Harry Otten

Harry Otten – nuclear physicist, weatherman, entrepreneur and now: donor

Solar eclipses, meteorology, cycling and dams. These are the areas of interest of one of the new donors to our University Fund. And that according to his own Wikipedia page. His name: Harry Otten. Until 2006 general manager of Meteo Consult and until 2011 still a small part owner. He has now been officially allowed to retire for a while, but he is making very little progress. In fact, five years ago he embarked on a new business adventure, directly related to the weather. It is a company that calculates the yield of solar and wind energy based on, among other things, weather forecasts. Information worth gold to traders. And he set up a new weather company. But that's not what this interview is about.

From nuclear energy to weather forecasts

It is about Harry as a donor to the fund. A donor who started his rich career in Eindhoven. For here he studied from 67-73. When he closed the TU/e ​​doors for the last time, he did so as a nuclear physicist. In 1975 he started working at the KNMI, at the time the only agency that provided the Netherlands with weather forecasts. During a sabbatical in 1980 at Penn State University in the United States, Harry was introduced to several new methods of forecasting the weather. He tried to enthuse his colleagues in De Bilt about these developments but was unsuccessful. His conclusion was as simple as decisive “Then I'll do it myself”.

In 1986 he founded Meteo Consult, an organization that quickly made a name for itself and provided, among other things, RTL with weather forecasts. Harry himself also appeared on that channel for 15 years as a weather forecaster and the list of (former) employees of Meteo Consult includes many colleagues who we can now safely call Dutch celebrities.

We talk to Harry about his contribution to the fund, his vision on the energy transition, and of course about the role the weather plays in a sustainable future.

Prefer to CERN

How do you graduate as a nuclear physicist and become a meteorologist? “I would have loved to work at CERN, but I wasn't smart enough” is his remarkable, completely honest answer. According to him, this institute is the pinnacle of what you can achieve as a physicist: “5% of the students obtain their PhD and only 1% of them are smart enough to start working at CERN.” He couldn't see it happening for himself, so he chose another love: “I was interested in meteorology from the age of 7. And I decided to go that way. “

Now he mainly focuses on energy. Renewable energy. “Weather has a lot to do with energy. For example, the sun provides most of the renewable energy. Directly by sunlight and indirectly by the wind. Those are the sources we will have to rely on in the near future.”

Nuclear energy

Harry also sees a role for nuclear energy in that transition away from fossil fuels. “Nuclear fission is a form of generating energy that we can use temporarily. I notice that people who used to be a fervent opponents of nuclear energy - mainly on emotional grounds - are changing their opinion. And why not? The amount of nuclear waste from hospitals is much greater than the residual products from reactors, for example. Let's use it as we work towards a controllable and useful form of nuclear fusion. His enthusiasm on this subject is visible and audible. “At TU/e ​​they are also working on nuclear fusion. I believe we will be able to master it within this century. In essence, we then imitate the sun. It's a huge challenge because you're talking about gigantic temperatures and extreme conditions. It's complex, but if it works, we'll tap into an inexhaustible source of energy. And until then? “A basic grid of 200 nuclear reactors spread across Europe, supplemented with wind and solar energy.”

An electric future

According to Harry, the ideal future is fossil-free and largely electric. However, such a future also has its drawbacks. Harry: “You need rare metals for the production of electric cars and batteries. And if those cars are 'on', harmful substances can be released during demolition. That is why it would be good if we also give hydrogen a chance. Because it is a fuel that does not pollute at all. Its production requires a lot of energy, but that should not be a problem. Now we sometimes switch off wind farms because they supply too much and our network cannot cope with those peaks. But we can actually use that excess energy to make hydrogen. Because greater availability is certainly not a luxury. I understand that the CEO of Shell Nederland drives a hydrogen car, but that it is transported back and forth on a trailer to Delfzijl because there is the only gas station nearby.”

Fund and advice

Although nuclear fusion is of great interest to him, Harry does not want to limit his donation and the projects that are financed by it: “My donation is at the disposal of every project that makes or is going to take steps towards sustainable energy.” He does not see an advisory role for himself in this. “I'm too old for that. I can't fool those young guys anymore. At least not in their field. ”. He does see a role for himself when it comes to starting his own company, for example. “I already know a thing or two about that. In any case, you should not do it for the purpose of making money. You have to have a dream, an idea and then you have to believe in it 100%. Then it is important not to immediately share that idea with too many people, such as potential shareholders. To begin. Do it yourself. Be stubborn.” He outlines a special quality that you should have as a starting entrepreneur: “You have to be prepared to walk with your head through concrete.”

The weather as an economic factor

He discussed the role of the weather in the economy with students and professors. Because that has more influence than just drought or excessive rainfall, for example, that play tricks on our farmers. A large part of a country's gross national product depends on the weather. Just think of tourism, which revives with a lot of suns and suffers from bad weather. But the weather is certainly an important factor for sustainable energy. It determines the yield of solar panels. “Good expectations are then extremely important. For example, to predict the yield of a solar panel park. Or to adjust the settings according to the weather conditions. Because in the Netherlands the sun shines less often than in countries with a lot of deserts. Unfortunately, we can hardly generate our energy in those countries because they are often politically unstable.”

Science, business, and education

If you go from being a scientist to becoming an entrepreneur, isn't that at the expense of your scientific ambitions? “On the contrary”, says Harry, “Companies do a lot of research. Just look at ASML, there are a lot of Eindhoven brains. And at my companies, we devised models with which we could predict the weather better than the KNMI could. Because we looked at it creatively and cleverly combined multiple models and observations. Not infrequently, if you want to get ahead, you are better off in business.” According to Harry, this is because much Dutch education is geared to the average. “That way you keep the really smart people small. The people probably do better if they don't get as much guidance and supervision and just go about their business. Let them ask questions. Let them look at existing situations with different eyes. That keeps everyone on their toes. But in the Netherlands, we are not always good at dealing with critical voices.”

The Harry Otten Foundation

After his 'retirement' at Meteo Consult, Harry founded a foundation. Every two years, this foundation pays out €25,000 and two 'consolation prizes' of €2,500 to projects that make the world a better place with or thanks to meteorology. The winners are chosen by a jury that reads like a Who's Who of the scientific world. Harry: “I think it would be nice if people from the physics community would also submit ideas. Now it is mainly meteorologists. And just to be clear: I am not on the jury and I have no influence on it at all.” With the prize money, the winners can do whatever they want. Setting up a business, continuing with research, or on vacation. "That's up to them, as long as good ideas come out." According to Harry Otten.

The Harry Otten Foundation can be found at www.harry-otten-prize.org