Professor Wolf Ketter: “We will achieve the tipping point that accelerates a sustainable energy future when we finally realise how we are all connected in so many ways”

Kate Mowbray
Apr 6, 2020 · 13 min read
Wolf Ketter

“I hope that we reach a tipping point that really accelerates positive change toward a sustainable energy future. We will achieve that tipping point when we finally realise that we are all connected in so many ways, whether we like it or not, so we need to coordinate all our efforts to create a better future for ourselves and our children.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Wolf Ketter. Wolf is a Professor of Information Systems for a Sustainable Society and Director of the Institute of Energy Economics at the University of Cologne. He is also an energy policy adviser to the German Government and a member of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council. Professor Ketter is an expert on renewable energy and electric vehicles and his research explores solutions to the tricky problems of sustainability using evolving computing techniques.

Thank you for joining us! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you realised you had a passion for energy and sustainability?

As a teenager, I was strongly attracted to the green movement in Germany. I grew up in a rural area. My parents had a wine orchard, so I spent a lot of time in nature. The concepts of recycling and nature preservation became popular at the end of the 70s/beginning of the 80s, but for me, they reflected the normal state of how life should be. Living in harmony with nature doesn’t seem like a progressive idea to me — it’s more about being conservative!

I got my PhD in 2007 in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Information Systems (IS) — topics you don’t generally associate with sustainability, but when you think of efficiency as being a fundamental aspect of sustainability, AI and IS become a powerful force to achieve sustainability.

In my PhD I focused on learning agents, a tool in AI that is capable of learning from its experiences, and in my first years as Assistant Professor at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), I founded a research group on learning agents. I had already worked on a number of AI and machine learning applications, many of which were focused on the use of learning agents in supply chain management (SCM) and in auction markets. These agents are solving distributed resource allocation problems — a mainstay of SCM operations. Once I arrived at RSM, I broadened my research to include the use of those agents in the Dutch flower market auctions — even the production of flowers can be considered a supply chain management challenge. The goal of any market is the most effective and efficient distribution of goods and services. That’s why the use of AI in applications to markets is called ‘smart markets’.

I soon realised that while ‘smart markets’ are good at maximising the value of goods and services in a market now, they don’t consider the long-term availability of resources in the future. So smart markets aren’t necessarily sustainable. ‘True costing’ — including indirect and future costs incurred by environments, societies, and economies into transactions of goods and services now — is urgently necessary to combat the climate crisis and preserve the environment for future generations.

Although I was always interested in sustainability, I needed to find a way to merge my understanding of learning agents and sustainability in a way that would serve a function in business. One of the primary drivers of business is energy. Whether fossil fuels or renewables, energy (and the electricity it provides) keeps the economy moving and society fed and comfortable.

Once we are using AI and machine learning (in combination with blockchain) to assist us in effectively and efficiently distributing electricity in complex, decentralised, and real time markets, we will achieve the truest of smart markets — what I call the ‘sustainable smart market’.

Could you give us an overview of your career leading up to today?

I have been studying and researching most of my life. I started out in the early 90s in Germany with a BA and an MS in Telecommunication Engineering. Then I moved to Minnesota to study for an MS in Software Engineering at the University of St. Thomas. While I was there, a friend and I had a .com startup on distributed resource allocation. It wasn’t a big financial success because dot.com investment was already starting to dry up by then, but I learned a lot about what businesses could be doing to improve their SCM operations — and by extension, I knew more about what I wanted to research.

I could have continued launching information-systems-based startups until one of them struck technology gold, but instead, I went straight into a PhD at the University of Minnesota, where I met my first PhD adviser Maria Gini, who is famous in our world for AI and robotics. I also met Professor John Collins, who would also become an adviser. John and I were invited to improve and eventually run TAC SCM, which laid the foundation for Power TAC, which is now a decade-old annual tournament and open source energy system model that simulates the performance of electricity markets in the ever-changing sustainable energy landscape.

A real turning point for me was meeting another PhD advisor, Alok Gupta. That exposure gave me a new perspective on the intersection of AI and economics.

As a senior PhD student, I met Professor Eric van Heck at a scientific conference in Las Vegas. Eric was at that time the head of the Information Systems group in the Technology and Operations Management Department at the Rotterdam School of Management. My background was largely technological — joining a business school brought my technological knowledge into an economic environment, just at a time when the potential value of the application of information systems science in the business world was becoming clear.

