Nicola De Blasio | Senior Fellow at Harvard University

Dr. Nicola De Blasio is a Senior Fellow leading Belfer Center research on energy technology innovation and the transition to a low carbon economy. With more than 25 years of global experience in the energy sector, Dr. De Blasio is an expert in navigating the challenges of strategic development and technology innovation toward sustainable commercial success, at scale.
Dr. De Blasio spent 17 years at Eni, one of the world’s leading energy companies, most recently as Vice President and Head of R&D International Development, where he was also responsible for the start-up group. He engineered the strategic alliances between Eni and MIT - which also led to the creation of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center in 2010 – Stanford, Tsinghua, and other word leading universities. I hope you enjoy our conversation where we explore Hydrogen Technology!


00:02 Introduction:
Are you looking to become a leader in clean energy and an expert in cleantech? Do you hope to get noticed in the crowd as you pursue a career in this fastly growing industry? You are in the right place. Join Karan Takhar as he invites clean energy leaders to share industry developments, highlight cleantech investment opportunities and shed light on how you can increase your chances of employment in this high-growth sector. We will also discuss the energy transition across key emerging markets like India and explore partnership opportunities for the US private and public sector. After all, this is the Zenergy podcast.

00:51 Karan Takhar:
In this episode, we will be speaking with Dr. Nicholas De Blasio, who's leading Belfer Center research on energy technology innovation and the transition to a low-carbon economy. Dr. Nicholas De Blasio is more than 25 years of global experience in the energy sector and recently spent 17 years at Eni, one of the world's leading energy companies, most recently as head of R&D International Development, where he was also responsible for the startup group. Dr. De Blasio serves as an independent board member and advisor to various companies, startups, and nonprofit organizations. In this conversation, we explore a very emerging and important energy technology. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Doctor Nicholas de Blasio.

01:52 Karan Takhar:
Thank you so much, Dr. De Blasio, for taking the time. I've been really excited to speak with you, and for people listening, I think it would be best to briefly start at the beginning.Can you tell us about your background and, ultimately, what sparked your interest in the energy sector?

02:15 Dr. Nicola De Blasio:
Thank you, Karan. So will spark my interest in the energy sector; I've always been fascinated by the quest for energy, and this not only from its geopolitical market implication but even more so by its, how can I say, synergic relationship to innovation and at the same time, you know if we think about energy, there is no doubt that energy has enabled modern society as we know it. But at the same time, it is very clear as climate change is showing us that the way we use energy has a really deep impact on our way of life. As for my background, I'm a chemical engineer by background. Almost by mistake, when I finished my thesis, which was this is actually industrial catalysis, I ended up working for the Italian oil and gas major. I started as a process engineer, and then I went through the ranks until I became Vice President and handled International Development in this role; I also had the startup group of the company under me, and then I joined Harvard.

03:23 Karan Takhar:
Amazing. Thank you for providing that background, so I did see that you were the former head of R&D in International Development at Eni, which is the oil and gas major that you referenced.

03:36 Dr. Nicola De Blasio:
Now we should call them Energy companies, but it's ok. All of the oil and gas companies now like to call themselves Energy companies, which is, in a way it's more appropriate for what they do. But sorry, Karan, I interrupted you.

03:49 Karan Takhar:
As I was reading about them, it seemed like they were one of the very first major corporations to really start investing heavily in renewable energy technology. I know you had a role in starting the future of stores initiative at MIT in partnership with the Eni company.

04:10 Dr. Nicola De Blasio:
Yes, there was one of the initiatives that we started in Eni when I was in charge.

04:15 Karan Takhar:
And while you were in this role, what were some of the key emerging energy technologies that you were most excited about?

04:25 Dr. Nicola De Blasio:
So can I think I'll tell you the two that since you mentioned MIT, the two that actually we were doing together with the MIT at the time there most fascinated me, the first one was actually solar cells being printed on paper or flexible materials, and as you can imagine, if you can make them durable and economical enough, it could really change the energy system in general, but also the use of solar energy and the second one was actually the use of viruses to do a sort of geological sequestration of CO2 by using a process that was very similar to what most used to create and grow their shells, the sea shells, these were two of the most fascinating technology I had seen like with any technology in the energy sector by in general two key components need to be considered the fact that you need to be able to deploy them at scale and economically, and so when you work in the energy world, there are a lot of great ideas, but then you need to make sure that you can scale them and you can do so economically.

05:34 Karan Takhar:
If I remember correctly, that solar partnership was established around 2007-2008 at a time when solar technology was still, I mean compared to today, in its nascent stage and not very economical, and I'm curious to hear about your perspective during that time, did you foresee that solar had significant potential moving forward?

