His country is a world leader in the use of renewable energies, but according to our interviewee it can also learn from Germany: with guest professor Dr. Carlos Meza we talked about sustainable energy supply in his home country Costa Rica, his teaching and research field photovoltaics at the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences and why he can empathize well with the students in the international master's program photovoltaics. The cosmopolitan also tells what plans he is pursuing for the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences in the field of photovoltaics.
Professor Meza, you have been teaching in Köthen as visiting professor in the field of photovoltaics since August 2021. What is it, that fascinates you in this field?
For me, photovoltaic is one of the best energy solutions. It has the lowest impact on the environment and it uses one of the most available resources we have on earth. It is almost unlimited, we have sun everywhere, so it is very democratic. I have been teaching in this field since 2010, and it still fascinates me. In Köthen, I have been a host professor since August 2021, but I started giving courses in October 2020.
At your home institution at the Costa Rica Institute of Technology, energy technology is one of the main researches. As a professor you did lectures in this field and were responsible for the coordination of the lab of sustainable electric systems. What did you do there?
I started the laboratory “Laboratory of Electronic Systems for the Sustainability” in 2010. We developed electronic systems to support sustainable systems, especially in photovoltaic. Costa Rica has the interesting characteristics that it is one of the few countries where most of the electric energy comes from renewable energy.
To what extend is photovoltaic used in Costa Rica?
The main renewable energy used in Costa Rica is hydroelectric power. Still, the evolution of photovoltaic in Costa Rica is a bit different than in other countries. It has been mainly promoted so that it can be used in your homes for self-consumption rather than in large centralized PV plants.
What is your main research in Köthen?
My research in Köthen is related to the power electronics that are part of a photovoltaic system. Power electronics do two things: One, it optimizes the energy extraction from the photovoltaic modules, and two, it delivers the energy better to the utility grid. However, there is some impact on the power grid, and electronics can mitigate this impact. So I am searching for the best way for the energy to be transported to the utility grid that doesn’t harm the utility grid but helps it. Therefore, an important question is what is the best way to inject this energy into the power grid and how it can be combined with storage. Storage allows you to use the energy when needed independently of the sun.
Are the students in Köthen taking part in this research?
Yes, I am teaching in the master's program of photovoltaic engineering. My lectures are closely related to my research: Power electronics in photovoltaics, storage systems, and solar system applications. I am also a tutor for master's thesis in this field.
Your country of origin is Costa Rica, you did your master degree in switzerland and your PhD in Spain. You did one postdoc in Switzerland and one at an UN research institution in Italy.Yes, I have been to many countries in my professional life, and I like this very much. I like being here in Köthen because the master program is very international.
Which positive effects does this have for our students?
I can connect and better understand the needs and necessities of the international students from Hochschule Anhalt. I know where they come from, I know their backgrounds, and I can maybe help them understand better go to succeed studying abroad. We have a very technical master's program, but you cannot separate that from reality and life. So, I can support them to deliver better here in Germany in this multicultural setting, and I know what they are going through. I have a very good connection with them.
The students benefits from your own international experiences. Furthermore you are also forming a bond between the Hochschule Anhalt and your country. For example, you are establishing ties and cooperation with potential partner universities in South America. What positive effect does this have for the colleagues in your department?
I might provide an extended network of collaborations for my German colleagues with other colleagues from different countries. For example, we have submitted a proposal with Hochschule Anhalt, Costa Rica, Chile, and Spain. This network is regarding agrivoltaics. In this way, we will expand the international network of Hochschule Anhalt in the field of photovoltaics.
Costa Rica is one of the leading country in terms of sustainable energy. Close to 100 percent of the energy supply comes from renewables. Numbers that Germany can only dream of. How did Costa Rica manage to change its energy supply or was it always going down this track?
As we sadly know right now, energy depends on where you are and the resources you have. For Costa Rica, fossil fuels are expensive since we don’t have them, and for us, it doesn’t make sense to rely on other countries. However, in Costa Rica, we have a lot of water and rain. We have mountains up to almost 4000 meters in the middle of the country. We have rivers and volcanoes. So what we use is hydrothermal and geothermal energy. We also have sun and wind, which we could still use more.
You might think that it is easy when you have all these resources, but it isn’t. Fossil fuel power plants, for example, are built very fast. Hydropower takes more time. It takes a higher initial investment and more engineering, science, and technology to do it.
What learnings can Germany take from Costa Rica?
Maybe you can learn from us, but we can also learn from you! We still have a lot to do and a lot to learn. Even though we have almost 100 percent electric power coming from renewable energy, virtually all our transportation energy comes from fossil fuels. We still have a long road to move completely away from fossil fuels in the broader picture. In this regard, the electrification of transportation plays an important role. It is especially important for public mass transport services such as electric trains and subways, and public transportation in general.
Facing climate change and the difficulties to restrain from fossil fuels, it is sometimes hard as a normal citizen to understand the challenges of switching to renewable energies. Can you relate with this feeling?
It is hard. The technology is there, and it just needs to be implemented. We can do this in the short to medium term. But what is as important is a shift of mind. For example, transportation is tricky because it requires a shift of mind to become carbon neutral. For instance, we should rely more on public transportation than private vehicles.
As we are talking about the future: What invention, discovery or insights you wish would happen in the next ten years?
I would like to see the integration of storage in the power grid. But this storage must have specific characteristics: Low cost and low impact on the environment. That is hard! Now we have chemical batteries, which present the disposal problem, plus you are exploiting resources to build it. So we need low-cost storage with a clean environmental impact. And this is something I would like to see in the future.
What is your motto that your students can take along with on their journey of life?
I want to tell them: Don’t forget that what you are doing is for society! Technology, research, and being in the lab – all this is important for engineers. But sometimes, you have to leave the lab and go out and talk with people and understand what society needs. You need to know how your research might affect society. In our academic bubble, we often think our big invention will change the life of the people, but we also need to know what society needs. It is not about technology; it is about how technology will be used in life!
Thank you for the interview