Enel, universities and the energy of knowledge

Enel, universities and the energy of knowledge

Rome was the venue for the third annual meeting of We4U, the university network coordinated by the Enel Foundation that is working alongside our Group in order to face the challenges presented by the energy transition


“Power” is a wonderful word that can mean energy and strength. The Enel Foundation has chosen it as part of the title for the third We4U (World Energy for universities) annual meeting with our Group’s academic partners, “The power of Knowledge for a clean energy future.” The event was held in Rome at the Enel Auditorium on 23 October, with a preview on the evening of the 22 at the LUISS (The Free International University of Social Studies). The power of knowledge, but also the energy of knowledge that drives innovation.  


Knowledge is the key for the energy market

Enel’s relationship with the university sector is both well-established and at the same time new. The idea behind We4U was described by Francesco Starace, the Group’s CEO and Chairman of Enel Foundation, at the start of proceedings when he explained the need that has developed over the years to reorganise Enel’s relationship with hundreds of universities and research centres throughout the world. “The Enel Foundation has been chosen as a focal point in this new relationship,” said the CEO, reminding his audience that in order to understand today’s energy market and play a meaningful role in it, “knowledge is the key – it may seem banal, but it isn’t, because for many years it was thought that knowledge only existed within the company.”

This explains the importance of We4U, a useful opportunity to take stock of the collaboration projects currently underway and to look ahead with vision and practicality towards new challenges. The event concluded with a pitch discussing the research challenges to be launched on the Open Innovability platform, starting with the needs identified by the Group’s business lines.  

“We’re here to connect companies, startups and universities. Help us to create a larger hub, to join the dots,” said Ernesto Ciorra, the Group’s Chief Innovability Officer (quoting Steve Jobs) in his speech of welcome to the universities and research institutes of the We4U network at the two-day event in Rome. The guest list included such Italian centres of excellence as the Milan and Turin Polytechnics, Milan’s Bocconi University, the Sant’Anna University of Pisa, the Italian Institute of Technology, the University of Genoa, Ricerca sul Sistema Elettrico (RSE: Electric System Research), LUISS (a new entry), as well as MIT in Boston, the University of California Berkeley, Columbia University in New York, the Strathmore University in Nairobi and Madrid’s Universidad Pontificia Comillas.  

In this way the relationship with universities and research centres acts as a hub for a wider network, an innovation ecosystem that includes startups, companies, crowdfunding platforms, and which has led to the creation of 10 Enel Innovation Hubs across the world, identifying innovation where it occurs. This is an example, in fact, of applied Open Power strategy.  


From Big Data to Africa: the research projects

The four panels at the meeting highlighted the importance of the research projects launched in collaboration with the afore-mentioned universities in recent years. One example was the research described by Rector Guido Saracco carried out by the Turin Polytechnic in collaboration with the Enel Foundation and Endesa Energia and facilitated by Big Data and smart meters on how we can best serve our clients. Another was the socio-economic and environmental analysis of the advantages of the transition to e-mobility provided by Fuelling Italy’s Future. This research was presented in September and coordinated by the Enel Foundation with the collaboration of the Bocconi University and prestigious institutions like the European Climate Foundation and Transport & Environment. Its findings were outlined by Federico Caleno, Head of e-Mobility Solutions Development for Enel X.

And the Open Africa Power project, where partners like Strathmore University in Africa, the Milan and Turin Polytechnics, Milan’s Bocconi University, the Florence School of Regulation and the Enel Foundation work together to train a new generation of African leaders dedicated to a future of clean energy. The project was presented by Izael da Silva, Deputy Vice Chancellor for research and innovation at Strathmore University.  

Another subject for discussion in Rome was the research evaluating the impact of energy access projects in developing countries, carried out by the Enel Foundation in collaboration with the Milan Polytechnic, Enel Green Power and ESMAP, the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program. It was presented by Emanuela Colombo of the Polytechnic’s faculty of energy.   


