Full Steam Ahead

As most federal budgets tighten during the euro crisis, Germany is boosting investment in renewables

16/03/2012 | by Paul Hockenos

Category: Renewables, Resources and Energy, Germany, Central Europe, Europe

Germany’s energy transition will rely on a massive increase in research and development, particularly with regard to storage capacity. Such key technical developments will be integral to the future of renewable technology. Despite budget cuts in many areas throughout Europe, Germany has increased funding for renewable research. In his latest Going Renewable blog post, Paul Hockenos explores what Germany is spending all this money on.

One of the aims of this blog is to give a sense of the incredible breadth of actors involved in Germany’s energy transition: from grassroots start-ups to the most important federal ministries. It is key to grasping the dimensions of Germany’s energy revolution. Indeed, the array of ministries (on all levels), think tanks, agencies, foundations, NGOs, and research institutes, to say nothing of private sector actors, is truly mind-boggling.

The other day I stopped by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) in Hannoversche Strasse. It is considered a well-heeled portfolio with a 2012 budget of 12.8 billion euros. About 754 million of that will go to the Energiewende in the form of research grants, and this sum will increase by 2014 to over a billion euros. (The BMBF is one of the very few federal offices with a budget that is growing rather than shrinking… Maybe because the chancellor is a physicist?)

The fact of the matter is that Germany’s energy revolution hinges upon a number of key technical developments. The current technology, which has improved dramatically over the last five years, suffices for Germany to produce about a quarter of its electricity with renewables (its is now at 21 percent). 

Vastly improved storage capacity is key to hitting the higher targets. The wind doesn’t blow all the time, even up on the windy Baltic coast, and the sun also shines intermittently, as anyone living in Germany knows all too well. Thus energy produced at peak times has to be stored for those windless, rainy days.

Cutting-edge storage technology is thus the top priority for the ministry, which, together with the economics and environment ministries, has dug deep into its pockets to explore a palette of options. Germany hasn’t put all of its chips on one option; there are a bewildering array that are receiving funding, which shows just how wide open the field still is.

In terms of electricity storage, monies are flowing into research in lithium and redox flow batteries, heat pumps, electric double-layer capacitors, and the coordination of networks of smaller, decentralized storages centers, among other areas.

And then there’s the hydrogen option, a technology with enormous potential that’s been “right around the corner” now for three decades. Hydrogen (and methane, too) can absorb energy in compressed or liquid form, and then re-release it as electricity (think of the spring in a mousetrap). There’s great hope that the underground hydrogen storage in caverns, salt domes, and depleted oil and gas fields will soon be viable.

And then there’s thermal energy storage, too, which today includes the production of ice, and chilled or hot water, which is then used to cool/heat during the day. Thermal energy can be accumulated from active solar collector or combined heat and power plants, and transferred to insulated repositories for later use in various applications, such as space heating, domestic, or process water heating.

Much of this is baffling to the average non-techie mortal like myself. And I suppose it should be since much of it doesn’t really even exist yet. There’s a Nobel Prize or two out there for the big breakthroughs in storage innovation. The Germans have allotted 200 million euros to research into storage capacity alone. The country wants to lead the field, a point environment minister Norbert Röttgen made just this week at an energy storage conference in Düsseldorf. Röttgen pointed out that the Energiewende consists not only of boosting renewable energies, but also energy efficiency, intelligent grids, and storage technologies.

Money-wise, these are tough times in Europe, but Germany’s research budget isn’t where physicist Merkel is cutting corners.

PAUL HOCKENOS is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic.

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