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E-Club Bocconi Event: “The Market for Biofuels and Sustainable Energies”

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On the 22nd of February, a student association called Entrepreneurship Club Bocconi organized an online discussion-based event “The market for biofuels and sustainable energies.” The debate was moderated by Assistant Professor Aldona Kapačinskaitė who works at Bocconi’s Department of Management and Technology. Participants of the event got to listen to three presentations made by exceptional speakers who specialize in the fields of biofuels and sustainable energy:  Selcan Catal, Selen Senal, and Lucas Bertrand. 

Introducing the Speakers

Aldona Kapačinskaitė is an Assistant Professor at Bocconi who holds a PhD in Strategy and Entrepreneurship from London Business School. She specializes in organizational innovation, and the majority of her research is based in the energy sector. Prof. Kapačinskaitė is particularly interested in how firms can approach and reap the benefits from the innovation process.

The first speaker, Selcan Catal, is a sustainable solutions fellow. Her expertise lies in smart cities, sustainable communities, circular economy, and the development of affordable clean energy. Selen Senal, who works with Catal, is the founder of a company called ALGBIO. She’s a bioengineer who specializes in synthetic biology, reactor engineering, renewable energy, and climate change. Last but surely not the least, is Lucas Bertrand – a Business Development Director at a company called ITM Power. He has 30 years of experience in new and renewable energy, business development, and working with startups.

Selcan Catal: what is the real solution to climate change?

The first one to start the discussion was Selcan Catal. She explained that the topic of biofuels and sustainable energy is of major importance to her, given that her life purpose revolves around climate change and sustainability. Catal moved on to talk about the importance of this subject for the world as a whole. According to her, every year 50bil. tonnes of greenhouse gasses are emitted every year. In light of this, many politicians frame climate change as an issue requiring political change, in which everyone does their part. But Catal explained that such perception is “too arrogant” – you can try to convince any country to make change for as much as you’d like, and yet it won’t happen. The only way to solve climate change is to treat this as an engineering challenge and replace all contemporary energy systems with sustainable ones.

Catal proceeded to say that the solution cannot be found in personal and private changes and in the homes of the middle class. Most of the necessary technology either does not exist yet or is too expensive to acquire. In order to achieve change, everyone would need to act and contribute, yet this is impossible given the socioeconomic divisions within society. Richer parts of the population can prioritize fighting climate change given their access to the needed resources, while poorer ones do not. Naturally, for the latter other urgent problems, such as poverty, are far more important compared to climate change which does not seem to have immediate deadly effects.

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The speaker proceeded to explain that the concept of sustainability has become skewed throughout the years. Oftentimes, solar energy is twice as expensive compared to a regular one. This is because climate change tends to affect our sustainable energy sector and bills, leading to lower people’s prosperity in terms of income, which hence questions the concept of sustainability. Regardless of that, Catal proceeded to explain that climate change must not be about just talking. Even though it’s all about science and math, people must continue contributing to fighting it. Even though we don’t get a gold medal for recycling or saving water, it’s the small steps that matter in the long run.

Selen Senal: is algae biodiesel the key to sustainability?

The discussion was followed up by a presentation provided by Selen Senal, who explained the activity and purpose of her newly founded company called ALGBIO. It is an algae biodiesel firm that produces bioenergy from microorganisms known as algae and treats wastewater. Senal explained that fuel gas factories and transportation increase CO2 emissions and lead to water contamination. Her company is dedicated to batttling agasint those effects, focusing on the protection of biodiversity in water. ALGBIO produces 4 products: biodiesel, bioethanol, kerosene, and biogas. Its clientele consists of the entire industry sector, given that they can extract waste from literally anywhere, even when it comes to textile production.

Interestingly, the company’s core team consists of only women engineers, one of whom is Selcan Catal. The firm’s main goal is to achieve net zero CO2 emission level by 2050. ALGBIO is also capable of reducing energy consumption levels given that they eliminate the oil extraction phase in their production process.

Lucas Bertrand: how can green hydrogen help in decreasing emission levels?

