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sts.components.contact.mr.placeholder Sebastian Webel
Mr. Sebastian Webel

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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation
 

Innovations

Researching a Revolution

A wind farm in the North Sea. Policymakers hope to end the era of fossil fuels by 2100. For energy systems, that means nothing less than a revolution is needed.

Around the world, policymakers have stated that they want to discontinue the use of fossil fuels by 2100. At Siemens, experts are researching and simulating how this revolutionary objective will affect our energy supply systems and what it will mean for electricity markets in the future. In line with these developments, Siemens Corporate Technology (CT) already offers a range of exciting solutions that can make what Germany calls “Energiewende 2.0” come true.

“#G7 Summit delivered” – this tweet from Greenpeace suggests that the results of the June 2015 conference in the Bavarian palace of Elmau must have been pretty impressive. During the summit, the leaders of the G7 countries unanimously announced that their nations would jointly strive to decarbonize the global economy by 2100. This decision is of historic significance, because it means that the entire world will eventually discontinue using fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and oil. Such a change would mark the end of the age of fossil fuels and would be nothing less than a revolution in energy supply systems.

Disruptive Transformation

The G7 statement represents an ambitious target that will require much work if it is not to remain a mere vision. Just setting up more wind turbines, solar panels, and combined heat-and-power plants won’t be enough. On the contrary, many technological advances and innovations will first be needed before major economies can be decarbonized. This is not surprising. In Germany, for instance, as recently as the early 1990s, only about 100 medium and large-size power plants were in operation. Since then, however, the number of energy suppliers has increased to several millions. “We have to prepare ourselves for an energy supply system that consists of millions of small and large distributed energy generation units. This increases the system’s technological complexity and, thus, the demands on our energy infrastructure,” says Professor Armin Schnettler, Head of New Technology & Innovation Fields at the Corporate Technology unit of Siemens AG.

Siemens researchers Armin Schnettler (left) and Maximilian Fleischer are studying the structure and function of future energy supply systems.

Schnettler knows what he is talking about. In line with the “Energiewende 2.0” strategy, Schnettler and his team are researching innovative solutions that prepare energy supply systems for the future, when distributed units will generate energy from renewable sources. “Energy supply systems are facing a disruptive development worldwide,” he says. In the future, existing technologies might be completely replaced by new ones. In their focus on the “Energiewende 2.0,” experts at Siemens are identifying and developing the requisite technologies. In doing so, they are also providing their colleagues in the business units with a basis for determining the requirements that the technologies will have to meet.

Simulating Tomorrow’s Energy Picture

“Today, we don’t know how to operate a power grid in which up to 80 percent of the electricity comes from renewable sources,” says Schnettler. To find answers, Siemens has initiated the Energy System Development Plan (ESDP). In this research project, experts from Siemens are working closely with RWTH Aachen university to conduct holistic simulations of the long-term effects that a high percentage of energy from renewable sources will have on the generation and transmission of electricity as well as on its distribution and the market as a whole. “We are digitizing all of the current energy supply systems and their developments and depicting them in sophisticated simulations,” says Schnettler. “Not only does this enable us to foresee technological, economic, and political challenges but also to minimize foreseeable risks and uncertainties so that we can ensure a stable energy supply. As a result, we are in the process of obtaining a clear picture of future energy supply systems.” Schnettler is sure that the energy supply systems for electricity, heat, refrigeration, gas, and mobility will, in the medium and long run, grow together more and more and perhaps lead to completely new supply structures.

IC Technologies and Swarm Grids

As the prospect of a highly integrated energy infrastructure becomes ever more likely, associated measures are becoming ever more urgent. For instance, as more and more power plants that used to ensure grid stability are shut off, “swarms” of distributed energy generation and storage units may provide a solution. Such swarm grids are comparable to virtual control units. A swarm has many individual units that are closely networked with one another. It also meets the very high demands that have to be fulfilled to ensure a reliable energy supply and system stability. The key question here is how much decision-making authority future swarms will be able to have in an overall system.

“In the future, we will have to integrate electronics, power electronics, and IC technologies more intensely into energy supply systems in order to ensure that they remain stable in normal operation as well as when a fault occurs,” says Schnettler. This trend is being supported by the increased use of power electronic components for the supply of electricity. As a result, Siemens researchers are forging ahead with, for example, the development of new converter technologies. “The new generation of converters is standardized and more affordable because it is less specific in its demands,” explains Schnettler. New opportunities for these technologies will be opened up by increasingly powerful software.  

Our energy supply system’s requirements will change, depending on the extent to which renewables will contribute to the entire energy supply.

Chemical Storage Technologies to the Rescue

Corporate Technology is also researching chemical storage technologies, because the more volatile electricity generation becomes as a result of renewable energy sources, the greater the need will be for solutions that store electricity and at the same time ensure system stability. “Without efficient large-scale storage technologies, it would be unthinkable to create an energy supply system with an 80-percent share of renewables,” says Schnettler. The German government’s “state of the energy transition 2015” points out that major advances are still needed in storage technology.

Professor Maximilian Fleischer knows this as well. Fleischer is a member of Schnettler’s team, where he heads the Chemical and Optical Systems research unit at Corporate Technology. “We are focusing on chemical storage solutions, because they offer the highest potential for storing large amounts of energy for a long time,” he says. “We are also using green electricity to transform CO2 into valuable resources.” To make this possible, Fleischer and his teams use carbon dioxide and green electricity in an electrolysis process to create valuable raw materials, such as carbon monoxide, ethylene and alcohols for industry. “Although renewable energy will eventually be economically stored or transformed into synthetic fuels, we expect this to happen only over the long term,” says Fleischer.

Decarbonization: A Strategic Objective

From chemical storage technologies to powerful converters and smart grids, innovative ideas and technologies are crucial for ensuring that decarbonization doesn’t just remain a theoretical construct.  

It must be understood, however, that isolated technologies won’t suffice to usher in the post-fossil fuel era. “We must use a holistic approach,” says Schnettler. “Decarbonization requires innovations within the entire system.” Only if this happens can the revolution of the energy supply systems be successful. It’s also the only way to ensure that decarbonization won’t just be a vision, but will become a strategic objective – not only for governments, but also within Siemens.

Ulrich Kreutzer