‘Local needs have to be communicated’

Interview with Michael LaBelle, associate professor and Jean Monnet Chair in Energy and Innovation Strategies at Central European University

October 6, 2017 | By Nathan Johnson

Michael LaBelle is an associate professor and the Jean Monnet Chair in Energy and Innovation Strategies at Central European University. He holds a joint appointment between the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy and the Department of Economics and Business. His research is centred on energy governance, innovation strategies, and energy justice. He teaches courses on energy policies and technologies, including sustainability and innovation. In addition, he has written peer reviewed articles and consulting publications on the strategic movement of energy firms and the regulatory environment in the Central Eastern European region. He holds an MSc and PhD in Geographical Sciences from the University of Bristol.

Professor LaBelle was asked to moderate a panel discussion of city officials during the “Empowering Smart Solutions for Better Cities” conference, which was held on October 2-3, 2017, in Budapest.  In September, LaBelle spoke with Nathan Johnson from the REC about smart cities, bad traffic, public policy and involvement, and the latest trends in energy technology.

Disclaimer: The view and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the speaker and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the REC.

REC: Share a few words about your background.

Michael LaBelle: From 2006 to 2011 I worked at the Regional Center for Energy Policy Research (REKK), at Corvinus University. I joined Central European University (CEU) in 2012, working at the CEU Center for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy (3CSEP). With a focus on energy, I wrote my PhD on electricity deregulation in the United States. I tend to look at energy issues from a political and economic perspective, and this includes understanding the politics behind energy policies and our common responsibility to provide affordable energy for people. My main area of research is energy markets—how companies do research and develop new energy technologies and bring them to market.

REC: How does your focus fit into the context of ‘smart cities’ and ‘smart technology’?

ML: It’s interesting that, even though my scope of research has narrowed, the field I teach in has broadened. While my main area of research could be classified as ‘energy markets’, energy itself is a very diverse topic. Smart cities, for example, or even smart energy grids—things that are ‘smart’—are tied up with communication and communication technology. So, when we talk about the energy sector, we can’t separate that from how a city a works. The communication and storage technology that’s becoming more prevalent in the energy sector is also becoming much more prevalent in how cities function and how they will function in the future. Everything is becoming highly integrated. In one sense, while my research focuses more on areas of governance and regulation, and on how innovation is fostered through new technologies, it also considers how cities are changing and where they are going—and it’s very much about communication. ‘Smart cities’ is a broad term we can use, but it’s all really about making cities work better, and everything is integrated in one way or another with the energy sector.

REC: Does the term ‘smart cities’ represent a genuinely significant shift or new approach, or is it just a trendy catchphrase?

ML: If we look at the development of technology over time, urban environments are always impacted by new technologies. And it’s weird to think that many urban environments become cleaner and cleaner over time—even with the growth of automotive transportation! Coal-fired boilers in buildings, for example, are really dirty, and they added a lot of pollution when they were introduced—so you get a lot cleaner just by getting rid of them. Or take diesel engines, which is a technology we now want to remove from cities as a dirty technology, but which were promoted earlier as a cleaner alternative. Now, everything is becoming electrified, which is displacing some forms of technology with another form—solar, wind et cetera.

In terms of the latest technologies being used, I’m really interested in energy storage technology for cars, homes and buildings—battery technology for storing the energy. That’s all party of the innovation process, but how do we use public policy to achieve take-up on a broader scale? At the same time, there are countries choosing not to encourage that—countries where ‘traditional’, more centralised energy systems are kept around.

REC: Politics clearly plays an important role in what you’ve just described, but those in the private sector with vested interests in the status quo won’t pull up stakes easily, will they?

ML: That’s certainly true. Denmark is an interesting country to look at in this context. On one hand, Denmark is a pioneer in shifting away from fossil fuels, but it can afford to do this in part because they’ve financed it through the production and eventual sale of their offshore oil fields. But, at the same time, this is the positive outcome of a long-term national strategy to pursue energy independence, which became a key concern following the oil shocks of the 1970s. They made a big push and have been consistent with their policy over time.

