Professor Tomas Kåberger, expert of science, economics, and politics of the global energy industry with broad experience in Europe and Asia, talks to Sarah Watson for ChemViews magazine about current trends and challenges of the global energy industry, his career path, and the new journal Energy Science & Engineering.
Please tell us a bit about how your career has developed?
I started as a physicist interested in statistical physics, information theory, and thermodynamics. Frustrated that technological opportunities were not used, I studied economics and wrote a thesis on thermodynamics and economics. Frustrated that economic opportunities were not used, I studied policy processes and worked in the energy industry.
I obtained a Ph.D. in Physics, then I became Associate Professor in environmental science, Adjunct Professor at the International Institute of Industrial Environmental Economics, and now I am Professor of Industrial Energy Policy at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, and visiting professor at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China.
I have also managed energy technology companies and been Director General of the national Swedish Energy Agency. Since a couple of years I also spend a fair amount of time in Japan, chairing the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation.
What makes energy so interesting to you?
The importance of efficient sustainable energy for global welfare. Just now, the economic success of hundreds of millions of previously poor people in the world has prompted challenges and dramatic developments in the energy industry and energy research. What were once considered to be the long-term global issues of resource availability and environmental effects, have now become immediate issues. The increased oil prices and China overtaking all other countries as emitter of greenhouse gases are illustrative examples.
How do you keep your research up-to-date?
My academic motto has always been: “Never underestimate reality”.
When real world practices are evolving quickly, this motto is important for energy researchers in general in order to stay relevant, and for those dealing with energy system modeling in particular.
In physics we learned that theories should be both testable and tested. As an engineer I have the simple but brutal criterion: Does it work in reality?
In academic system analysis, economics and policy research I am keen to compare any idea with what is actually happening in the real world. Computerised models may help understanding complex interactions, but their validation in real world developments provides the scientific value. I am not impressed by those who see the computer models as their “empirical” work.
What are your views on the current trends in energy industry and research?
We currently enjoy the results of technologies developed for industry with an oil price of 100 USD/barrel. New oil- and gas-extraction technologies have evolved as well as biomass conversion systems providing substitutes for oil based products both as fuel and feedstock for the chemical industry. And not least the accelerated development around batteries and electric vehicles is an area where the new oil price level has spurred energy research and engineering.
In the power sector, renewable energy and gas is in industrial development providing for development. These are technologies that appear to act well together and benefit from competitive market conditions.
We may see dramatic developments in the next decade if the development of solar and wind technologies continue. Competitive electricity markets with high penetration of solar and wind may provide for periods of abundant electricity at prices close to zero. An early preview is the most wind power intensive part of Denmark where episodes with negative electricity price have occurred in the last few years. This will open for new technologies and system solutions.
In another dimension, as with economic development, interesting energy research has spread over the world. Chinese research and demonstration in conversion of fossil fuels and biomass is a significant part of what is done in the world. Chinese industry is already dominating in wind, solar as electric transmission and mobility sectors.
Following the energy enginnering and science developments around this industry will be essential to stay at the front of development in these increasingly important areas in the years to come.
Where do you see the biggest challenges?
In size, one may see the big challenge being to provide sustainable, convenient energy for everyone.
However, maybe the mayor challenge in this does not lie in developing technology. The most important challenges may lie among the murky difficulties of understanding and removing institutional barriers, protecting incumbent technologies and industries, thereby blocking innovation and economic development.
Entrepreneurs and policy researchers who have been part of the telecommunication development over the last 30 years have much to tell that is relevant for the technology shifts in the energy sector. It will be interesting to see the parallel developments of solar PV technologies, their economic performance and the legislation deciding the conditions of solar PV deployment in different countries in the world during the coming decade.
You are Editor-in-Chief of the new open access journal Energy Science & Engineering.
What is the most exciting aspect of this new role for you?
We want to attract authors from the cutting edge of development, as well as providing new ideas for the future in a well presented way. I hope we can also provide a publishing path for new audiences and authors, such as those who did not fit the old conventions during the industrial transformation.
But the most exciting issues are the challenges of raising awareness of the journal and attracting the highest quality papers in an open access setting.
What makes the journal Energy Science & Engineering so special?
So far, I can only talk to you about our vision and ambitions and tell you about our editorial team: two excellent deputy Editors-in-Chief in Percival Zhang at Virginia Tech in the USA and Xiliang Zhang at Tsinghua University in China, and a highly respected advisory board. Within a year I hope we can show that among the manuscripts we have published, and the ones that will be submitted, many will be widely read and that the journal will provide interesting reading for a large audience.
Are the papers peer reviewed?
Of course! We all need help to select information that is well founded, well presented, and relevant. That is what organizing a journal is all about.
What other interests do you have besides energy?
… creative people with good ambitions.
Thank you for this interview!
Tomas Kåberger got an M.Sc. in Engineering Physics, a Ph.D. in Physical Resource Theory, and Docent in Environmental Science at Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden. He has been professor of International Sustainable Energy Systems at the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics at Lund University, Sweden.
Currently Kåberger is Professor of Industrial Energy Policy at Chalmers University of Technology and serves as Distinguished Visiting Expert of bio-energy technology at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China.
Industrially, he has had leading roles in companies providing fuels and technology in the bio-energy industry, developing sustainable energy solutions for the automotive industry, and operating wind power plants. He currently serves on the board of Industrifonden, an industrial investment foundation.
Politically, he has served on the board of Swedish and European Environmental Citizen’s organizations, several Swedish Government Committees developing energy and environmental legislation, and China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development as a member of a task force on Low-Carbon Industrialization Strategies. From 2008–2011 he was Director General of the National Swedish Energy Agency.
Currently he spends a quarter of his time in Japan as Executive Board Chairman of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation.