Megger’s head of research and innovation, Stan Zurek, discusses the need for low-cost, large-scale, energy storage and the importance of stating the obvious.

What was your first job in the utilities sector?

I worked part time in a workshop repairing electrical motors and transformers. My hands were very dirty with rust, dust, grease, and varnish, but my eyes were wide open, learning something new every day.

It was a hard job, but also very fulfilling, seeing how a completely burnt-out motor was refurbished and given a new lease of life. The engineering of electromagnetic devices is fascinating on so many levels.

What is your golden rule for overcoming challenges at work generally?

Tackle the big problems head on, because they will never go away by themselves.

State the obvious, which is sometimes a difficult thing, but it helps in defining what the problem really is. The sooner the solution is known, the lower the commercial risk. Skirting around the issue will never solve it, and typically makes it worse as the time progresses.

How would you describe your creative process in three words?

What-if, cross-pollinate, simmer, have a mess on your desk, have a vision of where this could lead, fail, tinker, fail again, re-think, re-group, re-learn, re-try and re-try again, ask stupid questions, stay positive and celebrate every little success, focus on what works, persevere, zoom in on details, zoom out to see the big picture, step to a side to see a different viewpoint, wear somebody’s shoes to see even different angle, close your eyes to imagine, experiment some more, finish it, wrap it up, write it up, conclude it, come back to it and improve it to make it even better.

This is more than three words, but you cannot summarise a cutting-edge innovation process in just three words!

What’s the strangest place that working in the utilities sector has taken you?

A military building in which every single brick was scanned before it was used for making the walls.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

My mentor once told me: “You cannot build reputation on what you are going to do.” And this goes far beyond the personal connotations, because for technology is the same – you cannot claim that a given technology, device, or process does something before it can be shown in practice that it really does what is claimed to do.

In other words, remain modest with your claims, and only guarantee the performance which is possible to be met.

Be aware of Betteridge’s law of headlines: if the title asks “Will this technology change the world?” then the answer is succinct “No”.

What do you think is the key to creating the conditions for innovation within the utilities sector?

One of the most important things is to have a positive approach. Let people have ideas and explore them, without some instant negative comments that “this will never work”.

If possible, let people choose who they like working with, as they are far more likely to form a very synergic innovation team, bouncing of each other’s ideas with a positive feedback leading to some fantastic innovations and inventions. The results can be very significant commercially, with minimum investment.

Did you learn anything new about collaborating or innovating as a team or business during the pandemic?

The transition to working from home and to remote collaboration was very interesting, especially that it happened so seamlessly. Everybody just got on with their jobs, with the progress on the projects hardly impacted at all.

From today’s perspective it is quite clear that this empowered many of us to be even more responsible for our daily activities, and it was quite refreshing and positive to see it happening.

What do you think will be the defining factor in the UK hitting its net zero targets?

Low-cost large-scale energy storage technology is the key technology that is still missing. Chemical batteries contain toxic components, especially those for high energy density required for electric cars.

So the “net zero target” might be too narrow a question, because what good will it do to reduce carbon emissions if we damage the environment with toxic pollutants? It is difficult to recycle ordinary cars, which are made mostly from solid metal (easy) and various hard plastics (very difficult).

So on a longer timescale, from environmental viewpoint, maybe it would be better to adopt combustion engines to run on renewable fuels (biodiesel, hydrogen) rather than switch to electric cars with toxic batteries?  Renewable energy could be still used to produce these renewable fuels, providing both effective storage and “net zero target”.

What is the most significant way you think the utilities sector of ten years’ time will differ from the one we see today?

If most cars will be replaced with electric vehicles, then the strain on the electricity grid will be enormous. Just imagine that the whole street, every house has an electric car charging overnight at once, at high power.

The power cables which are installed at the moment will be incapable of withstanding such high load, and they all will have to be upgraded. That is a lot of cost to be absorbed by the utilities and thus by the end customer. Not just for the price of copper/aluminium, but somebody will also have dig it all out from the ground.

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