But that hasn’t happened here, despite the fact that countries like Hungary or Poland are vulnerable to gas pressures from abroad.

REC: But are they positioned to make a move towards energy independence, even if there’s the political will?

ML: Yeah, I think so. The first thing to do would be to increase the energy efficiency of the heating systems of buildings. That would significantly reduce the consumption level of gas. Other technologies, such as heat pumps, are also available. More renewables, more solar, more wind—and prices have gone down because the market for these technologies is very competitive. So, yes, there are ways to transform this region—maybe not in such a dramatic and innovative way as in Demark—but still very effectively.

REC: There’s a great deal of emphasis today on the need for innovation and technological advances, but don’t we already have much of the technology that’s needed to address key problems?

ML: The social, political and economic are key components in all the research that I do. The social becomes imperative when we think about newer technologies because centralised systems can be made obsolete. Homeowners and building owners can now work together in some places to create a brand new, bottom-up energy system. Instead of, say, relying on a nuclear power plant or coal-fired power plant, a bunch of smaller consumers can get together.

At the same time, the socio-economic dimension appears in making such a shift because, in many cases, only those who are better off can afford the new technology—or, they’re homeowners to begin with. So, there needs to be pressure on policymakers to create conditions that support lower-income people in being able to afford solar or alternative sources of energy. If this doesn’t happen, as wealthier people move off the grid, utility companies, now with fewer customers, will raise prices for the remaining, lower-income users.

To get back to your question, we can roll-out as many new technologies as we want, but upwards of half the population won’t have immediate access to them.

REC: What are some of the different ways that individual cities can implement long-term strategies that will lead to greater energy efficiency, enhanced mobility et cetera?

ML: Every city, for example, is going to be differently affected by climate change, depending on its geographical location and other factors—so each city has to develop a plan to deal with a unique long-term forecast. The already built environment also plays a role for each city, as well as which services are already deployed or used.

To go back to the social level, you need to make sure that local needs are communicated to both municipal and national decision makers, because funding is going to be necessary at some point to make the changes that people want to see happen.

REC: What are some of the most exciting and inspirational developments you’ve come across in your work related to energy?

ML: I’m quite excited about storage technologies, such as lithium-ion batteries or chemical batteries. Some are rather small—for powering cars, for example—and others operate on quite a huge scale. Another storage approach is to push compressed air into the ground near wind farms, which is used to turn the turbines. This is an example of being able to store excess output rather than losing it or giving it away for free. The reason I’m excited about this kind of technology is that we can now look to using renewables when the wind’s not blowing, or when the sun’s not shining. It’s a way to capture the excess energy from renewables during peak periods to use later. Economically speaking, storage becomes incentivized because money can be made by reintroducing the stored energy back into the grid. And in terms of power sharing between different communities, you can build storage facilities instead of stringing up a new network of power lines—which is both more resilient and less dangerous to wildlife.

Another technology I’m looking at is the use of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, for smaller communities or islands that might normally import diesel, for example. LNG can be transported by tanker truck or into an on-shore storage tank. It can be de-gasified pretty cheaply, and it’s a lot cleaner in terms of emissions.

REC: What would you like to see happen in Budapest in terms of improving sustainability, mobility and public participation?

ML: First, more trees! A lot more trees and greenery, for sure. I would also love to see a bicycle lane along the main ring road. A lowering of car speeds would be great, as well. Budapest could slow down and relax a bit more. But, to be honest, the city has really changed a lot from the ground up over the years. Sure, there have been some really big projects involving EU money—the new metro, for example—but small groups, and even cafés and bars have helped to change the scene dramatically, simply by engaging with people. One of the greatest things about living in Budapest is how easy it is go find places to just hang out and meet people.

TAGS: Smart cities | Sustainabile mobility | Energy security | Energy planning | Renewable energy