The prosperity of our society depends on a functioning energy supply. Modern life would be unimaginable without electricity, warmth, and mobility. The aim of the Energiewende is to realise a stable supply of energy, which is economically viable and environmentally friendly. This is why the German Federal Research Ministry emphasizes research on technologies and social concepts that ensure sustainable energy production, conversion, and distribution.
The realisation of a sustainable energy supply depends on a reduction in our consumption of fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal. The burning of fossil fuels generates heat and releases the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide - a serious pollutant and major contributor to global warming. The key to climate mitigation is an Energiewende that reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, through the increased use of renewable energies and a more efficient use of fossil fuels.
On the Road to Increased Energy Efficiency
As the Energiewende continues renewable energies, such as hydroelectrics and solar power, wind and geothermal power, and regenerative resources are replacing fossil fuels. By 2050 renewable energies should make up 60 percent of the gross final consumption of energy, and 80 percent of the gross electricity consumption.
The second pillar of the Energiewende, following the expansion of renewable energy supplies, is a significant increase in energy efficiency. Potential solutions range from the modernisation of power stations, to energy efficient motors and energy saving industrial processes, to energy efficient building renovation and household goods. The goal is a 20 percent reduction primary energy consumption by 2020, and a 50 percent reduction by 2050, compared to 2008. An essential tool in increasing energy efficiency is, for example, power-heat coupling, where exhaust heat from the production of electricity is used for heating, or in production processes.
Developing Storage Solutions
New storage concepts and intelligent power grids are central elements of a renewable energy based energy system. Wind and solar power are not continuously available meaning the supply of energy is less stable compared to large power stations. We need storage solutions and smart power grids, to deal with excess energy produced during peaks in solar and wind power production. Accumulators bridge the gap between energy production and energy consumption. The “Energy Storage Funding Initiative” aims to deliver the necessary technological breakthroughs and to facilitate a speedy market launch of new energy storage technologies.
One promising approach to a future with an emphasis on regenerative electricity production is the concept of Power-to-Gas. In this concept, excess electricity generated by wind and solar technologies will be used to split water. The hydrogen released in this process could then be converted back into electricity with fuel cells or fed into the natural gas grid. It is also conceivable that excess wind or solar power could be converted into heat (Power-to-Heat), into liquid fuels (Power-to-Fuel), or into basic chemicals (Power-to-Chemicals).
Decentralised Supply is the Future
The nature of our energy supply system is changing from a system reliant on conventional, centralised large power stations, to a decentralised structure with numerous smaller power generation systems. As the transformation continues, regional and municipal distribution networks must change too. The trend is towards smart grids that connect producers, consumers, storage facilities, and network structures. Research into the expansion of the grid infrastructure and the increased use of renewable energies in the transmission and distribution networks, is being carried out as part of the research initiative “Smart Electricity Grids”.
Materials research is necessary, not just for the improvement of energy production plants, but also for an increase in energy efficiency and the adaptation of fossil fuel power plants to the Energiewende. These materials can contribute to the stability of wind turbines and make their components energy efficient and cost effective. New materials for energy production, such as photovoltaics, and energy storage, for example for hydrogen generation, are also being explored. These issues are the focus of the “Material Research for the Energy Transition” funding initiative.
Research for the Energiewende
More than 180 universities and 120 non-university research institutions are driving the Energiewende forwards. Their work covers every step of the research process, from basic research, to application oriented research and development, to pilot plants. The German Federal Ministry of Research is supporting basic research, the prerequisite for new technologies and innovations. The Research Ministry is also responsible for institutional research at the Helmholtz Association (excluding the German Aerospace Center), the Fraunhofer Society, the Max-Plank, and the Leibniz Association.