06:05 Dr. Nicola De Blasio:
I think your question could be summarized where we expecting the cost of renewables to drop so quickly, and you know, why were we looking at solar and in particular we were looking within my team, so we were referring to at the time we created what was what is called was called. I'm not sure if it exists, but still, the MIT Solar Frontier Center was created as a joint endeavor between MIT and the researchers of Eni, looking at solar beyond silicone. That's why we were looking at printing on paper and other flexible substrates. If you are an energy company, if you work in the energy industry, you need to keep your eyes open for any technology that might affect your business. If you think about how can energy company plays a role in the energy system, the answer is that the key lever that the company has the only key lever is innovation because energy prices are a function of resources that you can produce economically and physicality, of course, depending on the price, which resources are economic changes and so the real level, the only real level that energy company is, especially if there are international oil companies, it's really technology, and so technology innovation is important and is key for the long term sustainability of the business, and that's why all the companies are looking into technologies that can accelerate the transition, but also can open new markets for them.

07:39 Karan Takhar:
I see. Thank you for expanding on that kind of building on my previous question, given that you so much great experience and it worked in the energy sector for such a long time. What has surprised you the most over this past decade in terms of the development of the energy sector.

08:02 Dr. Nicola De Blasio:
I'll give you two examples. The first one I think we just touched upon, I think no one was really expecting renewables prices to come down so fast and so quickly, and again, technological innovation played a key role. This has actually really had a huge impact on energy systems in terms of the impact and with the viability of hydrogen as an energy vector, but also the impact that has had on nuclear. The other trend that I was now expecting, but to tell you the truth that we're looking into this with my research group at Harvard, has been the role of blockchain in accelerating the transition to a low carbon economy. Blockchain, which is a technology that was basically developed originally for the financial markets as a distributed Ledger, as some key feature that can help to accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy. I can give you some examples and enable the deployment of renewables also in places where you don't have a grid or a centralized authority that can enable deployment in the traditional sense.

So let me give you an example. If you think about hydrogen, hydrogen it's once you produce it; it's the same molecule no matter what processor you use. So you can produce it from fossil fuels, you can produce it from renewables, and that's why when you listen to all the talks and all the discussions about aging today, they say that there is a rainbow of colors because every different process has a different color. So if it's from renewables, it is green; if it's from natural gas with carbon capture and civilization is blue, grey from oil, and so. So the molecule is the same, but the carbon intensity is very different. So how do you certify and then you basically, as I said, you certify that this molecule is being, what is the carbon intensity of this molecule? How do you then track how this molecule moves along value chains from where you produce it to where you use and so in traditional value chains, you do this through a certificate of Origins, which are very complex, paper-intensive, and require a lot of third parties authorities to validate everything. With blockchain, you could do this very easily and you could imagine doing this also for CO2 emission, another green molecule. So these are the two that surprised me the most.

10:35 Karan Takhar:
That's really interesting. I've never really looked into blockchains application in the energy sector, but I mean, that makes a lot of sense, and I did recently interview a few people who are, you know, specialists in ESG investing, and I feel like similarly that characteristic of a blockchain could be applied, you know, to help qualify what constitutes an ESG investment.

11:02 Dr. Nicola De Blasio:
Maybe, yeah. With my team working on this, we actually prepared a policy brief for the G20 last year at the end of October in Rome, and now we are expanding that policy brief into addressing all the opportunities of blockchain in the energy sector.

11:21 Karan Takhar:
Amazing. Now transitioning a little more towards your work in the hydrogen technology space. I recently read your policy brief titled Technological Innovation and The Future of Energy Value Chains, where you wrote that due to its versatility, hydrogen is often described as the missing link in global decarbonization efforts. If you could provide some insight into why hydrogen. technology will be important for global decarbonization efforts.

11:55 Dr. Nicola De Blasio:
I think the important thing to keep in mind is that hydrogen is not new. It's a molecule that has been using refining and empirical chemicals and fertilizer for the past 150 years. You might remember that I think it was around 2000, there was the first wave of excitement about hydrogen, but they sort of faded away. Why did it fade away, and why is it different today? It faded away for two reasons, the first one is something that we touched upon before, and that is that at the time, the price of renewables was still much higher than today, and the second one was that at the time, hydrogen was thought of more for mobile application and so it went into direct competition with the electric vehicles, battery vehicles in particular, the challenge there was that EV's were much more down the development and deployment cycle compared to hydrogen, and it was really not imaginable for governments to deploy a scale than human infrastructure, both of these in hydrogen.

