Clement Charles

Clement Charles 's thoughts
June 6th, 2013 by Clement Charles

(A part of) the future of renewable energy will be Swiss

What a great day in Neuchatel last week. Invited by IEEE and CSEM, I followed a really rich conferences about solar energy, photovoltaic industries and tech transfer in Switzerland, and then had to moderate a round table with all the participant. 


On one side, CSEM is a private-public RTO (research and technology organization), and plays an important role in fostering technology transfer in Switzerland and has generated many spin-offs in the fields related to silicon and low power microelectronics. CSEM and its subsidiaries outside Neuchâtel work closely with local industrial partners such as the European Space Agency or Patek Phillip. On the other side, the IEEE is an international organization with a fantastic motto that I share and support: advancing technology for humanity. IEEE Switzerland was founded 53 years ago, and is one of the oldest section in Europe.


One of the reason the have that conference here and now is the recent interest of the Swiss Confederation to support research and green energy production, and the long lasting leading position of the CSEM in this field of research and tech transfer. 


Indeed, the Swiss Government, in the wake of the Fukushima tragedy, has committed to a plan for exiting completely from nuclear power generation within the next 20 years from now, there by pushing long term large scale use of renewable energies for filling the shortfall in continuous electric power (actually 40% of total national consumption) supplied by 5 nuclear power plants. Photovoltaics (PV), which enjoyed a long tradition of R&D in Switzerland, is beside geothermal and wind power one of the candidates to pick up a sizable chunk of that power shortfall. CSEM is building up a national PV-center which will play a leading role in this long term shift, especially now that residential grid parity is within reach for PV rooftop systems.


The day was rich and intense, with many intervention from top notch player in research, industry and tech transfer. I just wanted to share a few information about what stroke my mind.

The fact is here: Switzerland has been and still is at the forefront of PV development and research. Great news. Behind the labs wall, in white or clean room, engeneers are inventing, testing, building, all the component of the future of the solar industry. Flexible panel, pollution clean PV production, organic materials: everything exists and in many cases, could be or is commercially launched. 


The true question is not about brains: we know we have them here in Switzerland. It’s more about hands… Hands to produce (labor cost), hands to acquire (local volumes), hands to push it to the next level (resources to grow). Interestingly enough, in China, labor cost is only 2% of the cost the solar panel. All right. So, I guess in Europe and CH, it could be … 10% ? Even with 15 or 20%, this is actually not the problem, as everyone, including me, would think at the first look.  Adding to this that “Swiss Made” on panels would be a great sales argument. 


So where is the problem? The issue is more in the size of the market: is the market big enough  ? will there be a sufficient volume to sell what we produce ? Enough turnover to finance what we’ve invested to produce ? Even if those questions are still theorically open, the answer seems to be no. No, as investors are not yet interested to sufficiently finance product roll out. No, as government, did or are stopping their policy of supporting green energy production by buying it at higher price. No, as Swiss companies are closing (Flexcell in Yverdon) or acquired by companies that have a long, maybe longer, market vision (Oerlikon Solar, bought in Japanese company Tel). 


An other interesting element is the cost in energy to produce the devices that produce energy… Yeah, it’s a kind of endless loop. Those cost are never accounted in traditional energy production – extraction is included in the cost of petrol and carbon footprint, but the co2 generated to produce the driller isn’t. It’s even less the case in the nuclear energy production, where the real massive cost are fully out of the equation. Indeed, waste management and dismantlement of nuclear plants have indeed a great future of making our electricity bill rise and rise during the next years as they not included at all in today’s cost calculation. 


In that regards, PV and the solar in general is often criticized to be highly polluting when producing and possibly not efficient with weak sun. This was an other very interesting point I’ve learned at the conference. Indeed, unlike other that use their last energy reserve to dig deeper in the sand with their head, the PV industry and its research communities are well aware of those challenges, and in the process of solving them, one by one. To limit pollution, research are done to improve the techniques (it works), to find less polluting material (it’s close) and to fully capture all possible pollution at source (in progress). Sharper in those period of poor summers and cold spring, the question of the amount of sun and solar light is addressed with efficiency: increase the efficiency of each cell and of the panel (new material, sun chasing, angle adaptation) as well as selecting the most appropriate spot (i.e.: in CH, southern alpine region with a lot of sun). 