I could have gone into business or consulting at many points in my life, but I keep sticking to research. So, when I got my PhD, I moved to the Netherlands and started my work as an Assistant Professor. I was enthralled with my research and threw myself into the field of learning agents and the application of big data and data analytics.

But although I feel at home in academia, I am not very risk-averse for an academic — maybe that comes from several ventures into roles in consulting and bouts with entrepreneurism. I let curiosity, focus, and hard work guide me, whether in business or in research. At RSM, within four and a half years, I was promoted to a tenured Associate Professor position.

These days, I am a full Professor of Information Systems for a Sustainable Society at the University of Cologne, where I am a Director of the Institute of Energy Economics. The Institute has a long history in Germany of disseminating scientific understanding of the intricate relationship between energy, policy, and business.

I am also full Professor of Next Generation Information Systems at RSM, where I am Director of the Erasmus Centre for Future Energy Business. RSM and Cologne both support the annual Power TAC tournament that is running now from April to July, and we have competitors from all over the world, so it’s really an international undertaking!

Why did you choose this career path?

I think one of the reasons I stick to research is precisely because of the ‘sustainable’ part of the ‘sustainable smart market’ concept. When I decided to focus on ‘sustainable smart markets’ is when my research really took off — also my collaboration with other researchers around the world. Businesses usually have to consider their financial operational viability in a fairly short term. There’s always an Uber or a Tesla that everyone’s watching to see when they become profitable, but in business, your eye is mostly on a nearby horizon. That’s part of the problem with sustainability — it isn’t measured in the now. Capitalism wasn’t developed to take the long term into consideration. Now that we all know that capitalism has to take the long term into consideration in order to survive, scientists are uniquely poised to help capitalism make that transition. We want businesses to make data-driven decisions which are in the best interest not only of the business but also of the entire market, the society, the environment, and future generations. Science can and will lead the way in showing business how to do that. But scientists are also uniquely poised to help our economies and societies with adjusting to a long-term orientation because science almost always takes a longer view than business anyway. Scientific advancement is measured over years, not months.

What are three of your proudest moments in your career?

Whenever a PhD graduates and goes off to do great work in either academia or business, I feel proud that I am contributing to growing the number of people who are aware of the potential to use AI and ML to create a faster and more stable energy and mobility transition. Many efforts of these students have created spin-offs that I never dreamed of, including startups. The Power TAC tournaments also produce competitors who decide to pursue graduate studies in this area or who are inspired to follow a sustainability-oriented career path. I once received a great thank you note from a former competitor. His name is Alessandro Pietroban. He wrote to tell us that he found his dream job, working in renewable energy in Africa, in part because of his experience in the Power TAC competition. That note made me quite happy.

Finally, I am happy to be bringing my scientific work into the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Mobility. Many committee members are from mobility-oriented business and energy-intensive industries. This work shows me that we do not have to turn away from the for-profit world to do sustainability work. You can make both orientations work in service to the other. I call this ‘doing well by doing good’. I came up with this phrase many years ago and only recently discovered it’s already in use!

What has motivated and inspired you in your work?

When I started working on sustainability 13 years ago, I was a long way away from becoming a father. It sounds cheesy but even then I wanted to do something good for future generations. Now that I am a father of two children, a two-year-old son and two-month old daughter, thinking about their future is all the motivation I need. I keep myself focused by practicing Zen meditation and yoga, which helps especially now as I continue my scientific work and balance that with leadership of the Institute and fatherhood of the little ones.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced trying to become more sustainable?

Living a ‘sustainable’ life needs to happen within the boundaries of the here and now. You can and should push the boundaries, but that comes with frustrations. For example, my family moved into a new ‘smart home’ almost two years ago. We were really looking forward to living in a home built to take sustainability into account. But we still need to navigate how to adapt our lifestyle to the realities of municipal services (for an Information Systems scientist in a modern home I have a lousy internet connection!). A lot of sustainability — especially in city living — also has to do with making good arrangements with your neighbours. For example, I want to try to convince our home-owners association to install solar on our collective roof. We have a flat roof with great exposure. But it takes time to make sure that you are following the municipal rules and getting the appropriate subsidies, then you have to bring that proposal to your neighbours and build their trust. We will need to get the full approval of ten families living here. Initiatives like that take a lot of work.

If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?