Social science and data

In the words of Andrea Prencipe, Rector of LUISS, in his address to We4U, the digital transformation is having an impact on all sectors. “Digital literacy is crucial to the professions of the future, in all sectors. Every technological revolution, though, is also a human and social revolution, so in today’s complex world it is becoming even more vital that the social science and data science talk to each other.” He went on to outline the need for training “specialised generalists,” and played on the acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) by adding arts and humanities studies to make STEAM.

He also added: “Organisations are much slower than technology – the great digital transformation challenge is for a company to be able to take advantage of all the potential offered by the data.”  

Giuseppe Amoroso, Head of Digital Strategy and Governance in Enel’s Global Digital Solutions, talked about the effort to transform our Group into a “data-driven company.” This development also affects cybersecurity, an area where coordination and exchange of information are becoming increasingly important. “Our competitors also play a role in the cybersecurity monitoring organisation we are involved in,” said Yuri Rassega, Head of Cybersecurity of Global Digital Solutions.

So this is also an Open Power strategy in research on data security, because as Costas Spanos, Head of CITRIS (Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society) at the University of California Berkeley, explains, “the more sophisticated it is, the more vulnerable it becomes.”


Future megatrends

Drawing on the panellists’ quality and international stature, We4U took a look at the key megatrends for our Group’s future, discussed by the four panels chaired by João Duarte, Deputy Director of the Enel Foundation, and Iulia Lazar from Innovability at Enel. The subjects covered included digitalisation and cybersecurity, electrification, access to energy and e-mobility. 

According to Christoph Meinrenken, a researcher at Columbia University’s Earth Institute/Climate Center, data analysis and machine learning will enable companies to optimise energy flows by linking them to consumer behaviour patterns. This could involve, for example, coordinating energy supply with the time of day and peaks in demand. And while there is no doubt that the future of electrification will also depend on the legislative context, universities and research centres will take on an increasingly important role in providing politicians with effective instruments for shaping policies, with models that can be used to produce accurate predictions.

Technology was also a subject for the panel on access to energy, an urgent issue for the 1.2 billion people around the world – half of them in Africa – for whom electricity is not available. “Over the next few decades half of Africa’s population will become urbanised. We risk creating the paradoxical situation where the poorest people will be those paying most for electricity,” said Lamberto Dai Pra', Head of Africa, Asia and Oceania for Enel Green Power.

Ignacio Perez Arriaga, Visiting Professor at the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at MIT in Boston and member of the Enel Foundation’s scientific committee, attempted to provide a response to this challenge. Arriaga said that the future lies in transforming utilities into “integrated distribution companies” in developing countries to speed up electrification through renewable energy. “Mini-grids, micro-grids and off-grid installations must be created where access to the main grid is lacking. The technology must be developed in the best possible way because one day these installations will be permanently connected to the grid.”

Of course, digital technology also lies at the core of the future of e-mobility. Vehicle-to-grid (V2G), which Enel has already launched in Northern Europe and is currently piloting in Italy, will enable e-cars to be transformed into a battery that can exchange energy with the grid, offering balancing services to electricity managers in exchange for a payment to the car owner. Our cities’ social, anthropological and urban transformation will also be enabled by e-mobility, said Marco Percoco, Head of the GREEN research centre (Geography, Resources, Environment, Energy and Networks) at Milan’s Bocconi University, and Umberto Fugiglando, researcher at MIT’s Senseable City Lab. Take, for example, the impact of driverless vehicles, car sharing and new charging station services. The smart city of the future, in fact.  

Enel’s future, however, will also be driven by the innovations we will develop with the universities in the years to come. Six work groups at the We4U highlighted the directions research may take to respond to the needs identified by the Group’s business units, from a new generation of sensors to monitor wind turbine lifecycles to using AI to shape a predictive approach to lithium battery storage.  

Knowledge is power, and the power of knowledge can be transformed into energy.