Smog: The next tech frontier for energy entrepreneurs

Clean air, no longer solely the domain of regulators, city planners and NGO activists, is the latest frontier for technology entrepreneurs, and for good reason: opportunity abounds.

InnoEnergy’s Clean Air Challenge report, launched late last year by Jerzy Buzek, former President of the European Parliament, is testament to the burgeoning opportunities that await. The research identifies that EU citizens stand to save a staggering €183bn by adopting innovative, smog-reducing technologies over the next seven years. The prospective saving is made up of a reduction in health costs and premature deaths, resulting in efficiency and economic gains.

But first, those innovative, smog-reducing technologies must be developed, commercialised, and implemented. In essence, the report is a call to action, even a roadmap, for energy entrepreneurs everywhere to do just that.

Policy, regulation, access to finance and wider societal support are all important elements of bringing forward the next generation of smog-reducing technologies. Yet, to help entrepreneurs on their way, identifying the most promising routes, and creating the right environment to encourage innovation are as equally important. Everybody must get behind the change we want to see if we are to reduce smog.

As the two major contributors to smog, innovative heat and transport solutions are critical for combating air pollution. In Western Europe, emissions are primarily the result of road transport. Just last month Madrid banned the oldest and most polluting cars from entering the city centre in a bid to reduce air pollution by 40 per cent.

Heating and cooling processes drive most of the energy demand of urban infrastructure. In Eastern Europe the main source of heating-related smog is caused by the use of low-quality fuels and old furnaces to heat households and businesses. In Poland, for example, 60 per cent of households burn coal and waste in solid fuel stoves to heat their homes to save on energy bills, creating a massive air pollution problem for the region. Breathing the winter air in the city of Cracow is equivalent to smoking 2500 cigarettes every year.

The good news for innovators is that because it is such a versatile problem, with causes and impacts that vary by country, region, and even by street, there are innumerate solutions to explore.

To rank the various potential solutions the report assesses each for technological readiness, market attractiveness, public policies and awareness, and potential impact. The outcome is a diverse range of promising technologies to look out for.

With most transport modes still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, exploiting renewable options through the electrification of transport is of top priority. Solutions that support continued roll out of electric vehicles, and an interconnected network of fast charging solutions to support them were identified as key technologies by the research. Smart transport systems such as hybrid fuel trains and artificial intelligence traffic management were also marked out as having high market and technological attractiveness.

Spanish start-up Evolo is leading the sustainable, urban mobility charge with its range of power-assisted tricycles and bikes. Supported by InnoEnergy, Evolo’s concept replaces inner-city couriers entirely: instead of a heavy-goods vehicle spewing carbon emissions, the tricycles and bikes offer a much cleaner way of making deliveries.

The bikes can transport up to 250kg per trip, and can be taken onto pavements ” ideal for heavily pedestrianised cities such as Copenhagen and Venice, and for those cities introducing car free days such as Paris and Madrid. Parking is also much easier meaning they can make more stops in less time. The result is a nimble, sustainable, urban delivery vehicle that helps to make cities more habitable, and inner-city deliveries more efficient.

In Europe, heating and cooling requirements account for half of all energy consumed, with little being supplied from renewable sources, and much of it being wasted due to poor efficiency. So, of top priority for heat is solar thermal energy, heat storage (particularly underground solutions) and energy efficiency measures such as smart building energy management systems, as well as distribution management systems. Energy positive windows, smart ventilation, smart meters, combined heat and power and heat networks are also attractive from an investment point of view but require more research and development, and carry a little more risk to bring them to market.

In terms of early successes, a leading example of European entrepreneurship comes in the form of Germany-based Vilisto. Backed by InnoEnergy this novel solution helps reduces unnecessary heat consumption and improves efficiency in buildings with almost no intervention needed by the consumer. Ovis is a fully automated, self-learning heating technology, that uses an AI-based radiator thermostat with integrated presence detection to anticipate user behaviour to control the heating automatically. The result is an up to 40 percent reduction in energy consumption and the corresponding reduction in carbon emissions in the local atmosphere. à‚ 

Another great example is Tauron and Rafako’s pilot project which, supported by InnoEnergy, is making significant progress in demonstrating the viability of converting carbon dioxide into synthetic natural gas (SNG). In this pilot, carbon dioxide is captured from power plant emissions and is processed whenever electricity is cheap ” for example when demand is low overnight or when the wind is blowing and renewable generation is high. The SNG can then be injected into the existing natural gas network in order to use it during peak hours for energy production a gas turbine. Not only does the technology help to reduce carbon emissions, but it also helps to make better use of renewable electricity which would otherwise be wasted.

We need more products like these; cutting-edge innovations that offer myriad benefits to consumers, businesses and society as a whole. And integration is key too. As the pace of innovation accelerates, and more technologies come to market, inter-operability and ease of use will put certain solutions head and shoulders above the rest.

Being innovative isn’t easy; in fact, the bright idea is really just the start. Transforming that spark into a successful and marketable product can be a long and complex journey, with each idea and circumstance requiring unique support. Yet, with the right mix of entrepreneurialism, skill, investment and socio-political support, innovative heat and transport solutions can help to make Europe a healthier, happier and more productive place to live.à‚ 

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