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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation

Power Transmission

Scenario 2060: A Landscape for Tomorrow's Children

As a former state premier and her grandson hike through an alpine landscape, their thoughts turn to how much has changed thanks to intelligently networked renewable energy.

Scenario 2060: A former state premier is hiking with her grandson through the Alpine foothills. They are gazing down at a landscape that looks very different from the way it did decades ago -- thanks to a long-term emphasis on optimized use of renewable power.

Every time I stand up here I become thoughtful. On the one hand, I enjoy the fantastic panorama of the mountains in one direction and the broad plains in the other. I breathe in the scent of the flourishing meadows, and I’m happy to be standing with my grandson in a place where I went for walks when I was a child myself.

And every time I’m here I realize once again how much was at stake back then. There’s no telling what would have happened to this beautiful countyside if we hadn’t convinced voters to accept a few major electricity transmission projects and wind parks. I can’t believe the public debates people were having! Ever since the nuclear reactor accident at the beginning of the century, Germans didn’t want to have any more nuclear power plants, but they didn’t want to have wind turbines in their backyards either.

“Why are you shaking your head?” Max asks me reproachfully, breaking in on my train of thought. “Sorry, I was just thinking,” I replied. “You know, as I stand here and watch you enjoying the plants and animals so much, I’m just as happy as you are. But I also become a bit thoughtful.” “How come?” Max asks as he tries to sneak close enough to a swallowtail butterfly to take a sharp macro photo of this beautiful insect with his sunglasses. When I was his age, this butterfly species couldn’t be found at this altitude of 1,800 meters.

What if We Hadn't...

It takes me a while to find the right answer. “Well,” I say, “because for a long time it looked as though you wouldn’t be able to experience this landscape the way you’re doing now.” Max looks at me and wrinkles his brow. I always think it’s funny to see him put on his critical grown-up face. “You sometimes talk so complicated,” he says, with an irritated undertone. How can I explain to him all the things that actually happened, or could have happened?

I remember the years when renewable energy sources began to become widespread. We knew in theory that we could not burn oil and coal forever and pump the atmosphere full of CO2. However, not until the melting of the permafrost started to release hazardous methane and storms, floods, and periods of drought became increasingly frequent did people begin to take action. If we had continued our previous behavior, the average temperature of the earth would have increased by 4 degrees Celsius. As a result, we tried and succeeded in limiting the increase to 2 degrees Celsius.

Back then Everything Was Different

It was a very grim era, and it was a very exciting time to be politically active. My predecessors and my colleagues in the state cabinet had made quite a few mistakes. When the first group of nuclear power plants was closed down in Germany, one of the issues up for debate was whether to set up large numbers of wind turbines in southern Germany. There was a big public debate about whether the landscape should be “cut up like a field of asparagus.” Back then wind turbines were much bigger than they are today; they didn’t look like the delicate structures we can see down there on the plains below. They were also much noisier and less efficient. Only when wind energy became cheaper than power from most fossil fuels did they finally become widespread.

At that time I was the state minister in charge of the expansion of renewable sources of energy and the super grid. This ministry has only been an independent unit since I held that position. I didn’t want the entire Alpine foothill region to lose its recreational value either, and above all, I thought it would be a terrible idea to fill the mountain ridges and summits of the Alps with wind turbines. In any case, there was a heated debate about this issue, because the environmentalists and the Alpine Society naturally organized campaigns against these measures. So we had to find alternatives.

Wind from the North

“You know,” I say to my grandson, “when I was your age, these mountains looked exactly the way they do today. After I grew up, there were plans to set up wind turbines all over them and dig artificial lakes to serve as pumped-storage power plants. That didn’t happen, because smart people invented all of the great things you can see when you look down into the valley. Haven’t you had discussions in school about where our electricity comes from?” “Oh, that,” says Max, rolling his eyes. “I’ve just learned all that — that our power at school comes mainly from the solar panels on the roof and the façade. Also the fuel for dad's car is generated there - through ligation of CO2. And when the sun isn’t shining, electricity comes from the gas-fired power station down there that’s fed with hydrogen. And did you know that the power for the company Dad works for comes from very far away? He told me so.”

I nod. Of course I know that. Back when I was a state minister, I was a strong advocate of long-distance electricity transmission systems that would connect the big wind farms in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea with our Alpine foothill region. The technology was improved to the point where they could supply power almost around the clock. Public acceptance of these transmission lines grew when it became financially feasible to lay the cables underground in regions with beautiful landscapes instead of having them run aboveground. When I was a child, there were many more power pylons in the landscape than there are now.

“You spent your last summer vacation at the North Sea...” I say to Max. His eyes light up, and he interrupts me excitedly: “It was great! We went sailing with the fishermen. They caught a net this big full of crabs!” he says, stretching his little arms out as wide as he can. I smile and stroke his hair. “I bet that was really fun. The electric power that your dad told you about comes from there. The wind turbines are out there in the sea.” “It comes from so far away?” Max looks at me doubtfully. “Yes, either from there or from solar power plants in southern Europe,” I add.

I also played a big role in the plans to forge ahead with the European super grid, because I was convinced that all the regions of Europe would benefit only if they generated renewable energy in the places that would supply the most power and if this power would then be transported to the places where it was needed.

At Last: A Smart Super Grid

“Is it true that cars used to run on oil?” Max asks me, now fully involved in the discussion. I tell him that for a long time fuel was transported to us from places even further away than Norway — from the Arab countries, in fact. Max, who is nine years old, only knows cars that run on electricity or gas — hydrogen or methane. And he finds it entirely normal that cars sometimes even feed energy back into the grid.

It seems unbelievable that we Europeans actually managed to create a smart super grid in which every region supplies exactly the kinds of renewable energy that its natural conditions enable it to produce. Together with all of the small local energy suppliers, the high-performance energy storage facilities, and the ultramodern gas power plants whose CO2 emissions have been reduced to an absolute minimum in the past 50 years and which also supply district heating, we have actually reached our ambitious goal: a stable energy supply without nuclear power plants, coal, or oil.

The grandson as a “learning system”

“Our teacher always says that we live in a wonderful place, because we were the first ones to have lots of new things and a big company tested a lot of things here, and that was really smart. They also had computers back then that knew what was going to happen ahead of time,” Max tells me. “Do you mean learning systems? Your teacher was absolutely right,” I answer. “Your village was used as a test region. The people there installed biomass power plants and a number of wind turbines and energy storage facilities. And of course lots of solar panels. You can see them shining in the sun down there in the valley. And they equipped their houses with measuring devices and sensors that made the houses smart. Nowadays lots of people are doing the same thing, but your village was the very first one.”

Max squints and gives me a mischievous look. “You know, Grandma, I think it would be really smart to go down now and buy ice cream cones. I’m a learning thingy too, and I know that right about now there won’t be a long line.”

Sandra Zistl