At the end of the conferences, I had to moderate the debate between all the speakers of the day, some further invitees and the audience. It was not a easy tasks, as everyone was very passionate and eager to speak about his field of expertise. The debate lasted for 50 minutes, before some drinks and dinner served at the event. 


From the debate, I’d like to highlight three ideas. First, a path of research with “biomimetic” technologies. Indeed, photosynthesis works well and there so much more things that nature could inspire us for. Indeed, nature is one of the only organization that already have invested 4.5 billion years in R&D to do great things. The second is the importance of the grid. Today, every production is really stable and constant, when renewable sources suggest for disrupted and irregular flows of production. Which creates big problems to the grid. Well, every one agrees that this gris is a bit “stupid”, as it can accept regular 50hz current, and could, should or would need to become “smart”. Smart grids are a huge topic in both the utility and the IT industry, throwing names like IBM, Cisco, Siemens, General Electric, Schneider in a common playing field. More than smart, the grid will also need to become flexible with more storage. We currently store energy on battery or by wildest means, such as pumping water back at the top of an altitude dam to produce new energy when the water passes through the hydroelectric plant while getting down. There again, there is tons of things to think and do, to plan and execute. Last but not least, the panelist identified the services industry as hug opportunity: no matter where PV are build, you will always locally grounded people to install, maintain and repair all those infrastructures.


In the end, the position of Switzerland appears me as great, potentially leading but needing some real and sincere reinforcement. We have an incredible amount of brains, research infrastructure and existing institution in the field. We had a great advance that we ‘ve have maintain, and that we stay still catch up. In my perspective, the main issue is velocity. A company like Flexcell had great product at acceptable price but were not time to market and did not had the resources to wait until timing was right. And timing is getting slower as government supports is decreasing and and as, current generation are paralyzed by the growing fear of the “size of tasks” of switching to renewables. This last point is what media,  politicians and institutions can and need to change. All of those  opinion leader must address a updated optimist message to the public and the decision takers.. Yes, it will be hard work, but a lot of fun too. Yes, work market will be disrupted but more qualified jobs will come out of it. 

Yes, it will require change, but change for the better. 

Yes, things will be different tomorrow, better or worse, it’s our current choice.


Clement Charles, Neuchatel 30.05.2013 / Geneva 06.06.2013




A Special Thanks To 


For that event and opportunity to participate, I also wanted to thank Hugo Wyss (IEEE), Aline Moser (CSEM), Florence Amez-Droz (CSEM) and Marco Giardina (IEEE, UNINE), all the great speakers (full program below) and the audience that filled the room until the very last chair (some were even standing up).  




Full Program

Welcome addresses from Mario El-Khoury, CEO, CSEM SA President IEEE (elected on the same day)
Advanced PV technologies : contributions of the CSEM PV-center and EPFL PV-Lab in Neuchâtel
Christophe Ballif, Director of PV Center, CSEM SA
PV as important pillar of the global energy mix – Importance of fast technology transfer from science to industry
Andreas von Känel, CEO of Pasan and Head of Process intelligence Division of Meyer Burger AG
Thin Film Micromorph Tandem: From research to manufacturing
Johannes Meier, Head of Research, TEL Solar-Lab SA
An engineer’s experience onboard of the PV-driven Planet Solar circumnavigation of the world Christian Ochsenbein, Member IEEE & team PlanetSolar 2011/2012
Printable organic photovoltaics at CSEM and the Sunflower EU integrated project
Giovanni Nisato, Business and Technology Development, Thin Film Optics, CSEM SA
Thin-film solar cells & modules: a personal & historical perspective
Arvind Shah, Honorary Professor, Founder of the PV Laboratory Institute of Microtechnology (IMT) Neuchâtel
Round table led by Clément Charles, journalist, with: 
Hugo Wyss, Remigio Pian from Viteos and the speakers of the day


One Response to “(A part of) the future of renewable energy will be Swiss”
  1. A complete review and press release of the event has been provided on the IEEE website. Follow this link to read more.

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