Open source models for the future energy system
A discussion with the coordinator of "Energy System 2050", Holger Hanselka, about the initiative's balance and perspectives.
The goals of the energy system transformation are comprehensive and very ambitious. What has the Helmholtz Initiative achieved with regard to these goals?
We have created a unique research network to develop new technologies and components of the energy system and test them in a realistic environment. We operate many components in real life, while we simulate other components with computers and new IT systems. With the bundled expertise of over 170 researchers from seven Helmholtz centers, we can thus represent and evaluate a multimodal overall system and different transformation paths. The systemic solution options that we have developed are flexible, so that actors from politics and industry will have proposals for action for very different developments in the future that cannot be predicted in detail up to now.
In the project, we are also training many experts who are urgently needed. By the end of the year, almost 40 doctoral students and other young researchers will have completed their doctorates at our Helmholtz Centres. These are highly qualified specialists for the tasks involved in the energy revolution. In the future, they will be able to make important contributions to the energy system of the future, not only in research, but also in industry, politics or non-governmental organizations.
What are your priorities in this complex task?
Our focus is on five research topics. First: storage and networks. They are the backbone of our energy supply. Because renewable energy production, such as from the sun and wind, will increase significantly, we have to guarantee stability. That's what new storage technologies and converters do. They ensure, for example, that the electricity generated by offshore wind farms is brought from the sea to land.
Second: biogenic energy sources. We have made good progress in the production of synthetic biofuels, an important component of the energy system. We have also made good progress in the development of gas turbines that can generate electricity from synthesis and biogas. They have to be able to work with different fuels as well as cope with fluctuating loads. In addition, biomass will play an increasingly important role, for which we need flexible biogas plants, among other things.
Thirdly, hydrogen is indispensable for realizing an energy supply that is virtually greenhouse gas neutral. We have developed solutions for what a comprehensive transport and distribution network could look like that also allows for the seasonal storage of hydrogen in salt caverns.
That sounds enormously complex. Is it also sustainable?
This is our fourth focus: To make the system sustainable, we have the entire life cycle in mind, from cradle to grave, from the overall picture to the individual technologies. We now know that many negative environmental impacts are reduced in a climate-friendly energy system - but not all. Transportation, for example, will continue to cause emissions because a lot of energy is needed to provide new fuels or for electricity. That is why we are developing ecological, economic and social criteria in order to be able to comprehensively evaluate the transformation.
Fifthly, we focus on the coordinated operation of all facilities and networks in the overall system. The ongoing integration of renewable energy from small rooftop photovoltaic systems to large wind farms makes this a challenge. The overall system is becoming much more complex than before. Energy flows are no longer one-way streets, data is exchanged on a large scale and scenarios are simulated. IT plays a central role in this monitoring, planning and optimization - and therefore its security. We have designed a toolbox with databases, computer programs and models that can be used to efficiently control the energy system across sectors. This is important on the one hand to compensate for the fluctuating performance of wind and solar power plants due to weather conditions, but also to keep the system flexible and reduce costs. All these tools will be freely accessible, i.e. made available to other researchers inside and outside Helmholtz.
What must change in order for the energy revolution to be a success?
We need to network much more closely on an interdisciplinary basis. In our initiative, engineers, natural scientists, humanities scholars and social scientists have worked closely together - with enormous success. The consistent publication of the results, data and simulation tools as open source has also helped to ensure that the results obtained are also implemented on the market. We are expanding this as well as the infrastructure: from larger individual components and real labs to links to big data and ICT infrastructure. In terms of content, the focus should be on sector coupling, energy efficiency and CO2 reduction.
In order to be able to address the real challenges in a timely and cost-optimized manner, faster and more detailed tests of new technologies on a large scale are called for. This requires the removal of hurdles in the application process and in the cooperation with industrial partners. For example, a hydrogen or e-charging infrastructure could be created for large truck fleets. Tax incentives, depreciation or other types of support can help to ensure that new technologies are integrated into the emerging system without delay. The pricing of CO2 for heating and transport, which will come in 2021, can also contribute to this. All of this will result in advantages for efficiency technologies.
What are the next steps of your initiative?
The development of our research infrastructures is now entering a new phase. The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and the Forschungszentrum Jülich will become large laboratories in which we will test new techniques for monitoring and controlling power grids in real operation: The Energy Lab 2.0 in Karlsruhe and the Living Lab Energy Campus in Jülich will concretely realize on a larger scale of a real laboratory what is still in its infancy in practice. We are also working with so-called "digital twins": software simulates a technology that does not yet exist in reality. In combination with hardware components, the "digital twin" enables the simulation of a system in which the future component is to be used one day. This accelerates research into the overall system immensely. Thanks to this tool, the power grid can grow closer together with other sectors, such as local heating, the gas grid or an experimental hydrogen network.
Step by step, we are expanding our simulations and tests under real conditions; especially in the real laboratories at KIT in Karlsruhe, Forschungszentrum Jülich, and DLR in Oldenburg. In the future, we will cooperate with many partners, such as all major network operators and a large number of nationally and internationally operating industrial partners, renowned scientific institutions, and innovative start-up companies.