To be diplomatic, the expression ‘real-world laboratory’ is rather clunky. It designates research undertakings that test technical and non-technical innovations in a true-to-life environment. This unusual expression crops up in the agreement of the incumbent coalition of the Christian Democratic/Christian Social Union and the Social Democratic Party of Germany. The country’s economics ministry has invited the electricity sector to submit ideas to participate in a contest with awards in the millions. “Real-world laboratories test future-proof energy techniques under real-life conditions at an industrial scale, thus accelerating the transformation of our energy system,” explains Peter Altmeier (CDU), Germany’s Minister of Economics. “We assist companies and scientists in Germany in unleashing their innovative potential and drawing on it to bring about the energy transition in the regions”.
Clunky or not – the prospect of state subsidisation has triggered a veritable run. By the deadline for submissions in early April, a total of 88 project outlines had been received by the Jülich Research Centre, the designated project sponsor. The project list will not be published for “reasons of data privacy and confidentiality”. Now the submissions are being screened and evaluated. “Technical assessment and prioritisation are expected to be completed by May, and the selected project proposals are scheduled to be announced in summer 2019”, a spokesperson for the German economics ministry said.
Since the energy transition affects all sectors and is extensive in scope, the ministry has picked three areas on which the first round for tenders focusses and which may be subsidised: “sector coupling and hydrogen technologies”, “large-scale energy storage in the electricity sector” and “energy-optimised quarters”.
The final number of subsidised projects and the level of the subsidies remain to be established. Based on the government’s current financial budget, an annual 100 million euros will be available to select real-world laboratories from 2019 to 2022. The German Energy Information Service firmly believes that “no project will receive more than 25 million euros”. Moreover, the focal points could change next year. “There are no specific plans in this regard at present”, a ministry spokesperson says.
Project submissions include many backed by high-profile players from various branches of industry. By and large, the companies have formed consortiums, as exemplified by Vattenfall and plant engineering firm MAN, VNG teaming up with Uniper, and BP, which has made several bids in cooperation with various partners.
RWE has thrown three hats into the ring. The first is named GET H2 and is backed by RWE Generation SE, Nowega, Siemens, Enertrag and the Lingen Municipal Utility, amongst others. The partners plan to build hydrogen infrastructure in Emsland to serve as the heart of a nationwide H2 system connecting the energy, industrial, transportation and heating sectors. The centrepiece is the construction of a power-to-gas plant with an output of 105 MW, which converts electricity from renewable energy sources to ‘green hydrogen’. Added to this are the transportation and storage of the pure hydrogen in existing infrastructure and its use in industry and transportation.
We can showcase the entire value-added chain at an industrial scale in Lingen and have substantial synergistic potential thanks to the infrastructure already in place. Roger Miesen, CEO RWE Generation
Hydrogen is considered a key element of a successful energy transition. Electrolysis based on renewable energy plays a key role here. It involves electricity generated from wind and solar power being used to split water into oxygen and ‘green’ hydrogen – a source of energy and raw material capable of making a substantial contribution to achieving a significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in the electricity sector and beyond. Green hydrogen could be a decisive step towards environmental compatibility in energy-intensive sectors such as the steel and chemical industries.
“Renewable energy, electricity and gas grids, gas storage facilities and conventional liquid fuel infrastructure connecting directly to hydrogen and heat purchasers in the chemical industry all exist within the region, providing for ideal prerequisites for this innovative technology and rapid project implementation”, underscores Roger Miesen, CEO of RWE Generation. “We can showcase the entire value-added chain at an industrial scale in Lingen and have substantial synergistic potential thanks to the infrastructure already in place”.
The second project in which RWE is involved and for which subsidies are being sought is the coal-fired power station in the Rhenish coal mining region presented in this blog earlier, which is set to be converted to a huge liquid salt heat storage facility.
A different approach is taken by the Sustainable PowerFuel initiative, which has some ground in common with the GET H2 project. RWE has been engineering and carrying out CCU projects with international partners from industry and the sciences for ten years. These undertakings involve capturing and using carbon dioxide. The objective is to use the proposed real-world laboratory to take the next step, i.e. develop a demonstration site for power-to-x technologies in the Rhenish coal mining region. This blog has already presented the state of the art in detail.
Like GET H2, this technique also makes use of ‘green’ hydrogen from renewable energy, which is produced at an RWE location in the Rhenish coal mining region. This time around, however – together with the sequestered carbon dioxide, which may be obtained from power plant exhaust gases for the time being and will gradually be replaced by other sources of CO2 – this commodity acts as a starting material for producing synthetic fuels such as methanol. These fuels have much better combustion and emissions properties than mineral fuels and can be used to power motor vehicles without affecting the climate or be converted back to electricity.
In concert with e-mobility, fuel produced from hydrogen and carbon dioxide can make an important contribution to the transport transition. Furthermore, thanks to their high energy density and good storage properties, they are excellent long-term energy stores, which can be used in multiple ways and flexibly in long-haul transportation (e.g. lorries, ships and trains).
One of the project’s important elements is the exploration of a potential H2 pipeline connection of the real-world laboratory to a (future) hydrogen network. It is envisaged to establish an actual connection between the Sustainable PowerFuel real-world laboratory in the Rhenish coal mining region and the GET H2 real-world laboratory in Lingen via an H2 pipeline.
The projects emerging victorious from the competition for the first real-world laboratories of the energy transition should be announced by the end of summer.
Photo credits: fuyu liu, shutterstock.com; pluie_r, shutterstock.com