Last to speak was Lucas Bertrand – a Business Development and Sales expert whose experience in the industry is more than 30 years long. Bertrand delivered a presentation on the company for which he works – ITM Power – that only 20 years ago was still a startup and is now a major player in the market of energy storage and clean fuel. The firm consists of approximately 450 people, and its headquarters are located in the United Kingdom. ITM Power, which currently designs and manufactures PEM electrolyser systems, is moving towards industrialisation and beginning to manufacture larger electrolysers.

Lucas Bertrand explained that the company is exceptional given that they use the process of injecting hydrogen to gas which in return allows to avoid unnecessary pollution. Crucially, it helps retain the existing balance of water and oxygen on Earth, but not all companies are like that. Refinery is a major process that consumes hydrogen and most of the hydrogen is produced from fossils. As a result, for each kilogram of hydrogen 11 kg of CO2 emissions are emitted. Bertrand explained that one way of changing this is storing CO2 waste in deep sea waters – however, this is not a very sustainable option. Hence, the ITM Power provides a more sustainable approach to the problem. The production of green hydrogen is the only form of clean fuel available that allows to tackle climate change. Using it can lead to global decarbonisation, however, the prices of renewable energy remain high and hence not attainable for everyone. But Bertrand remains optimistic – as prices are gradually decreasing, more green hydrogen will be produced, allowing us to move towards a net zero emissions future.

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The Discussion

Once the speeches ended, the speakers were asked multiple questions coming from the audience and the organizer of the event, Ece Melisa. The first question asked was what advice would each participant give to the students who want to join the industry. Bertrand answered the question from his own experience by explaining that he wasn’t a technician back in the day and didn’t have any idea about what hydrogen was or how it functioned. Crucially, he noted that just because a person is not an engineer it doesn’t mean that he cannot work in the industry – this market has a lot of potential, is far more interesting and better compared to traditional energy markets and hence simply requires people who are passionate about it, regardless of their degree. Selen Senal noted shortly, yet firmly, that it is necessary to create “cooperation between academia and the industry” and find a balance between the two in order to successfully join the market. Lastly, the moderator of the event, Prof. Kapačinskaitė, also gave an interesting perspective to the question. She explained that “there are so many technologies out there that just need to be scaled up” and hence encouraged everyone to not just think about innovation and creating new mechanisms, but rather to improve and work on what’s already out there.

The discussion was followed up by another question, asking the female participants how being a young woman in the industry impacted them as entrepreneurs. Senal explained that it does get very hard sometimes. However, in her view, the absence of female entrepreneurs in the energy sector can sometimes create a positive advantage, because different organizations and governments tend to notice you more and are hence willing to assist you. Selcan gave a different perspective. She explained that in her experience, people often did not take her as an equal, given that at the age of 18 she was already delivering lectures to other people and standing out as an expert in her field. Selcan said that it’s not easy to work in a male-oriented industry – people tend to underestimate her knowledge given her gender and age. But at the end of the day, it’s all about seeking personal development, learning new things, and motivating your own self.

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The event was closed off by a final question – what was the breaking point in every speaker’s career? Lucas Bertrand said that for him it was the biggest lesson he learned after spending 10 years in a group of friends with whom he created the startup. He explained that then he learned that a conflict can arise even when you’re working with your friends and hence you have to be careful about it. However, Bertrand ended his answer on a positive note, explaining that this experience taught him a lot and that, at the end, made him stronger. Senal said that her breaking point was when she first tried to establish her company and was rejected by many investors apart from one company. This company allowed her to proceed with developing the firm and gaining more investors later on.

At the end of the day, the “Market for biofuels and sustainable energies” event was incredibly insightful. It introduced all participants to three speakers of exceptional expertise and experience, hence providing everyone with new information and teaching them how to adapt it in the future. But crucially, the lesson learned for all was this: regardless of what career path you’ve chosen, you can pursue all kinds of dreams, it just all requires a little self-motivation and belief in oneself.

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Student of International Politics and Government. Key interest areas: politics, international relations, history and social movements. Incredibly passionate about debating tournaments and techno parties.

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