Thanks to Sustainability, most interesting engineering challenges are ahead!

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For several decades we have entered a new era, where technological progress is no more only about being more productive, creating commercial value, and increasing overall comfort and wealth. It is now commonly accepted that sustainability must be an integral part of our technological choices. To tackle the sustainability challenge, it is unlikely that a solution will emerge from a scientific breakthrough or from rocket science – closest earth-like planet is about 4 lightyears away, so no choice, we have only one planet Earth, we have to take care of it. We cannot afford waiting for it and we have to tackle the sustainability challenge with today available technologies. Most promising sustainable solutions are emerging and will continue to emerge from multidisciplinary approaches. And this is exactly what Helbling is good at and it is exciting to play a significant role together with our partners in the sustainability challenge.

In general, the search for sustainable solution needs to be though through in a broad way, including but also beyond “clean/green” technologies. Solution will not come from renewable energy alone, recycling alone, or carbon compensation/sequestration alone [Demierre et al., Applied Energy, 2015]. Also, it is important to keep in mind that a successful sustainable solution, must be sustainable for the environment and for the people, but also it must be economically sustainable. A very good example of smart sustainable solution that takes into account these different key aspects is the photovoltaics mini-grids for remote rural areas The effectiveness of solar mini-grids in remote areas is due to a smart combination of different technologies which makes it sustainable in the sense that it matches the needs and expectations of the end-user, it is economically viable, it is maintainable, and it is respectful of the environment (even at large scale). The used technologies include of course photovoltaics and power electronics, but also smart metering, mobile phones, and digital pre-payment. These 3 modern technologies are key to allow for an economically viable solution. Indeed, it allows the automation of billing and an efficient management of the costs by the end-user and the operator, which allows to decrease the transaction cost to its minimum. With such business model, it is affordable to bring electricity services to a household which would consume electricity for less than CHF 3-5 per month. With the traditional business model for services (electricity, phone, TV) as in Switzerland, it is not economically viable to provide services to private consumers for less than CHF 30-50 per months; in addition to not being optimal in terms of costs, the traditional model tends to implicitly discourage users to decrease their energy consumption (because of high fixed costs).

The above example of solar mini-grids illustrates well how modern common technologies can enable working business models based on renewable energy. Successful sustainable products and systems need to be a smart combination of affordable and accessible technologies including often “green/clean” technologies, but no necessarily always. Using a multidisciplinary approach is a key success factor to generate such smart and sustainable solutions. In the recent years most of the major companies, including our clients, have committed to ambitious sustainability goals. These commitments are turning into exciting engineering projects to which we actively take part, with our multidisciplinary problem-solving skills, innovative mindset, and commitment to sustainable products.