steam generated through the incineration process is used for district heating for 18,000 persons and electricity production for  23’000 citizens in Lausanne.

Over a delicious lunch and local wine  in a beautiful historic building in the vineyards of the Lavaux, a UNESCO World Heritage since 2007, Vice-Mayor of Lausanne, Mr. Jean-Yves Pidoux, gave us an overview of the many initiatives that make Lausanne one of the most progressive cities in terms of environmental performance and sustainability. Under the umbrella of “Agenda 21”, the city has vowed to reduce its environmental footprint and promote sustainable solutions according to the notion “Think global – Act local”. Among many other programs, the city has significantly changed shifted its energy mix towards renewables such as hydro, solar and wind; has launched initiatives to improve public transportation along the lines of M2; and has strengthened civic engagement in various activities that bring together citizens and authorities.

It was particularly inspiring to hear Lausanne’s Vice-Mayor and his counterpart from Cambridge (MA), delegation member Henrietta Davis, discuss ways of sharing best practices among cities, establishing networks and setting common goals.

Back in Zurich, day four of our study tour ended with a lively dinner with many special guests at the traditional Zunfthaus zur Waag.
Dr. Ruedi Kriesi, Head of Zehnder Group Technology and Vice-President of MINERGIE, the Swiss version of the U.S. LEED system, explained how we can best implement building standards that ensure efficient use of energy. His experience has shown that the emphasis must be put on gains in comfort and quality of life, and he insists that the main focus should move away from financial considerations.

Entrepreneur Anil Sethi gave a short presentation of the ETHZ spin-off Flisom, which aims to produce flexible thin-film solar cells with low-cost roll-to-roll manufacturing. Flisom got a particularly enthusiastic endorsement of our delegation member and solar expert Ken Zweibel, who emphasized that this technology is, indeed, one of the most promising in the market today.

Finally, Remo Estermann, CEO of the start-up company TEXX, gave a passionate introduction to the company’s Battery Management System (BMS) for electric vehicles. Thanks to a novel and highly precise and efficient concept that allows for perfect adaptation of the charging characteristic, TEXX  BMS can significantly extend electric vehicles range compared to conventional systems.

The evening was filled with lively conversations and discussions, and, once again, many dots were connected between the U.S. and Switzerland.

Micro and Macro: from precision technologies to sustainable building

May 5, 2010

This second day took the delegation on a journey to environmental solutions of all dimensions: from microtechnologies to holistic solutions to urban planning.

Mr. El-Khoury, Mr. Kotrotsios and Mr. Ballif from the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM), a non-profit institution that aims to bridge academic research and industry, highlighted some key projects in the renewables and energy efficiency field. The Center, which roots in the Neuchâtel region’s watchmaking industry, partners with large industrial corporations such as Siemens and NASA to develop precision technologies to advance science and find solutions to environmental challenges. CSEM is the breeding ground for innovative solutions such as intelligent systems for comfort control that optimize the use of electricity, presence detection and automated lighting control, the much debated solar islands and, most recently, Swatch-founder Nicolas Hayek’s latest invention in the green mobility space: a hydrogen-oxygen fuelled car.
The presentations were not only very informative but also contributed to heated discussions about the very practicality of some of these technologies and led to philosophical questions as to whether humans are trainable or whether it should rather be left to technology ensure responsible use of energy.

To move our focus from micro dimensions to macro solutions to energy challenges, Dr. Anne-Claude Cosandey presented HOLISTIC, a Europe-wide project that brings together European cities in a concerted effort to create sustainable neighborhoods. To do so, member cities such as Neuchâtel retrofit and rebuild whole neighborhoods according to intelligent, energy-saving criteria based on three pillars:

1) a substantial increase in use of renewable energy;
2) significant improvement in the energy performance of the built environment; and
3) the provision of intelligent energy supply management that gives greater energy autonomy to communities.

A short walk through Neuchâtel’s “Ecopark”, which encompasses retrofitted and new residential housing, the modern headquarter of the local school of commerce, as well as the architecturally impressive Federal Office of Statistics, gave us a good idea of how sustainable energy technologies can be put into practice in the context of urban planning.

After an energizing and inspiring lunch with representatives from the CSEM and HOLISTIC, the tour bus took us to Lausanne where we had the chance to visit EPFL’s recently awarded sustainable campus, including the newly launched Rolex Learning Center designed by the famous Japanese SANAA architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. This building, a unique structure  that reminds of an Emmental cheese with its flowing floors, bridges, rounded windows and courtyards, hosts the campuses’ main library, cafeterias, a high-end restaurant and offices. As part of EPFL’s sustainable campus, it is flooded with natural light, automated climate control and shades, and heated with water of the Lac Léman through an elaborated heatpump system that services all campus facilities.

The participants were not only impressed with the aesthetic aspects of this building, but the presentation of other sustainability initiatives on campus and, particularly, Professor Hans-Björg Püttgen’s presentation of the EPFL Energy Center prompted one of our participants to seriously consider enrolling at the EPFL’s School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering – so, once again, dots were connected between the U.S. and Switzerland!

The ensuing dinner with EPFL’s luminaries Prof. Michael Graetzel, Prof. Jean-Louis Scartezzini, Prof. Hans-Björg Püttgen and Mr. Philippe Vollichard allowed the participants to take the vivid discussions from the EPFL campus to the Café Beau-Rivage and connect more dots over a delicious dinner.

