Over the past 50 years or so, the use of fossil fuels for generating energy has increased at an alarming rate, with serious consequences for the environment. One of the key challenges for new generations of electrical engineers will thus be to facilitate the shift towards greater sustainability, through the development of technological components that can help to reduce pollution on our planet.
The Electrical Sustainable Energy (ESE) department at TUDelft, in The Netherlands, is specialised in training new generations of electrical engineers to develop cost-effective solar cells and new power electronics, which could increase sustainability and help to overturn the damage done to our planet.
The research carried out by TU Delft’s ESE department is aimed at accelerating the EE Industry’s transition towards sustainable energy. This entails investigating methods to generate energy from renewable energy sources, but also figuring out how this energy can be transmitted, distributed, and stored.
Students who enter this particular field of study are taught how to design and fabricate high-performance and low-cost photovoltaic (PV) cells, as well as other sustainable electronic components that could be integrated within the power networks of the future. During the course of their studies, students are trained to develop systems for generating electricity using the sun and wind as energy sources. They also learn about high-voltage and direct-current transmission, as well as intelligent power management solutions that can increase energy efficiency.
Prof. Miro Zeman has been the head of TU Delft’s ESE department for almost 10 years now, while also teaching students at the university. In this interview with Electronics Point, he discusses some key aspects of his work, explains what makes TU Delft a leading European University for Electronics Engineering studies, and talks about recent progress in sustainable energy solutions.
A headshot of Professor Miro Zeman, head of the electrical sustainable energy department. Image Credit: TU Delft.
Ingrid Fadelli: Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your academic and professional background?
Miro Zeman: I studied Electrical Engineering at the Slovak University of Technology (STU) in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia today. After completing this course, I pursued a PhD at the same university.
Once I completed my PhD, I was offered the opportunity to take on a postdoctoral position in the Netherlands, at Delft University of Technology, and I accepted. I have been working at TU Delft ever since.
IF: First off, we would like to ask about your current role at TU Delft. Could you take us through a typical day in your role as head of the Electrical Sustainable Energy department? Also, what circumstances led you to assume this position?
MZ: As you mentioned, I am now Head of the Electrical Sustainable Energy department, which is one of the six departments under TU Delft’s Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics, and Computer Science. This department is active in the field of electrical power engineering. So our focus is not on electronics or microelectronics, but on actual electrical power engineering.
A typical day for me usually entails taking part in a couple of meetings with the management team of the faculty or management team of the department. A further aspect of my job is planning the energy programs offered at TU Delft. These programs focus on different topics related to sustainable energy. For example, we have one about smart grids called PowerWeb and another centred around storage, which we refer to as the e-Refinery program. We have also introduced a program called DUWIND that focuses on green energy from wind and another called Urban Energy related to energy in the urban environment.
In addition to my duties as head of the department, I also supervise a few PhD students per year on their final projects. I usually meet them and discuss their projects to make sure that everything is going fine. When necessary, we also have a deeper discussion about their research. And I really enjoy giving a lecture course on the basics of photovoltaic technology. I also take care of promoting our work to the outside world, for instance by taking part in interviews, such as this one.
I have been Head of the Electrical Sustainable Energy department for eight years now. Eight years ago, when TU Delft was looking or a candidate to take on this position, the Dean and faculty members thought that I would be a good candidate for this position. I had good ideas for the future of the department and I was trying to shape up a vision for the department’s activities. Most likely my vision attracted top faculty members and the university thus decided to assign me this position.
IF: What do you think are the most unique or prominent offerings and values that define TU Delft’s Electrical Engineering (EE) department?
MZ: I can specifically answer this question for the department I am leading. I think a very strong point of my department is that it has three groups, that, although focusing on different areas of electrical sustainable energy, cover all, mostly future, aspects of complete electrical power systems.
The first group focuses on photovoltaic technology, technology that delivers electricity directly from sunlight or other light. Then we have a group called DC Systems, Energy Conversion & Storage. This group focuses more on the distribution level of electrical power systems. The expertise of members of this group is in power, electronic components, charging of electric vehicles, and high voltage technologies.
The third group, known as the Intelligent Electrical Power Grid group, focuses on power systems as a whole. In other words, it focuses on the whole power network, exploring ways to keep it stable and reliable. Members of this group typically carry out all kinds of simulations to understand the behavior of a system, while also looking at its cybersecurity and additional aspects.
I think that the combination of all these three groups within one department is unique, as I don't know any other department in the world that offers this combination. In addition, we are building a new type of laboratory, which we call the Electrical Sustainable Power Laboratory, which will enable us to generate knowledge about how to integrate new technologies and components that are important for embedding future electrical power networks into the existing network.
IF: Can you tell us about any projects or research studies that your department is currently working on?
