Top researchers, entre­pre­neurs, scholars, and pol­i­cy­makers from Mass­a­chu­setts and Switzer­land con­vened at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity on Friday for an energy summit, where par­tic­i­pants dis­cussed inno­va­tions and strate­gies to address cli­mate change and a range of other global energy challenges.

Experts—including a Swiss del­e­ga­tion of about 70 people—examined myriad topics including renew­able energy con­ver­sion, data storage, green building, and global part­ner­ships related to energy projects. Panel dis­cus­sions expanded upon areas ranging from public sector energy research to bringing tech­nology to market, while win­ners of the pres­ti­gious Watt d’Or award—given by the Swiss Fed­eral Office of Energy in recog­ni­tion of out­standing Swiss energy projects that offer a sig­nif­i­cant ben­efit for society—also pre­sented their inno­v­a­tive projects.

Doris Leuthard, a Swiss Fed­eral Coun­cilor and head of Switzerland’s Depart­ment of the Envi­ron­ment, Trans­port, Energy and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, said in her keynote that as the global effects of cli­mate change progress, the window is closing to address them.

We have to get to impor­tant ques­tions in the next decades,” Leuthard said. “What will our cities look like in 50 years? How we can pro­duce and use energy with faster designs in the future for gen­er­a­tions to come? These are global issues that can only be solved globally.”

Global efforts, she said, must be sup­ple­mented by national efforts that are tai­lored to the spe­cific energy needs of dif­ferent coun­tries and cul­tures. The day’s dis­cus­sions, she added, would help spark new energy inno­va­tions and strengthen col­lab­o­ra­tions between the U.S. and Switzerland.

Lino Guzzella, pro­fessor and president-​​elect of ETH Zurich, a dis­tin­guished Swiss research uni­ver­sity that has earned three Watt d’Or awards, stressed the impact public-​​and private-​​sector invest­ment in research can have on real­izing cli­mate change solu­tions. He noted, for example, that Albert Ein­stein in 1905 dis­cov­ered the pho­to­elec­tric effect, which is the basis for solar power and now 100 years later has led to a multi-​​billion industry. The tech­nology, Guzzella said, may be one “that saves the Planet Earth.”

Basic sci­ence,” he noted, “is the root of true progress,” adding that invest­ment in sci­ence is an invest­ment in the planet’s future.

Doris Leuthard, a Swiss Federal Councilor and head of Switzerland’s Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications, delivers her keynote address. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Doris Leuthard, a Swiss Fed­eral Coun­cilor and head of Switzerland’s Depart­ment of the Envi­ron­ment, Trans­port, Energy and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, delivers her keynote address. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

The day­long sem­inar coin­cided with the public opening of an exhibit at Northeastern’s Inter­na­tional Vil­lage fea­turing 25 energy inno­va­tions hon­ored with the Watt d’Or award. The trav­eling exhibit, a dynamic blend of art and sci­ence, is making its world pre­miere at North­eastern and includes The Solar Impulse, a solar-​​powered air­plane that flew for 26 con­sec­u­tive hours. Other fea­tured projects include a rev­o­lu­tionary yet ele­gant method for saving energy while show­ering and a fuel cell-​​powered vehicle called Pac Car II that set a world record in 2005 for energy-​​efficient driving.

North­eastern pre­sented the events in part­ner­ship with the Swiss Fed­eral Office of Energy and swissnex Boston, the con­sulate of Switzer­land. The events dove­tail with Northeastern’s long­standing com­mu­nity to use-​​inspired research in the area of sus­tain­ability, one of the university’s core research themes.

Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs, noted how North­eastern fac­ulty are addressing sus­tain­ability chal­lenges through inter­dis­ci­pli­nary and inno­v­a­tive approaches. Pro­fessor Matthias Ruth, a leader in the emerging field of eco­log­ical eco­nomics, has shown that adopting proac­tive “green” poli­cies is the most cost-​​effective way to sus­tain coastal cities against the long-​​term impact of cli­mate change. Asso­ciate pro­fessor Car­olyn Lee-​​Parsons is studying plant-​​based alter­na­tive ener­gies, while pro­fessor Mark Pat­terson has devel­oped autonomous under­water robots to mon­itor the ocean and mea­sure the effects of cli­mate change.

Director also noted the work of pro­fessor San­jeev Muk­erjee, who directs North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Center for Renew­able Energy Tech­nology. His lab’s work includes devel­oping new fuel cells to replace internal com­bus­tion engines in cars.

Muk­erjee par­tic­i­pated in an after­noon panel dis­cus­sion in which experts exam­ined the dif­ferent approaches to energy research in the U.S. and Switzer­land and how they define how the energy pipeline will be filled. In response to a ques­tion about gov­ern­ment sup­port of basic and applied research, Muk­erjee said a researcher begins with a “nat­ural curiosity” about his field and must have a strong under­standing of what bar­riers exist in that field. “Big bar­riers cannot be crossed with trans­la­tional ideas. Trans­la­tional ideas come when you know there’s a chance you can jump that big wall. Once you know you can jump it, that doesn’t mean it’ll become a product, a device, or a tech­nology. But there’s a chance.”

He added, “As a researcher, the most impor­tant thing is to under­stand at a fun­da­mental level how things work and be able to make that jump.”

The panel was also asked to iden­tify the most urgent tech­no­log­ical need for inte­grating renew­ables and energy effi­cien­cies in the coming decades. Jen­nifer Rupp, a pro­fessor of mate­rials sci­ence at ETH Zurich who is working on inno­v­a­tive tools for energy storage in bat­teries and energy con­ver­sion sys­tems, said it’s crit­ical to know the global acces­si­bility of the ele­ments needed to build bat­teries for energy storage tech­nolo­gies. Iden­ti­fying alter­na­tive storage methods is just as impor­tant, she added.

In his keynote remarks, Ben­jamin B. Downing, Mass­a­chu­setts Senate chairman of the Joint Com­mittee on Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, Util­i­ties and Energy, said the state has been a national leader on clean energy issues and there are now 80,000 jobs in that sector. He said that when new energy poli­cies go into effect, it’s crit­ical that the ground in which they’re seeded is as fer­tile as pos­sible to max­i­mize their impact.

That’s what part­ner­ships like the ones we’re trying to foster this morning and in the future are all about,” Downing said.

Audience members listen to keynote speakers at Friday's energy summit, held in Northeastern's Raytheon Amphitheatre. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Audi­ence mem­bers listen to keynote speakers at Friday’s energy summit, held in Northeastern’s Raytheon Amphithe­atre. Photo by Mariah Tauger.