Joel Vogl, W&P Engineering: “Making Thermal Spas more energy-efficient is a balancing act”

Interview with Joel Vogl, CEO at W&P Engineering International and INFENER

The topic of energy is fundamental to all our economies and considered as the basis of value creation

With the challenges brought along by climate change and the ever-growing energy demand, the need for sustainable solutions has never been more pressing. The vision of W&P Engineering is to be an impactful company and lay the groundwork for a world powered entirely by green energy. Their core drivers are innovation, eco-friendly technologies and smart solutions that can answer today’s questions and solve tomorrow’s problems. W&P Engineering provides tailor-made solutions for each individual hotel with the latest sustainable technologies.

Joel Vogl joined the W&P Engineering Group a few years ago and took over the management of the international division and serve on the Board of Directors. Through his influence, an own Spin-Off focusing on Hydrogen-based solutions with the name INFENER was founded.

In more than a decade many things have changed in terms of climate change and our understanding of sustainability. What would you say about the improvement in your field? Is the demand for sustainable solutions growing fast enough?

Years ago, I started my career at a global market leader in its sector, which is known for very energy-intensive production processes. The topic of sustainability and energy transformation for the benefit of the climate was on the daily agenda. The pressing issues have been known for decades and the massive consequences for the global climate have been scientifically proven. Short-term thinking, quarter-to-quarter, and frequently changing management in large companies and bonus systems that usually only take economic parameters into account, have mostly cut back on meaningful investments in favour of a more sustainable future. Forward-looking managers lead their companies today to the difficulties of the future and make them competitive in order to be resilient and able to survive in the market tomorrow. The topic of energy is fundamental to all our economies and is considered as the basis of value creation. At W&P Engineering and INFENER, I now have a different perspective as we provide the solutions that are needed all over the world. We work with companies from many different sectors that have a great need for optimisation in highly complex systems or want fundamentally new concepts for new construction projects. There are many enormously exciting future technologies. But some technologies have been known for years and could have made a difference early on. We mostly work with innovative-thinking clients who understand that sustainable investments are the way to go. But there are also quite a few potential clients who have not understood and are today enormously overburdened with energy prices. Here we have to say that it is not too late to act, but waiting and doing nothing will destroy the business in the short or long run.

Your company is specialized in energy efficiency and the integration of renewable energy solutions in different types of buildings. How long is the process from planning to execution?

Depending on the size and complexity of the project, one can expect between several weeks to months to even years. This really depends enormously on what kind of project it is and whether external resources are sufficiently available for implementation. We have developed a very lean and fast process, especially for energetic redevelopment, and can evaluate and simulate the optimal location-based solution. There is never just one solution, especially in existing buildings. It is very important to examine the different variants in detail and to include an economic efficiency study. With new buildings, of course, we have the possibility to plan everything from the very beginning. This offers incredible opportunities for state-of-the-art innovations. Above all, energy and building technology can be ideally harmonised in a new construction. This results in completely new standards in terms of building design. For example, it makes a lot of sense to activate the façade of a building and use it as an energy generation area. In some cases, new buildings can even be designed to be energy-positive, i.e. they generate potentially usable income.

the balancing act between modernisation and technical renewal must be ensured

Among your projects, we can see Spa Hotels and Resorts as well. What are the specifics when we are talking about Thermal Spa Resorts? 

Spa hotels very often have similar characteristics. Basically, the loads are quite high, as there are continuously many consumers at good occupancy, e.g. there are often many saunas, washing machines, and dryers with daily running times and high peak loads. With peak shaving, a lot can be achieved here. Since Thermal Spa Hotels use a lot of water to provide a pleasant and luxurious experience for their guests, this requires special energy efficiency. Natural thermal water can have a huge variance in terms of output temperature. It often needs to be further heated for the treatments and pools. But there are also cases where the water needs to be cooled down because it’s too hot. There are many pumps running at high power. A lot of waste heat is generated that can often be used. From a geological point of view, it is not uncommon for thermal spa hotels to have the opportunity to think further about the geothermal processes and thus smooth out the heat demand in the winter season or even use it irreversibly for the air conditioning of the building. Very outdated system and control technology is often found in thermal spa hotels. Many of these hotels originated historically and were developed and built in a pioneering effort. Historic buildings must of course retain their charm and yet be technically renewed, otherwise they become uneconomical. Here, the balancing act between modernisation and technical renewal must be ensured. That is the special challenge.

