Our ‘Dual Focus PhD’ series tracks the working lives of our part-time PhD fellows. Many work at the highest of levels, both nationally and internationally, including for other parts of the UN system. They come to Maastricht for our unique PhD Dual Career Training Programme in Governance and Policy Analysis (GPAC²). This time Dr. Mindel van de Laar poses the questions to Silvia Vitiello, who works at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre.
As a Scientific Officer at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, you’re heavily involved in research relevant to society. What does a Scientific Officer do exactly?
The Joint Research Centre is quite a unique institution at international level: we produce scientific studies and reports that feed into the work of colleagues in other Directorates-General – who in turn are responsible for designing EU Regulations and Directives.
We contribute to the policymaking process both before a policy is adopted (i.e. doing scientific investigations of what may be the best solution for a given problem) and after a policy is adopted (i.e. evaluating its real-world impact with relevant indicators or other methods).
For example, I helped produce technical definitions for the “generation adequacy of a power system” as well as studies on technical indicators to measure it. These were used by colleagues at the European Commission when they drafted a proposal for the ‘Clean Energy for All Europeans’ Regulation. This package, including the parts to which we contributed, is a set of provisions that will shape the energy system in Europe for the coming years, once adopted. This is a clear example of ex-ante scientific support to policymaking.
As an example of the ex-post phase, we benchmarked national plans for the roll-out of smart metering. A Directive from 2009 requires EU Member States to deploy smart metering for at least 80% of electricity consumers by 2020, so each nation had to draft a plan evaluating the costs and benefits of the solutions proposed to achieve this target. Our colleagues wanted to know if this legal provision was taken seriously by Member States, and if the plans they drafted were technically sound, realistic and took into account all the relevant costs and benefits.
For your job you recently presented a paper on electricity storage and inter-temporal arbitrage, co-authored with your colleague Amanda Spisto at the European Energy Markets ‘17 conference. Can you tell us what this study is about?
This study simulates the economics of building a storage plant vs. increasing the transmission capacity of a transmission line across two electricity market zones. What is economically more viable from a societal perspective? You have to consider everything: the market price at each hour, electricity generation, transmission and consumption at each hour, CO2 emissions that may be saved, etc.
Electricity transmission is a natural monopoly and investments are huge, so it’s regulated. But as new technologies like storage become feasible at large scale, the choice that maximises social welfare might not be obvious. The paper calculates from the standpoint of a European policymaker the economics of these two competing investments (storage or additional transmission lines) on the basis of market data from the Italian energy market – one that Amanda and I know pretty well.
As a GPAC2 PhD fellow, you’re working on a PhD proposal on the Governance of Transmission System Operators in the European Union after the ‘Clean Energy for All Europeans’ Package. How is this PhD research linked to your current employment, and why does this topic deserve further study?
Policymaking in the European energy sector is tackled via ‘packages’. As energy is a complex system, involving huge economic and technical challenges, single ‘laws’ are rarely enough: so instead these ‘packages’ address several issues at the same time in order to make significant progress. They are made up of several ‘laws’, drafted by our colleagues at the Directorate-General for Energy, with scientific support from the Joint Research Centre.
Think about the multiple goals entailed by energy policy laws: guarantee the energy supply, reduce climate change, set rules for an efficient and functioning market while safeguarding vulnerable customers, and strategically manage energy issues keeping in mind international relations with other countries.
New governance mechanisms are needed to balance all these (sometimes conflicting) objectives, while introducing mechanisms for conflict resolution between the many stakeholders (for this reason the new package creates new bodies at EU level, assigns authority for dealing with new energy challenges, and takes consumer issues like energy poverty. In addition, conflict resolution tools among the stakeholders are needed too, so that clear rules are identified and transparently communicated: e.g. who pays for what, who benefits in the short and long term, what is private benefit and what is public good, solidarity among social groups and regions and countries, etc.). This reflects how much the electricity system is changing worldwide, not only in Europe, thanks to an increase in renewable energy sources, targets for CO2 emissions reductions, and the creation of complex markets for brand new services.
In my opinion, and thanks to my professional experience, the transmission System Operators and Distribution System Operators will be the key actors to enable this transition. Until recently they were mainly national, regulated businesses, but they are now asked to create an EU-wide energy market. Like the creation of the Eurozone, a single electricity market that runs from Lapland to Sicily, from Brittany to the Black Sea and rewards electricity generation in a fair way, maximising the benefits for European consumers, is an amazing challenge – and a very interesting, relevant topic to study in depth. I would like then to investigate the impact of some specific provisions of this package related to the transmission and distribution system operators.
How do you think a PhD will add to your scientific career? What does it bring extra, on top of the research activities you are already engaged in? How do you feel it will complement your skill set?
Well, first of all I need to earn it! So I might want to answer this question later on. In general, I think scientific careers without a PhD are an exception in current times. Thanks to a very fortunate coincidence I’ve always been working in energy research, but my perspective was and is still today the one of a policymaker. I don’t feel that I’m lacking any technical skill in particular, but I do wonder if I’m missing an important, wider perspective when approaching policy issues. The quick transformation of the energy landscape (digitalization, new role of prosumers and communities, regional approaches to markets and security, climate change etc.) requires a broader ‘scientific” approach. The policy instruments often offer a short/medium-term view, while this PhD could offer me the chance to develop a deeper understanding, and a more systematic approach to the analysis of energy governance needs and potential instruments/actions.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UN Photo / Kibae Park