Exploring The Idea Challenge Topics: Smart Energy Systems

By David Knight |

Eight cities, eight topics. The Idea Challenge is a truly European competition for entrepreneurs and people with big ideas. But why these topics? What is it about these areas of technology that the organisers, EIT ICT Labs, find interesting? What trends and challenges do these topics contain?

We’re taking a closer look at each of the eight topics, which themselves are split into two batches. The second batch of the competition is taking place this autumn, with finals in Trento, London, Berlin and Stockholm. You still just about have time to enter – with prizes of up to €40,000 (as well as coaching, mentoring and office space) up for grabs, applications are only open till midnight tonight, September 30. You can find more information here.

For the final topic, we’re staying a little closer to home than before – the smart energy systems final will be held here in the German capital on October 31, as part of the Smart Energy Community event. To explore the topic in more detail we spoke with Heiko Lehmann, research and innovation director for smart energy at T-Labs and EIT ICT Labs’ action line leader in the subject.

Energy is, as it has been for centuries, big news. Wars are fought over it and countless billions spent on it. But the world is changing fast, and nowhere is that truer than in Germany. Over the past decade and more, the so-called Energiewende – German for energy transition – has been at the heart of energy policy. This has especially been so since the dramatic fall in popularity of nuclear energy following the Fukushima accident.

But in Europe, what is anathema to one country is the opposite next door – France currently has 59 nuclear reactors (and cheap electricity).

The point being, that this is a subject which is crying out for innovation, but where there are plenty of barriers in the way, be it the vastly different energy landscapes in individual European countries or the huge amounts of resources needed on an infrastructure level.

“Europe has different markets,” said Heiko, “so it might be different from something like health and wellbeing, as an example, where you have a single value proposition and can then adapt the market. With energy systems, you always have to couple to the regulatory framework and to the market.”

For example, there is only one distribution system operator (DSO) in the UK. In Germany, there are around 800. “That equates to different conditions for whatever you are doing and whatever you are developing in terms of value proposition.”

That doesn’t mean it’s not a topic that startups should be looking at, however. The answer, says Heiko, is in looking to bring together the utility side and the ICT as part of a coupled value proposition.

One of the priorities for the EIT ICT Labs smart energy systems action line is to look at decentralised solutions – physically and technically they would be the same anywhere, but they could adapt to different economic conditions. It’s a crucial area, according to Heiko: “If you are not able to decentralise the energy system, then no energy turnaround will happen. If you think that France has 59 nuclear reactors, they will probably have a tendency towards maintaining a centralised system, whereas in Germany where we have solar and wind power, the tendency is to decentralisation.”

Another area where agile young and innovative companies could prosper in the smart energy space is through increasing efficiency. “That’s a difficult thing to do for end users, for the mass market, because it is very, very hard to persuade people to pay for machinery, for a platform, for whatever, in order to save on energy costs, because they will need many years to break even. But we have reinterpreted that as industrial efficiency – a telco, for example, would be looking at energy efficiency in the transport of data in the system. And I think it is well worth doing.”

On top of that, efficiency would be the same whichever country you were in. Europe does have efficiency guidelines which set high standards.

As a specific example, take Ebee Smart Solutions, which is a technology provider for the charging infrastructure industry – i.e. charging electric cars. But it is also coupling that with communal projects like a city’s lighting system, and Heiko added: “That’s a good example of what startups could do; it blends usecases, and bundles together different value propositions in a clever way.”

But with all the challenges facing potential smart energy system entrepreneurs, is it as a space going to be entrepreneurial?

“I think so, yes, because we see a lot of technological development. The challenge is to blend this with an appropriate ICT structure and to find the right place for it. I am not interested in the next battery, or the next way of finding of better prices. There will always be this track of producing that; the point is to integrate it in an efficient way.”

If you find a lightbulb going off above your head and you want to apply for the Idea Challenge in the smart energy systems topic (or any of the four in the second batch) then you need to plug in and get your skates on – applications close tonight, September 30, at midnight.