MZ: We have a lot of ongoing projects at the moment and then each of the three groups I mentioned before also has its own projects. For instance, we have a couple of projects related to further development of photovoltaic technology. In other words, we would like to achieve very high conversion efficiencies in solar cells. To do this, we are exploring the use of new materials and new solar cell structures that could achieve high efficiencies. We are also carrying out research investigating ways to integrate these solar cells into products.
Members of the DC Systems, Energy Conversion and Storage group are also carrying out projects exploring ways to charge electric vehicles and are also trying to design so-called DC Microgrids, which will be a very important building block of the future electrical power system. These Microgrids include solar cells as generators of electricity, batteries, and a power electronics component required to connect electricity into existing power networks.
IF: What research are you directly involved in at the moment and how could your findings impact the EE field?
MZ: I think the general trend is that we are now starting to produce electricity from renewable energy sources, rather than from fossil fuels. For example, in the Netherlands only, less than 15% of electricity is currently generated from solar or wind energy. In the Netherlands, 2030 will be an important year in terms of meeting the goals set out by the climate agreement. In fact, the climate agreement states that by then 70% of the electricity should be generated from renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind energy.
To achieve this, the existing power system will have to change completely and we thus need to try to explore as many suitable solutions for generating electricity using solar cells or photovoltaic technology as possible. In addition, we will need to explore ways to introduce photovoltaics in cities and vastly populated urban environments. We still need to figure out how to do this and devise effective strategies. As I mentioned before, we are currently working on a project that investigates methods to integrate solar cells in urban environments, so that these cells can deliver electricity directly into the homes of people living in urban areas.
IF: In your opinion, what impact(s) can university-sponsored research have on the EE industry at large?
MZ: First of all, I think it is important to realize that the EE industry, like most other industries, typically has short-term goals. The key goal of industry leaders is to bring new products on the market;to develop new technology and then sell as much of it as possible. For this reason, research studies co-funded by the industry are usually short-term projects. Projects that are directly financed by a university or by other scientific funding agencies on the other hand, also allow researchers to focus on areas with a long-term impact. From this perspective, I think that it is very important to also have the possibility to carry out more fundamental research, which will have an effect later on, in the long-term. This is why I think that university-sponsored research is particularly valuable.
IF: Much of your research focuses on renewable energy. What are your thoughts on how sustainable practices and renewable energy use could impact the EE industry and electrical engineers?
MZ: The term ‘renewable energy’ relates to renewable energy sources such as solarwind, and geothermal energy. Combined, these three renewable energy sources are one of the key pillars of sustainable energy. The second pillar is comprised of processes to convert the energy generated by these sources into electricity or heat, which should ideally occur with very high efficiency. So, in my opinion, energy efficiency and renewable energy sources are the two key pillars of sustainable energy.
I think that sustainability is a word that attracts young generations. So really, a shift towards sustainable energy systems with the biggest impact on the electrical energy system could encourage young generations to pursue electrical engineering studies, as now things are finally starting to change, while 10 to 15 years ago there was barely any development in this area.
For this reason, students were not interested in electrical energy engineering, mainly because they felt that everything was known and the system worked perfectly as it was. However, recent efforts aimed at replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources and how to couple the electricity generated from renewable energy sources with existing grids have introduced many new challenges. In addition, as the ultimate goal of studies in the field is to enable green and sustainable energy solutions, many young people now feel more inclined to study electrical engineering.
I think that this sustainability approach will also impact electrical engineering industry as a whole, as more and more companies will need to switch to sustainable energy approaches. There are several energy carriers in society. One is electricity, one is heat, and one is gas. In recent years, we are witnessing an important trend known as electrification, which means, for instance, that we are moving from petrol-powered cars to electric cars. instead Other examples of this are the shift from gas to electricity-powered heat pumps for heating, or the gradual electrification of many industrial processes.
Therefore, I think that overall the use of electricity will really increase significantly in the coming years. In addition, the EE Industry will need to implement solutions to make the power system more intelligent, which entails digitalization. I feel that these two trends, electrification and digitalization, will be crucial in shaping the future of the EE industry.
IF: What is your view on the current state of sustainable solutions and the use of alternative energy sources (e.g. solar energy) in Europe?
MZ: In many European countries there is now a clear trend to replace fossil fuel-based electricity generation with renewable energy generation. The EE industry has to investigate whether these replacements can be cost-effective. Therefore, promising innovations should propose ways to become more sustainable at affordable costs.
This is encouraging industry leaders to be innovative in developing new cheap components and technologies for electricity generation, such as photovoltaics. The price of solar modules has dropped considerably over the past five years and these developments facilitate the shift towards sustainable energy.
As I mentioned, a very important step will be bringing electricity generation from solar energy sources into urban environments. This does not only mean putting solar modules on the roofs of houses, but also integrating them into facades. For instance, we could also use the light inside buildings to generate electricity. To do this properly, however, we will need to overcome several challenges.
