Nominated by: Michel Allé, Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB)/Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management
Aviel Verbruggen’s involvement in energy issues is a lifetime commitment.
It started as research assistant in 1975 developing computer models to assess the feasibility of building district heating and of cogeneration in Belgium; both were part of the 1970 government plans to use energy rationally. The feasibility assessment continued with addressing the barriers impeding nascent efficiency options. One barrier was the plan to expand supply capacities with four 1.300 MW nuclear reactors. By revealing that the decision-making process of the power sector was obsolete and the economics of nuclear power poor, he contributed to postpone investment decisions and finally to scrap the construction of new reactors. The other main barrier was the grid-connection terms for Independent Generators of Own Power (IGOP); then Minister Philippe Maystadt (later Chair of the EIB) asked Aviel to analyze and debunk the uneven proposals submitted by the power companies.
In the 1980s, the European Commission assigned significant financial support for research about ‘local energy planning’ to the nominee’s growing research team. A detailed practical case project in Hoboken (Antwerp) was tested, while developing know-how.
As of 1986, on the basis of the European funding, a variety of organisations asked for energy savings potentials assessments in industry, the commercial sector, buildings. A joint initiative was set up in 1994 with the public electricity and gas distribution utilities in order to apply energy efficiency techniques and practices in the public buildings of cities and municipalities. This cooperation was developing fast, and the nominee devolved a part of his university research team to start a cooperative company (CVBA CENERGIE) in 1997 that was a pioneer in Flanders and Belgium in energy efficiency in buildings, for example designing the first passive office buildings.
As of 1998, the nominee worked more on climate change mitigation for IPCC (until 2014), on support mechanisms for renewable power development, on economic policy instruments to spread energy conservation and efficiency more effectively. His focus on diversity, bottom-up, self-governance is a creative approach, yet opposite to the dominant discourse of top-down uniform carbon taxes and emissions trading.
In recent 2022 reports on energy systems transformations, Aviel accentuates the importance of energy conservation and efficiency as the natural twin of solar, wind and other renewable power supply.
Academics are creative when advancing the state-of-the-art science in their field, on the topics they cover. Strategic vision is proven when their analysis, propositions and recommendations remain valid for the future, sufficiently robust to survive crises and downturns.
Given Aviel covered several energy and environmental topics (see his site ‘Sustainable Energy Transition’), his creativity was assigned to several issues requesting different disciplinary assets. The long-range research on cogeneration culminated in solving in 2016 the enigma of quantifying cogenerated MWh, crucial for proper regulation of cogeneration. At present, the thorough assessment of EU’s Emissions Trading System reveals its essential attributes; it is followed by more workable and necessary pricing proposals, such as a new electricity economics theory based on proximity and reliability principles.
The strategic vision is based on two, fully interlaced, indispensable transformations. The societal transformation is from neoliberalism to Sustainable Development, as defined in Our Common Future by the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). This strategic transformation process on all the P-dimensions: Politics, People, Planet, Prosperity rejects the 3P reduced mantra; it uses SDGs as key performance indicators, not as sufficient markers of transformation. The energy substrate of societies is transforming from fuels and central thermal power to 100% renewable electricity, mostly harvested light, wind, water, geothermy. For being successful, the global transformation will be diverse, small-scale, bottom-up, anchored locally. Hence, authority and responsibility will shift more to local authorities, such as cities and regions.
Scientists, researchers, academics in general are seldomly outstanding in people management. The nominee has been leading research teams (5 to 15 persons) and centers (up to 50 persons). He restructured the largest research center that he directed in the 1980s in quite autonomous subdivisions, delegating decision-making and budget where it worked best. Motivation of collaborators was by example. They had ample freedom to organize their tasks.
Inspiration of others was mainly through the novelty, importance, positive results of the projects. Also, the high ethical standards of full transparency, strict independence of interests and interest groups, attracted young people to join the projects. While independence was untouchable, the disposition was not neutral: it was directed to the standard of Sustainable Development (1987), already before this report was published.
By precarious employment conditions (time limited contracts; few opportunities to obtain tenure; by times below market average salaries) the turnover rate of collaborators was high. This was a major challenge during the 40 years of activity in the field of energy efficiency. The positive side of the fast turnover is that more people could spread the ideas in other circles. Some of the most excelling staff of the nominee’s research teams was deliberately transferred to local public energy utilities or administrations, supporting there know-how building on energy efficiency and other approaches to address energy-related issues.