The New Research Centre of Bologna Business School devoted to sustainability and climate change can count on 11 researchers who contribute to improve concretely the future of the planet. We would like to introduce them and introduce the work of the Centre, through their voices, starting with Professor Maria Alessandra Ancona, Assistant Professor at the Department of Industrial Engineering, Alma Mater Studiorum University of Bologna. She graduated cum Laude in Energy Engineering in 2013 and obtained a PhD in Mechanics and Advanced Engineering Sciences (DIMSAI) from the University of Bologna in 2018. She carries out research on energy systems and sustainability, smart energy grids, storage systems and renewable energies. She is currently involved in a European project aimed at decarbonizing gas turbine-based systems thanks to the green hydrogen production and employment.
One of the strengths of the new BBS Centre for Sustainability and Climate Change is undoubtedly the multidisciplinary nature that characterises it, essential in the context of the fight against climate change, to conduct high-level research and to propose to both the scientific world and political players effective and sustainable solutions. The goals set by the European Union in terms of environmental sustainability impose, in the coming years, the need for an energy and industrial transition towards a carbon-free economy, which requires cooperation between multiple sectors, making it necessary and fundamental to have a dialogue between competences in different fields, such as engineering, economics and management, legal and legislative sectors, but also architecture, medicine, and sociology.
Another major strength and distinguishing feature of the BBS Centre for Sustainability and Climate Change is its geographic location, in the context of the river Po Valley, which – both because of its orographic structure and its strong industrial vocation –is currently (according to a report by the European Environment Agency) the worst for air pollution, not only in Italy but also in Europe, and is therefore a crucial point to combat climate change. It is estimated, in fact, that Italy is among the first in Europe for damage caused by nitrogen dioxide, ozone and PM2.5 (the most dangerous fine particles) pollution, with four out of the top ten European cities for damage due to this pollutant (and 19 out of the top 30): all these cities are located in northern Italy, the vast majority in the river Po Valley.
In this context, the proximity of the Centre to an important production area, which involves very different sectors (from the automotive sector to the food sector or the pharmaceutical one, to name but a few) is undoubtedly a privileged vantage point and provides multiple opportunities for dialogue with the various players involved, such as producers, entrepreneurs, citizens, and institutions. The city of Bologna’s role in the fight against climate change is further strengthened by two strongly interconnected aspects: the first is the presence of globally important computing centres, first and foremost CINECA, which hosts 70% of the supercomputing power in Italy. These centres play a fundamental role in the context of the growing development of Internet of Things technologies in the service of sustainability and smart cities, in which the competitiveness of the solutions proposed is strongly dependent on minimising computing time for forecasting and management simulations. The second aspect, closely linked to the previous one, is the imminent opening of the new headquarter of the data centre of ECMWF (European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts), the pole for medium-term weather forecasts.
Last but certainly not least in terms of relevance, the BBS Centre for Sustainability and Climate Change is born within the prestigious context of the Alma Mater Studiorum University of Bologna, the oldest university in the world, making it possible to benefit from an international network of contacts that is a guarantee of high research quality.
The interdisciplinary aspect is fundamental in the field of research, and in particular in the fight against climate change, first of all because it makes it possible to identify the multiple causes of climate change – which have origins and repercussions in different sectors – and at the same time to define effective, standardised, and shared actions and solutions.
Anthropogenic climate change is in fact a very complex phenomenon, characterised by great inertia in terms of time between causal actions and the manifestation of effects and originating from the intense, and ever increasing in the last century, human activities linked to the emission of pollutants, such as the combustion of fossil fuels, deforestation, and intensive livestock farming. Addressing them requires both adaptation and resilience strategies as well as mitigation and contrast actions, including smart solutions and technologies, in the interest of citizens and economic development.
The transition towards a planet that places the notion of sustainability at its centre therefore requires – on the one hand – the development of efficient technologies, the promotion of the use of renewable sources, the need for action on buildings and a rethink of the world of transport, and – on the other hand – continuous monitoring activities, attention to the care of the territory aimed at reducing the frequency and scale of disastrous meteorological events, the promotion of a diet based on zero-km products and the definition of economic policies based on sustainable development.
The need to deal with such complex phenomena therefore requires a drive towards multi-disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and cooperation. A systemic and multi-disciplinary research perspective is thus essential in order, on the one hand, to broaden the understanding of the problem and, on the other, to deploy not only specific expertise, but also to develop a global methodological and strategic vision for the approach to combating climate change.
My specialisation is in the area of industrial engineering, in particular in the field of energy and environmental systems, and therefore focuses on sustainability in the energy field. Briefly, I study innovative technologies for the production and storage of energy (electricity, thermal and cooling energy) and sustainable fuels, optimising existing technologies, but also identifying optimal management and control strategies for these systems and for energy distribution networks, in order to ensure that the needs of end users are met, while at the same time maximising the efficiency of energy production and distribution (thus minimising the consumption of primary sources and dissipations), maximising the use of renewable resources and minimising pollutant emissions as a result.
All this is taking place through the ongoing development and constant evolution of the so-called smart grids, intended in a much broader sense than in the past and where the classic distinction between users and producers fades into the concept of prosumer (user-producer). These grids include the centralised and distributed production (from renewable and non-renewable sources) of electricity, of thermal and cooling energy, the integration of storage systems (both electrical and thermal) and electric mobility, the possibility of envisaging the production of biofuels (such as biomethane) and synthetic fuels (e.g., natural gas and hydrogen from electricity from renewable sources). In addition to all this, there is a need to move from the current fragmented and poorly coordinated system to a production and distribution system that is increasingly interconnected and optimised using IoT (Internet of Things) technologies, which make it possible to better manage the networks and dematerialise the procedures for verifying energy accounts and the measuring instruments in the networks themselves.
This new redesign of energy generation and distribution systems will undoubtedly have a strong impact on the business world as well, mainly by changing current economic scenarios and creating new ones. Reducing reliance on fossil fuels, combined with greater use of renewable sources and better management of the energy production and distribution system, will decrease the need for foreign supplies, giving Italy the chance to become more independent, even from the price fluctuations of fossil fuels often caused by political and social unrest in oil and gas exporting countries. In addition, the development of new technologies for energy production and storage will open up new markets and create the possibility of creating new technological, and therefore also economic, supply chains. At the same time, the increase in efficiency in the final use of energy in the industrial and civil sectors – which can result from changes that can be both technological and behavioural or economic – will lead to a reduction in energy expenditure, with direct and indirect benefits (such as increased competitiveness for businesses and mitigation of the risk of energy poverty for households), a reduction in the country’s overall energy demand and the creation of new employment opportunities in industry and energy services. Finally, it is apparent how the dematerialisation of energy trade management procedures will bring about changes within the energy market and related business.
By Maria Alessandra Ancona, Assistant Professor of Energy Systems and Power Generation