For example, we will need to have a means of predicting energy yield or electricity yield from solar cells. These are merely a few examples of developments that will allow architects, contractors or other people involved in building cities to start implementing these new technologies and components more often than they are implementing them today. Finally, we now also exploring solutions to implement solar cells in products, to build elements that are multifunctional (i.e. that have more functions beyond generating electricity).
IF: What do you feel are the most promising sustainable energy innovations that are available or are being developed at the moment?
MZ: As I mentioned, one of the main current challenges in the development of sustainable energy solutions is finding ways to introduce photovoltaic technology in urban environments. Many research groups and companies who are working on this will thus need to create building elements that integrate solar cells and then use these elements to renovate old houses or build new houses. I think this will be very important for the future of the EE Industry.
In my opinion, some of the most promising innovations in the field are techniques to make these technologies and components cost effective. Currently, many researchers are looking at new materials, especially materials that are abundant and environmentally friendly. The reason why it is important for materials to be abundant is that they will also be more affordable. Eventually, the hope is to replace materials that are currently used to insulate parts of power systems, such as high voltage cables and joints, which are not very environmentally friendly. At TU Delft, we are conducting research investigating new materials that are insulating but that are also abundant and environmentally friendly.
IF: How important do you think sustainability is and should be for electrical engineers, and why?
MZ: Well, I think this has a lot to do with the future of our planet. Just by looking at the news, one can observe the huge disasters that are taking place all around the world, including all kinds of floods, fires, and air pollution. I have heard that annually, 11,000 people die prematurely because of polluted air in the Netherlands alone. Much of this pollution comes from the use of fossil fuels for generating electricity and transport. I think it is very important to point out these challenges and to continue addressing them.
Electrical engineers can really contribute to changing the current situation, particularly helping to reduce air and water pollution. Eventually, it would be great if we could save fossil fuels for other products, rather than burning them in power plants, cars, boilers, and other components.
IF: How do you think the EE industry should shift or not shift in the future to accommodate sustainable energy solutions?
MZ: Well, again, this has to do with sustainability and coming up with new ways to generate electricity using environment friendly and abundant materials. Ideally, we should also ensure that everything that we develop is energy efficient.
I think that the shift towards sustainable energy solutions is already happening. Perhaps it could be faster, but the current pace might be unavoidable, as new solutions should also be cost-effective in order for EE manufacturers to survive. In fact, if new products are not cost-effective, they will most likely be impossible to implement on a larger scale, thus they could put companies under considerable financial strain.
Overall, however, I think that the EE industry is now being pushed towards sustainable solutions, so I believe that the shift will happen.
IF: What aspects of carrying out research about renewable energy do you find most gratifying and which ones do you find most challenging?
MZ: The most gratifying aspect of my job is that I feel that what I am involved in and the activities we do at TU Delftcould truly help all people. Our work benefits all people in the world, because the sun and wind are readily available to all of us. Developing ways in which we can use these sources to generate energy could have substantial advantages for both our planet and its inhabitants. I'm happy that I can be involved in the development of technologies and components that make this possible. That is in itself very rewarding.
The most challenging aspect of my job is ensuring that the broader public is aware of the fact that we are busy with solutions that can deliver, I would say, a better planet; as not everybody knows that. An interview like the one we are doing now, for example, can help to inform people about new initiatives and solutions in electrical power systems that can pave the way for a better and cleaner world, as most current air pollution results from the way in which we generate electricity today. If we can change that and only use wind and solar energy to generate electricity, this will greatly improve the quality of life on our planet.
IF: Lastly, what are your plans for the future, both in terms of research and other broader projects at TUDelft that you are involved in?
MZ: I have to say that we are still at the very beginning of changing the power system as we know it today. This power system that we built over the past 50 years or so works perfectly. It is almost perfect, I should say. The only thing that we really have to change is to stop using fossil fuels to generate electricity, as these pollute our atmosphere and planet, switching to renewable energy sources. We are still at the beginning of this journey, as when we decide to make this change we will have to build a completely new power system that has different characteristics than the one we are using today. The biggest challenge that our department at TU Delft is trying to overcome is trying to devise strategies to couple these two systems, so that people can still can rely on stable electricity, but without polluting the environment.
In order for sustainable energy solutions to be implemented on a large scale, researchers will need to develop solar cells and other power components that are cost-effective, efficient, and as compatible as possible with the current infrastructure.
TUDelft’s ESE department is contributing significantly to this cause through its research efforts, as well as by equipping new generations of engineers with the skills necessary to start working towards a greener future. New technology developed at TUDelft and at other European universities could ultimately help to tackle some of the most crucial challenges of our century, such as climate change and environmental pollution.
You can find out more about Prof. Zeman and the ESE department on TUDelft’s website.