That’s a really tough question! I had a zig-zag course to arrive where I’m now. If I went back in time to forego my practical, ‘real world’ experiences and only focused on academia, I might have had more scientific impact now. My citation rate might have been even higher. Like I said before, though, I like high-risk projects, and perhaps that comes from my business experience and exposure to different industries, across different levels of hierarchy. In business, you learn how to bring a risky project from conceptualisation to implementation. And Power TAC started out as a high-risk project. In business, I learned a lot about how to deal with coordinating real-world projects and people and that has served me well. Science is high-concept but low implementation. I wouldn’t want to have missed the implementation part of my experiences. Science now is about both rigour and relevance. I have always appreciated scientific rigour, but the longer I am an academic, the more I see the importance of relevance. So, I suppose I wouldn’t change my career path.

More than anything else, I have learned that connections are important — the wicked problems of the energy transition will require the hard work and coordination of so many scientists, businesses, and policymakers, so I would have grown my international scientific network even earlier and faster to have even more impact.

What advice can you give to those trying to be more sustainable?

If not now, when? This is the mantra I live by. The climate crisis is already upon us, so whatever initiatives you think might help, start them now! Be part of a community. Organise your neighbours. Decrease your carbon footprint.

Petition your governments to change things for the better. At the very least, support your local (organic) markets and sustainable energy retailers. As a customer you have purchasing power so use it!

With COVID-19 making people realise that small changes, such as staying indoors, have a huge impact on society and the environment. Do you think that more people will try to be sustainable?

This is a great question! The COVID-19 pandemic is horrible, of course. But I am convinced it will have some positive impacts on society, economy, and politics on the long term. There are so many important lessons we’re learning now that will benefit us during our adjustment to creating a sustainable energy future while dealing with the immediate impacts of the energy transition and of the climate crisis.

First, we are realising now that our individual habits and behaviours matter. Even more, we’re realising we’re all part of a community, so we need to look at not only how we are served by a system, but also by how our individual behaviours impact our systems. Not just healthcare, but our energy systems too.

In the face of COVID-19, we’re realising that we can coordinate our behaviour to keep a system going — if we feel threatened. Currently, younger people are taking care to not interact with older people in order to protect them from the virus. Once this is over, I hope that older people return the favor by reacting responsibly and quickly to prevent the worst outcomes of the climate crisis so that younger people have a better future.

But even more than that philosophical change, there is a lot we can learn from COVID-19. Everyone, nearly everywhere on the planet, understands the meaning of the phrase ‘flattening the curve’ by now. It’s amazing how quickly that happened! This flattening of the curve is happening over the course of weeks and months. In the next few years, we’re all going to have to learn how to ‘flatten the curve’ of high demand on electricity that happens at times of day when everyone follows the same timing and location consumption patterns, like everyone in a neighbourhood coming home from work between 6 and 7 in the evening and plugging their electric car into a charger.

Both healthcare and electricity are critical but also routine services. It’s irritating when your knee replacement is delayed because of high demand; it’s tragic when your access to a ventilator is delayed because of high demand. But it isn’t just tragic for you, it’s a tragedy for the economy and society. Even more importantly, if there’s a shortage of protective gear for healthcare professionals because production can’t keep up with demand, healthcare professionals will become ill and the entire system will crash.

Same goes for electricity — spreading out demand over time doesn’t just make it possible for really critical uses (say, for ventilators) to be given priority over not-critical uses (your home ice cream maker). Automated electricity markets that create demand flexibility will prevent demand congestion (too many people wanting the same goods or service at the same time) that could bring down the whole electricity system. COVID-19 will help us explain the critical need for demand flexibility that the coming years will bring.

What are your hopes for the future?

In the short term, I am working on building a new scientific paradigm that will allow for more robust collaboration between science, business, and policy-making during the energy and mobility transition. We’re working on using Power TAC as a global laboratory for scientific innovation and experimentation with new business models and policies in retail electricity trading. In order to spread the news of the importance of using demand flexibility to create a faster and more stable transition to renewable energy, I am writing a book. I hope you are reading it by this time next year!

In the long term, I hope that we reach a tipping point that really accelerates positive change toward a sustainable energy future. We will achieve that tipping point when we finally realise that we are all connected in so many ways, whether we like it or not, so we need to coordinate all our efforts to create a better future for ourselves and our children.

I recently saw a joke on Twitter: which of these three has encouraged the fastest adoption of digitalization? Your CEO, your CIO, or COVID-19? Obviously, I hope that digitalization of the energy and mobility landscape can help us make a relatively easy and smooth transition to a sustainable energy future now, so that we don’t have to make a difficult and bumpy transition to it after climate change takes a terrible toll.

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