Your view and solutions are holistic. It is not enough to change only the source of energy, but to include other areas as well, like mobility, waste management and water management.

Absolutely! A holistic view in engineering that covers all relevant mass flows is very important to close loops and exploit the full potential at a site. I am a great friend of a very high level of operational safety for the business, a high degree of self-sufficiency and well-considered sustainability resulting in the base for increased local value creation. In a globally complex world, we must manage to think about our needs and consumption more locally again and reduce dependencies. Especially in the energy sector, we all feel how important decentralisation is. Water scarcity is becoming increasingly severe worldwide, waste production continues to rise and at the same time, we are experiencing a transformation of mobility. When it comes to water, we focus on the careful use of this valuable resource while maintaining comfort. We close water cycles and can thus minimise consumption. Waste can become a valuable resource in terms of energy, for example, if we take a closer look at the different types of waste. Of course, we always have to evaluate the set-up and the quantity balances, but basically, we have to take a step towards even more circular economy.

In the mobility sector, we are increasingly seeing hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles, hydrogen vehicles, the methanol fuel cell and much more that is still to come. Particularly in the case of electromobility, we are happy to look at how this can be integrated at a suitable project location.

There is no good off-the-shelf sustainability solution

What would be your advice to the Thermal Spa Resorts that are thinking about implementing a sustainable concept? Where to start? 

Always start with a potential analysis or rather a variant study. I always have to emphasise this. There is no good off-the-shelf solution. Every location has its special features and must be assessed individually. The best concepts result from good data and a well-thought-out comparison of variants. I always recommend investing in something at the beginning in order to move in the right direction. Often there is a local network of companies that have only been doing what they can do for years, always have the same suppliers and hardly dare to innovate. That is different with us. We look at every project with an open mind and evaluate it in a product-neutral way. We are at the forefront of innovation and proactively help shape it. Any investment in a technical feasibility study pays off. Start with it!

Can you explain to us your approach to one of the Spa resorts: Balvanyos Resort in Romania, which is also a member of ESPA and winner of the award for innovation and excellence in the European SPA & Health Resorts Industry?

2021, we analysed the Balvanyos Resort in Romania in detail and developed four different variants of energy transformations for the existing hotel and the new extension. Moreover, the entire building technology and also the technical system of the spa area were inspected in-depth. We were able to present variants with an annual cost-saving potential of up to 60% and a very economical return on investment. Besides the drastic decarbonization, a real added value for marketing and green tourism can be achieved.

Balvanyos Resort, Romania

Balvanyos is an exceptionally beautifully located and excellently managed Resort in the middle of the Carpathians. The owners do their utmost to ensure that the guest has a first-class experience. From the spa to the gastronomy and the many exciting leisure options, there is nothing lacking there. A magical place.

Which are the projects (related to tourism and especially Spa and Health Resorts) that you are currently working on? 

We are currently working on a number of hotel projects that are intended to set completely new standards in terms of sustainability. We will soon start developing a 6-star luxury resort in French Polynesia. Here there are very special challenges and incredible opportunities to develop this extraordinary resort in a natural way and without destroying flora and fauna. In addition to exceptional architecture, the main focus is on energy, water and waste. Especially islands and other remote locations are very vulnerable. Here it is worth exploiting the full potential and setting a real «lighthouse» as the standard for new developments. We are also currently working on several already existing Thermal Spa Hotels all across Europe. We are aware that this traditional Thermal Spa sector in particular has a great need for energy-efficient upgrades. We would like to contribute to making the use of these incredibly valuable treasures of the thermal springs more sustainable and economical.

My heart beats above all for innovations that lead to our economy becoming more resilient

What is your personal and professional goal in terms of sustainability?

My heart beats above all for innovations that lead to our economy becoming more resilient from the bottom up, against all crises. I would like to see more science and foresight in all topics related to sustainability. Above all, I wish for processes to be thought of in an even more circular way and for out-of-the-box ways of thinking that embrace the collective and do not just occur singularly. We are in an enormous phase of upheaval. The knowledge is there to transform the world as it is today and to save the world’s climate with enormous effort. I have great hopes for the wider application of hydrogen in our energy systems. I am optimistic and hopeful that governments in particular will show more sense in the future and break away from old structures that have always slowed down change. I would like W&P Engineering and our Spin-Off INFENER to be able to exert a convincing influence and actively shape the future.

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