In a global study of top academic and research centers in a wide range of sustainable energies, the surprising winner is the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Among industrial innovators the number 1 is engineering company ABB. The in-depth study, conducted by KIC InnoEnergy and Questel Consulting, shows that Chinese research institutions are considerably ahead of their European and US peers in sustainable energy innovation, including wind, ocean and solar power as well as smart grids and intelligent buildings. Japan has the most innovative industrial players, ahead of Europe and the US. Diego Pavía, CEO of KIC InnoEnergy, offers some radical recommendations for Europe to survive in what he calls a “Darwinistic race”.
Is China taking the lead in sustainable energy innovation? “In research and development, yes, that’s very clear from our report”, says Diego Pavía, CEO of KIC InnoEnergy, one of three companies established by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) in 2010 to initiate new ways of achieving innovation in Europe (the other two are Climate KIC and EIT ICT Labs). Working with universities, industrial partners and research centers in Europe, KIC InnoEnergy offers specialised educational programmes(Masters and PhDs), supports innovation projects and actively helps create and grow new businesses in Europe.
“Don’t forget: the top Chinese politicians are all engineers. In Europe they are mostly lawyers and economists”
In January KIC InnoEnergy published a hefty report, the fruit of three years of research, which lists “the top 10 energy innovators” for no less than 100 different “energy priorities”, subsumed under 8 main categories (wind, ocean, solar PV, solar thermal, intelligent buildings and cities, smart grids and storage, renewable energy convergence and clean coal and gas technologies).
For each “energy priority”, the report gives two top-10’s, one for industrial players, and one for academic and research players. Thus, to take a random example, in lithium batteries the company list is headed by Matsushita-Panasonic, followed by Samsung, LG, Toyota, Bosch, Hitachi, Sony, Nissan, BYD (China) and Toshiba. The academic list is headed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, followed by Tsinghua University, AIST (Japan), Central South University (China), the University of Zhejiang (China), CEA (France), Fudan University (China), CNRS (France), Kyushu University (Japan) and ITRI (Taiwan).
The results are based on 9 key performance indicators, including the number and quality of patents, scientific publications, R&D projects, existing spin-offs and licensed technologies. The report is not publicly available (it can be ordered for €5,000), but Energy Post got a review copy.
Question of time
No doubt the most striking result from the report are the high scores of Chinese research institutions. Overall the top-4 academic players are all Chinese. Out of the highest-ranking 15 research institutions 9 are from China. Europe has only three in the top-15 (Fraunhofer of Germany, CEA and CNRS of France), the US only two (University of California and the US Department of Energy).
In the industrial sector, however, the picture is different. There are no Chinese companies in the top-15. Japan has 6, South Korea 3 (KEPCO, LG and Samsung), Europe 5 (Siemens, Schneider Electric, Alstom, Shell and ABB), the US 1 (General Electric).
“We should impose tariffs on technologies imported from countries who play by different rules”
Typical, for example, is the overall score in the wind energy sector: the top industrial players are companies like Gamesa, Repower, Vestas, Siemens, General Electric and Mitsubishi; top academic players are the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Zhejiang University, Nanjing University, CEPRI (China Electric Power Research Institute), Tianjin University, Southeast University, Tsinghua University and North China Electric Power University. Note that the report breaks down each sector, like wind energy, into a number of subsectors (“priorities”), in this case e.g. monitoring systems, installation, design tools, innovative materials, etc., For each subsector two top-10s are listed.
“The Chinese are good at research, but not so good yet at converting research into market uptake”, says Pavía.
But he has no doubt that this is a question of time. “Chinese researchers have told us: ‘we have learned as much as we can from Europe, now we have to lead and create innovation, which is a lot more difficult.’ But they have decided to do it, so I have no doubt they will. Don’t forget: the top Chinese politicians are all engineers. In Europe they are mostly lawyers and economists.”
Pavía, who studied electrical engineering at the Polytechnical University of Madrid and is former CEO of consulting company ATOS Origin for Spain and Latin America, says that Europe is well-positioned in sustainable energy, both in R&D and industry, yet fails to take advantage of its position. “When you look at the innovation chain – basic research, applied research, product development, market uptake – you see that Europe is good in the first phases, not that much in later ones. We let others piggyback on our efforts. We invest but don’t reap the full benefits.”
Whereas the Chinese have been good at copying European efforts, the US and also the UK are very good at adopting technologies and turning them into useful products. “They are more pragmatical than (continental) Europeans. The Anglo-Saxon world is driven by demand, Europe is driven by supply.” Thus, while UK companies and research institutions are virtually absent from the top lists, “UK utilities are very eager to adopt new technologies, more than most European utilities”, says Pavía.
The Spaniard, himself a “serial entrepreneur” who has created 7 companies in the past, has several fairly radical recommendations for policymakers in Europe to improve innovative market development. “We should reward academics on the basis of market uptake”, he says. “Not by the number of publications they put out, but by the number of start-ups, patented technologies and spinoffs they create.”
“In solar power we will present something totally disruptive in November of this year”
It would also be a huge help if public procurement were to be based on innovation, he says. “If local, regional and national governments would be the first customers of innovative companies, that would give a great boost to innovation.”
He also believes that European companies should be better protected from “unfair competition”. “We should impose tariffs on technologies imported from countries who play by different rules. That would help European industry to survive against people who are copying under very unfair rules.” He notes that we are engaged in a “Darwinistic race”: “If you don’t innovate, you will die.”
When asked in which areas he sees the most progress and potentially the most disruptive developments, Pavía has no trouble coming up with examples. “Offshore wind. No doubt. Ocean energy. Incredible. If you are thinking of building a fossil fuel power plant in Europe, think again. Onshore wind is already cheaper, in 2020 offshore wind will be cheaper as well. Ocean energy will follow.”
He adds that “KIC InnoEnergy is investing heavily in all those fields.” In that respect the new report is convenient for KIC InnoEnergy itself as well: “We can see where and with whom we should put our money.”
In solar power, Pavía says, “we will present something totally disruptive in November of this year. A new technology that takes the efficiency of solar cells beyond existing known thresholds.”
He concludes that “Europe has all the tools to succeed in sustainable energy: education, human capital, research, industry. All we need to do is to start working together, with the aim of creating a market together.”
See also the report we published about the KIC InnoEnergy Business Booster event in Barcelona in October: “Cleantech innovation in Europe: here are the gamechangers of the future” (7 November 2014) and our interview with Elena Bou, Innovation Director of KIC InnoEnergy, “Cleantech innovation in Europe: the pace is picking up” (20 October 2014).