Trends in energy research and tips for proposal writing
The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide inspiration for current and future funding proposals. Many opportunities exist to address affordable and clean energy (Goal 7). But, universities must balance academic freedom and the urgency required to achieve these goals, while being critical, entering politicised arenas, and remaining a legitimate institution.
“The workshop offers a deepened discussion on the sustainability goals, and also on the role of the university and how research can support the goals that we are in desperate need of addressing,” says Anna-Karin Alm, Project Manager at NanoLund. The hybrid workshop took place at Lund University on 15 November 2021, coordinated by NanoLund, BECC, and ELLIIT, as part of a series arranged by the Strategic Research Areas (SRAs) and Sustainability Forum at Lund University.
The workshop had the overarching theme to support proposal writing at Lund University, by creating a venue to bring together staff around the issue of affordable and clean energy. Speakers joined in-person and online, and provided an outlook on future energy research and tips for successful applications at the Swedish Energy Agency.
Researching the Entire Innovation Value Chain
“Universities are traditionally not very good at cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral collaboration”, said Dr. Rémy Kolessar, Deputy Director General at the Swedish Energy Agency. The Swedish Energy Agency is the national government authority on energy policy, responsible for regulating the energy supply, energy security, energy efficiency, and the energy market, including grades for consumer electronics. The Agency is also the main financing body in Sweden for funding energy-related research and innovation.
In his keynote remarks, Kolessar suggests universities engage in more cross-sectoral and transdisciplinary research with industry across the entire innovation value chain – generation, development, and implementation. Here, universities can facilitate this process, involving industry, government, and consumers. Kolessar provided examples across the Agency’s portfolio, including fossil free steel (SSAB), battery production (Northvolt), biofuels (RenFuel), electrification of the transportation system, and smart grids. These pilot projects, demonstrations, and companies on the market provide an opening for researchers to be involved in experimentation and learning to support implementation of future energy solutions. Kolessar also suggests additional research may consider what future knowledge and competencies are needed to realise a sustainable energy transition, and adds that universities can improve the speed at which they conduct research, and disseminate the research to be useful for society. In response, participants raised questions about the role of academia in response to our wicked sustainability challenges, with some balance required between academic freedom and independence and the urgency required – and responsibility – to address these challenges.
Trends in Energy Research
Renewable energy. Hydrogen fuel cells. Artificial intelligence. Energy justice. Four speakers shared their insights on future trends in energy research.
“Renewable energy is now competitive with fossil electricity production, which is prompting huge investments in offshore solar and wind power projects”, says Max Åhman, Associate Professor at the Department of Environmental and Energy Systems Studies. However, where a rapid transformation towards renewable energy is needed, there remain challenges ensuring a stable electricity grid, what is called baseload power. Here, research may focus on future flexibility of our electricity infrastructure, considering the electricity mix, timing of production, storage, users, infrastructure, and physical space.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Hydrogen fuel cells rely on a supply of hydrogen and oxygen to generate chemical energy, where the hydrogen fuel is usually stored under pressure. At present, the efficiency of a hydrogen fuel cell is low, if taking into account fuel production, transportation, and storage. However, in comparison to fossil fuel combustion, the chemical reaction leads to only water vapour and heat as byproducts. Marcus Lundgren, an Associate Professor at the Department of Energy Sciences, is exploring hydrogen as a fuel source to replace combustion engines, and invites collaborators to visit the newly-built hydrogen infrastructure available as part of the Faculty of Engineering (LTH) Open Door.
Artificial intelligence presents many opportunities to improve the efficiency of our transportation system, for example, autonomous vehicles and electric drones for delivery. These applications can be optimised, to reduce energy consumption, congestion, and commute times. Per Ödling, a Professor at the Department of Electrical and Information Technology, shares a pilot project to autonomously fly electric drones with medical samples from rural healthcare clinics to laboratories for processing.
Finally, energy justice will increasingly be an issue, as access to renewable energy is not distributed equally, and exploitation of labour and resources (e.g. rare earth metals) continues in less developed countries. Jenny von Platten, an industrial PhD Student at RISE, says energy policy needs a greater focus on citizens rather than buildings, for example, where the cost of renovating energy inefficient buildings is often most felt by low-income families. Therefore, affordable and clean energy (Goal 7) cannot be viewed in isolation, but research shall also consider impacts on other sustainable development goals, like ending poverty and gender equality.
Proposal Writing Tips
Among speakers and participants, the Swedish Energy Agency is said to be willing to fund bold and courageous research and innovation projects. Collaboration with industry and pursuing future trends are only some tips to shape future proposals submitted to the Agency. To conclude the workshop, Maria Kihl shared her tips for writing proposals, from her perspective as a reviewer for the Agency.
- Consider the audience – The reviewers are not always academics, but include professionals from industry with different disciplinary backgrounds. Successful proposals are concise and organised logically for a general audience.
- Design for impact – The Agency prioritises impact, in addition to scientific quality. Kihl suggests explicitly stating the potential impact of the research, in relation to the call, and design impact pathways into the research project.
- Leverage the variety – Funded projects include big and small projects that span the entire innovation value chain, for example, theoretical research as well as innovation, demonstration, experimentation, and implementation projects. Therefore, Kihl suggests being creative and developing transdisciplinary collaborations.
This workshop was an initiative by the Strategic Research Areas (SRAs) and Sustainability Forum at Lund University, co-organised by NanoLund, BECC,and ELLIIT.