EU universities to collaborate closely on energy

European universities are going to work more closely together to beat the energy problems of the future, following the first meeting of the European Platform of Universities Engaged in Energy Research, Education and Training.

Many European universities are already seeking answers to the question of what happens as fossil fuels run out. But the problem is of such massive proportions that closer collaboration will be needed and – until now – it has been hard for institutions to find out what others are doing and how they can contribute to current research.

“We brought them together so they can learn from each other’s best practice,” said John Smith, deputy secretary general of the European University Association (EUA), who jointly organised the meeting at the Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands on 23 and 24 February.

Energy is a highly interdisciplinary field, which can make it difficult to develop effective international cooperation.

“Within universities physicists, architects and even psychologists have to work together, for example”, said Hester Bijl, chair of the Delft Energy Initiative at Delft University of Technology. “This is sometimes hard to achieve, because they do not speak the same academic language.”

In the past few years, Bijl added, universities in The Netherlands have been working more closely together, “with promising results. We hope to achieve the same thing across borders. So European countries could benefit from each other.”

Cooperation is already important for universities and is becoming increasingly so, between universities and with the private sector.

An EUA survey presented at the event showed that half of the relevant research at European universities is being financed by companies.

“It shows that the industry is involved in education and wants to invest in knowledge. There is a shared agenda,” John Smith said. “Universities see that their academic research is stimulated. Companies get out-of-the-box ideas.”

The survey also showed that 20,000 academics are active in energy research at European universities.

One of the case studies that caused excitement during the gathering in Delft was the Energy Club. Out of a total of 15,000 students in Delft, 1,000 are members of this group. One of its goals is to design a house with the help of students of architecture, civil engineering and physics.

“It is impressive how many students want to work together,” said Torbjørn Digernes, rector of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “We could set up a similar club in my own country or even make an international club.”

Digernes added that institutions need to teach young, bright people to solve the problems that lie ahead of us. “It is fascinating that we do not yet know many of these solutions. That’s what teaching is about: to stimulate students to think out of the box.

“Former Delft [University of Technology] Rector Jakob Fokkema said that solutions coming from students are important because they don’t know what is impossible yet. Therefore, we need to bring them and their knowledge together internationally,” said Digernes.

“The world is facing a major challenge,” Hester Bijl said. “How can we make sure that people still have electricity in 50 years from now? We need universities to educate and innovate.”