Little sun but lots of solar

May 4, 2010

On this first day of the study tour, we were plunged straight into energy theme with four different presentations in two different cities.

In a dynamic and well illustrated presentation Mr. Jean-Christophe Füeg, Head of International Energy Affairs at the Federal Office of Energy eloquently warmed us up after a rainy ride to Bern with an introduction to the Swiss energy sector. Some key take-aways were:
– While Swiss total energy production is still predominantly based on oil (33.1%), over 60% of total electricity production is sourced from hydro (dams and small)
– Renewable energy makes up 18.27% of total final energy consumption, with hydro and wood & biogas accounting for almost 16%
– Switzerland, like many countries, is confronted with a looming electricity supply gap due to a steady growth in demand (ca. 2%) but declining supply from fossil and imported nuclear energy
– While the Swiss government has committed to major cuts in CO2 emissions under the Kyoto protocol, the principle of “subsidiarity” incentivized industry to cut down emissions on their own terms before introducing a CO2 tax in 2004 – which, so far, has helped the Swiss stay on track despite some setbacks due to the recession.
– The Federal Council’s Energy Strategy of 2007 is based on four pillars: 1. promotion of renewable energies, in particular biomass, heatpumps and solar;  2. an action plan for energy efficiency, most prominently with a large-scale building refurbishment program; 3. the expansion of large power plans such as nuclear and/or gas; and 4. strengthening international energy relations, particularly with the E.U.

Dr. Ingrid Kissling-Näf, Head of the Swiss Innovation Promotion Agency CTI then complemented the policy view with her insights from working to promote entrepreneurship in Switzerland. In particular, she highlighted how the coaching processes and networking offered by CTI helps entrepreneurs with bright ideas and innovative projects transform into successful market players. While cleantech start-up companies still account for a small percentage of CTI supported projects, Dr. Kissling-Näf emphasized that it is a growing and promising market, and specifically alluded to highly successful ventures such as the CTI electric bike company Flyer  that we will visit during on Thursday.

The afternoon program took us to the Stade de Suisse, Bern’s soccar stadium with the world’s largest solar roof.
While our American guests might not be as passionate about soccer as the Swiss are, they sure were intrigued with the stadium and the highly interesting tour and presentation given by the representatives of the canton of Bern’s energy authority BKW. Interactive miniature models illustrated the technologies used, and seemed perfectly suited for this lively and proactive delegation who asked many insightful questions and readily played with the models.

Our last visit of the day took us the town of Lyss, home to the company 3S Swiss Solar Systems, the technological world market leader for manual and semi-automatic production lines for solar module manufacture. The many solar experts in our delegation were keen to learn in detail how 3S manufactures its building-integrated solar systems and many dots were connected during this visit. The informative company presentation given by Gerald Lessle of 3S US operations prepared the ground for a highly illustrative tour of the manufacturing plant that ended in a lively and enriching discussion between the delegation members and our host  and 3S Sales Director Andreas Schöni.

This first day nourished our minds and brains with much information about Swiss excellence and expertise in the solar industry, which – in combination with this very lively and upbeat composition of delegation members – seemed to make up for the somewhat gloomy, rainy weather.

Warm-up over Bündnerteller, Raclette and Fondue

May 3, 2010

Thanks to Icelandic Eyjafjallajokull volcano’s cooperation, all nine participants made it safely to rainy Zurich for a relaxed warm-up dinner over typical Swiss food – cheese, cheese and more cheese.

Our official guide from Presence Switzerland, Katharina Antonietti, made sure we are all up and ready for a week of interesting visits and a packed schedule, while participants experimented new Swiss dishes, started sharing their stories and exchanged ideas during a lively dinner.

An promising start to a exciting week!

Atlantic Crossing

May 1, 2010

As the U.S. response personnel are fighting hard to protect the Southern shorelines after the terrible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it becomes once again clear that new, cleaner, safer sources of energy must be given priority in the years to come.

With a view to exploring alternatives to our traditional energy patterns, a delegation from across the United States including Hawaii is getting ready today to cross the Atlantic for a week of inspiration, learning, and networking – Swiss style. This delegation is as diverse  as the institutions that will be visited over the course of this trip: from policymakers and opinion leaders, entrepreneurs and industry experts, to researchers and academics, this group brings valuable in-depth knowledge of renewable energy and energy efficiency to this crosscultural discussion.

We are particularly proud that we have a majority of outstanding women in this group, which bears witness to the fact that the once male-dominated energy field is becoming more diverse and open-minded – a development that is crucial for an industry that is in dire need of reinventing itself in an environment of increasingly scarce resources.

The Swiss Confederation, represented by ThinkSwiss and swissnex, looks very much forward to welcoming this distinguished group to our country and showcase the creativity, innovation and excellence that make Switzerland rank number two in Yale’s recent Environmental Performance Index (EPI).
This coming week, a diverse and exciting program will allow the delegation and their Swiss counterparts to exchange, network and connect dots to strenghten the ties between North American and Switzerland in the fields of renewable energy and energy efficiency – hopefully beyond the duration of this trip.

Safe travels to everyone and welcome to a week of “green” adventures in Switzerland!