So what has changed today? Today, what has changed is that renewables have become very inexpensive. You have free trends that are affecting, if you want, the energy system, decarbonization, decentralization, and digitalization; because of the decarbonization and decentralization of renewables, the challenge has become that the grid that we have today is now able to deal with the intermittency of renewables especially if the penetration of renewables keeps growing. So what do we do with the energy that we, the electricity that we could produce and we cannot feed into the grid? 

And I'm simplifying a lot, but just to give you the idea, one way is to use it to produce hydrogen, hydrogen produced with renewables by water splitting, splitting a molecule of water into hydrogen and oxygen; this molecule is called green hydrogen. Hydrogen has an advantage compared to, let's say; batteries is that once you store the energy in the hydrogen molecule, you can keep it forever. Well, as you know, if you charge your mobile phone and you leave it on your desk for too long, the battery will eventually die. 

So once you have this hydrogen molecule, they are green, and you can think about using them before carbonizing a lot of sectors, including the hardware-based sectors like steel production, cement, and even transportation, even if it will be complementary to these and we will not go in the competition. So because of this change in, let's say, the energy system, they have enabled the resurgence of hydrogen as an energy vector, and because you can produce hydrogen with zero carbon intensity, it can help you to basically decarbonize a lot of sectors, including the hardware-based sectors, the advantage, for example, of hydrogen is that burning hydrogen you can reach temperatures that you can now easily reach by simple electrification. So think about steelmaking with hydrogen, and you can use hydrogen and reach the temperature that you need. If you were to use electricity electrification, you would need much more energy to reach those temperatures.

15:08 Karan Takhar:
Understood. I would love to hear your perspective on what you foresee as the main challenges to scale hydrogen deployment. Are there any particular challenges that come to mind?

15:20 Dr. Nicola De Blasio:
Yes, the first challenge is its infrastructure. Now the beauty of hydrogen is there it is the first time in 150 years that we're actually thinking about redeploying energy systems at scale. The challenge is that today hydrogen is now traded commodity; consumption of hydrogen around the world is only about 75 million tons per year, produced mainly in China from coal. There are very few pipelines to transport hydrogen, mainly in the USA and Germany, but for captive systems, so in order to be able to deploy hydrogen at scale, we will need first of all to make sure that it's green hydrogen, so address the carbon intensity and the second one to deploy the needed infrastructure scale, which will require a lot of investment and that is why when we look into these dynamics with my team, one of the points that we make is always it's important to look at this a systemic level, not a regional level. Even if hydrogen markets, let's say, will grow initially like natural gas markets, they will start to be regional and then become more international with time but they need to define International standards; they need to think about this energy system in an efficient way is going to be key to be able to deploy hydrogen at scale. And the other challenge is the need to reduce the cost of production of green hydrogen by electrolysis, but most people think that this is less of a problem because if renewable energy costs are an example, hopefully, technological innovation would allow us to reach those innovation cycle and reduce costs in the same way.

16:58 Karan Takhar:
In my final question, I'm curious to learn how you feel that hydrogen might impact the geopolitical energy landscape; for example, do you feel that some countries will have a competitive advantage to become supply hubs, whereas others may find themselves more, you know, on the importing side?

17:19 Dr. Nicola De Blasio:
One of the first studies that we did on nitrogen, and we did this with fielding, was actually on this, oh, now let's say the deployment of the nitrogen scale could impact the geopolitics and market dynamics. We did this study in order to draw what we call the geopolitical map of hydrogen, I mean, I could go into a lot of detail, but I'll since we don't have much time, I'll try to be short. The answer is this, in order to determine this, we need to look at different parameters. We're talking about nitrogen, so we look at resource endowment in terms of solar and wind, for example, freshwater availability and infrastructure potential by combining these three variables, we can determine five country groups and see how what role countries will play in our green hydrogen market. The short answer is that there will still be producer-consumer dynamics. The difference is just that these dynamics would be between different countries from today. But this dependency will still exist, and that is why, as I mentioned before, we always say that it's important for policymakers, but also for industry leaders and other stakeholders to think of this in perspective in order to make sure that we don't replicate the same mistakes that we have done, for example, with modern mistakes, I should say inefficiency, that we've had with them, for example, natural gas.

18:42 Karan Takhar:
Thank you so much; Doctor De Blasio and I will make sure to provide a link to that study in the show notes, and we really appreciate you taking the time. Thank you.

18:53 Dr. Nicola De Blasio:
Sure, thank you.

18:58 Conclusion:
Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoyed the episode. Check out the episode description or show notes for more information on our guests. See you next time.

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