Training for a complex world

In the ETH continuing education course ’Applied Technology in Energy&rsquo
In the ETH continuing education course ’Applied Technology in Energy’, managers acquire knowledge about current energy technologies. (Photographs: Gianfranco Guidati)

ETH Zurich’s course in Applied Technology in Energy brings managers up to speed on the latest energy technologies, enabling them to make informed decisions in their day-to-day work.

Tim Kopka is relishing the role of being an expert instead of a student. It’s a Friday morning in June, and Kopka - who is currently pursuing a Master’s degree programme in Energy Science and Technology - is in the ETH Main Building fielding questions from managers, lawyers and industry professionals. He recently completed a group project looking at the effects of climate change on the electricity grid - and his audience is keen to discuss the findings.

Today’s activity is part of the Certificate of Advanced Studies (CAS) in Applied Technology in Energy, which aims to give businesspeople a crash course in engineering. Reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 will require a radical shift towards renewable energies - a transition that will bring new challenges such as volatility in power generation. "Industry needs to make decisions on investments that have important implications for the future," says Christian Schaffner, Executive Director of the ETH Energy Science Center.

Together with Ulrike Grossner, Schaffner developed the syllabus for the CAS programme, which is part of the ETH Master of Advanced Studies in Applied Technology (MAS AT). The CAS programme provides industry executives with an in-depth knowledge of energy technologies, giving them the skills they need to safeguard their company’s energy security. "We want participants to see things from an engineer’s perspective. By learning to understand and evaluate technical reports, they’ll be able to make well-informed decisions at a managerial level," says Schaffner.

Real-world problems

On this particular Friday, the CAS students are preparing to stage a mock board meeting. After completing an interactive online module covering basic energy principles, they have explored the underlying maths and physics in two higher-level modules, one on energy systems and networks, the other on energy storage and batteries. "Now they need to practise applying this technical knowledge in their managerial role," says Schaffner. Having familiarised themselves with an industry case study, the participants are now getting the opportunity to fire questions at Kopka, who worked on the same case study with five other students in the first year of his Master’s degree programme. In tomorrow’s mock board meeting, the CAS students will have to justify the decisions they would take as company directors on the basis of the report from Kopka and his colleagues.

’Industry needs to make decisions on investments that have important implications for the future.’

This innovative teaching approach is based on real-world problems that are currently confronting companies in the energy sector. The case studies are provided by industry partners such as Hitachi Energy, which is keen to discover how to keep power networks operating reliably in the face of climate change. "Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent due to global warming. We need to understand their impact on supply security in order to enhance the resilience and sustainability of our energy systems," says Elise Fahy, a scientist at Hitachi Energy.

She provided technical input to help the Master’s students evaluate the case study, and she was clearly delighted by their level of motivation. "We have a complex task ahead of us. Spending time with tomorrow’s experts reminds me how important it is to share knowledge and learn from each other - especially in a field that is constantly evolving," she adds. The case study showed the challenges power grids will face in coping with growing electricity demand for cooling on hot days. These results may provide useful input for the company’s future studies, says Fahy, who values her participation in the Master’s programme as a way of supporting the next generation of scientists.

The big picture

Back in the CAS module, a lively debate is taking place on the clash between the big-picture thinking of managers and the engineer’s tendency to fixate on numbers. "To begin with, I found it totally unrealistic to make calculations based solely on how a rise in temperature will affect electricity generation," says CAS participant Federica Hunziker. But she gradually realised that having lots of in-depth studies is a vital part of tackling the bigger picture.

Schaffner is fascinated by these kinds of debates. "The simple act of combining managerial and engineering perspectives immediately plunges you into a more complex environment. It’s not a matter of right and wrong, but rather of qualitative and quantitative assessments," he says. Business graduate Hunziker agrees that both are important: "We need engineers, but we also need generalists who can place their knowledge in a broader context."

Hunziker works for the Pfiffner Group, which makes power transmission components. Her company will profit from the switch to renewable energies and smart grids, which actively manage power generation, consumption and load. "We’re seeing increasing investment not only in power generation, but also in grid expansion - and that will drive demand for our products even higher," she says.

The CAS has given her the knowledge and confidence to discuss issues with engineers and seek out their opinion, which she says is often neglected, especially in politics: "But I’ve also come to realise how hard it is to form a clear opinion on energy topics: everything’s connected, and every decision has positive and negative effects in countless other areas."

An opportunity for networking

The interaction between Master’s students, CAS participants and industry partners offers many benefits on a professional level, but it also offers a valuable networking platform. "Companies are on the lookout for people with specialist knowledge, and many of our Master’s students end up doing internships with industry partners. Some even get their first job through these networks," says Schaffner.

As the industry partner for this particular case study, Elise Fahy believes she can give the students valuable insights into potential careers after they finish university. Establishing new partnerships is also a priority for CAS participant Beatriz Carone, who always has a business card on hand. Employed by a company in the energy-hungry metal industry, she is something of an exception on the CAS programme, having studied mining engineering at university. Nonetheless, she has no doubts as to the programme’s benefits: "Energy technology is a field that offers all sorts of opportunities, but it’s easy to get left behind if you don’t keep up with the latest developments."

She’s hoping the CAS will give her the knowledge she needs to make informed decisions in her day-to-day work - but she too acknowledges the challenges involved: "Problems in this field tend to have many different solutions. If you want to make the right decision for your company, it’s vital to have a solid understanding of the technical and economic aspects."

Showing the way forward

In the complex world of energy technology, Christian Schaffner sees the Energy Science Center (ESC) as a beacon lighting the way towards a secure and sustainable energy supply. The ESC brings together 55 professors from different departments, and Schaffner would like to see it become a hub of knowledge for the Swiss energy sector.

"We want industry, government and the general public to see us as their first port of call for a science-based assessment of energy-related topics," he says. Hence the ESC’s publication in June of a policy brief entitled "Steps to fossil-fuel independence for Switzerland", a compilation of knowledge and insights from ETH experts. "You can’t expect a single professorship to communicate that kind of accumulated knowledge. It can only be done by an interdepartmental body such as the ESC," Schaffner argues.

From a scientific perspective, many of the topics covered in the policy brief are common sense, but he firmly believes that ETH has a responsibility to convey that knowledge to a wider public. Whether through public events such as "Energy Week @ETH" or his commitment to collaborating with the Swiss Museum of Transport on an energy exhibition, Schaffner is a born facilitator - and his enthusiasm for joining up the dots also extends to ETH Zurich’s role in the continuing education market: "I said to myself: if ETH had one particular core competence that we could pass on, what would it be? I think the CAS provides the answer, because it’s the perfect example of how we can communicate science and engineering to a group of people who studied or trained in different fields."

Schaffner sees his primary role as an enabler who brings Master’s students, industry partners and CAS participants to the same table. "When I see that other people on the course are also thinking about the energy transition, it gives me the motivation I need to take on the challenge myself!" says CAS participant Carone. Sandwiched between the more mathematically demanding aspects of the programme, the case studies provide a welcome sense of collaboration - the feeling of being part of a community that is dedicated to the energy transition.

Joint initiative

The ESC and energy research are supported by generous donations to the ETH Foundation. Funding is provided by the following partners: ABB Switzerland, Alpiq, Axpo, the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE), BKW, CKW, EKZ, ewz, GE Power, Repower, Shell, swissnuclear and the Werner Siemens Foundation.

This text appeared in the 22/02 issue of the ETH magazine Globe.

Stéphanie Hegelbach