There exists a country in Northern Europe that is a haven for sustainability. Bicycles rule the road, and 42% of energy is produced from wind – the highest proportion in the world. Owing to its large capacity of renewable energy production, it is the 6th most energy secure country in the world. That country is………
……….not the Netherlands. It is Denmark.
This is a curious contradiction considering that the Netherlands is almost universally associated with windmills. But the fact is that since the discovery of vast natural gas fields up north in Groningen, the Netherlands has been slow to invest in and develop renewable energy technologies, especially compared to some of its neighbours. This means that despite having a strong culture of sustainability, where Dutch companies like Phillips, Unilever and PostNL often top the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, the Netherlands is third from the bottom in the EU in terms of the share of renewables in energy production. The dangers of continuing such an approach should be starkly clear to the Dutch; since most of its landmass is at or below sea level, the Netherlands stands to face the brunt of the effects of rising sea levels associated with climate change.
But it isn’t all dull and gloom. In 2015, Dutch citizens sued the government for not meeting its climate goals, and in a landmark judgement, the court ordered the government to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% in 2020 (as compared to 1990 levels). This represents the first time in history that human rights were used as the basis to protect citizens against climate change (Urgenda Case). This was an improvement on the status quo, in which the EU had set 3 targets for 2020, collectively referred to as the 20-20-20 targets – 20% share of renewables in energy production (currently 5% in the Netherlands), 20% reduction in greenhouse gas levels, and 20% improvement in energy efficiency. The Netherlands was widely considered one of the countries most likely to miss the targets.
Achieving these targets requires a holistic approach involving technology and policy reforms. Being the top technical university in the Netherlands, TU Delft has been actively engaged in this process. As part of these efforts, the Sustainable Energy Technology program was initiated and is now coordinated by the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science, or EEMCS. From the coming academic year, the program requires students to pick between 6 clusters involving combinations of 3 of the 6 tracks – Wind, Solar, Biomass, Electric Power, Storage, and Economics and Society. Being a multi-disciplinary course spread across the faculties on campus, students have a great degree of freedom in pursuing courses, projects and theses. The Wind track, for example, is centred at the Faculty of Aerospace and Aeronautical Engineering, which is widely regarded as among the finest in the world. Students can work on wind turbine blade design, predictive algorithms for wind conditions using AI, or optimising wind farm design, to name a few options. The Solar track, based out of EEMCS, has faculty and students that have set world records in solar cell efficiency. The current profile leader, Prof. Arno Smets, was recently awarded the prize for the best instructor on EdX (an online platform offering MOOCs from universities including Harvard, MIT, Berkeley etc.) for his online course on Solar Energy (Prof. Smets wins EdX prize). On the other side of the spectrum, Prof. Linda Kamp from the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management, and profile leader of the Economics and Society track, wrote her PhD thesis on a comparison of the development of wind energy in the Netherland and Denmark and continues to work on the implementation of sustainable energy technologies through appropriate policy and business initiatives.
The growth of this program is strongly correlated to the increasing demand for sustainable energy in the Netherlands and around the world. Consequently, over 95% of students from the program typically find employment within 6 months of graduation. Through this journey, however, the renowned Dutch emphasis on work-life balance is never lost. Whether it’s the evenings in the faculty pub where students and professors kick back after a hard day’s work (Prof. Smets is the treasurer for the EEMCS Slash Pub and regularly joins us for the weekly SET evening), or other activities organised through the week by the numerous clubs and associations on campus, you are never left short of things to do.
For me, the program offers the opportunity to challenge many opinions I had about science and engineering and their interaction with the world at large. Being exposed to courses from a broad array of disciplines forces me to question my foundations and rebuild them to include all sorts of new connections. This process of discovery requires effort, but the rewards are worthwhile. Perhaps my favourite part of the course is the ability to do a project, internship and thesis in three separate fields to gain exposure to parallel paths of development in sustainable energy.
Are you interested in saving the world? Or would you just like a couple of years in a beautiful medieval town, in a country where nearly everyone speaks English and which has excellent access to most parts of Europe? Then you may find your place at TU Delft. Applications are already open!