By 2045, Germany wants to be largely climate-neutral. Energy must then be obtained mainly from regenerative sources such as wind and water power, solar energy, geothermal energy or renewable raw materials. It is also important to reduce energy consumption by using energy sparingly and efficiently. At present, none of the sustainable energy sources can replace the current energy supply, which is mainly fed by fossil fuels. Therefore, the future lies in an intelligently interlinked mix of renewable energies. How can this succeed and what challenges does a sustainable energy industry with its many sectors have to overcome?
Energy industry in Germany and NRW
In Germany, fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil and coal dominate the energy supply market. The proportion is particularly high in private households.
The federal government has set itself the goal of drastically increasing the proportion of electricity generated from renewable energy sources in the coming years. By 2030, a 65 percent share of renewable energies in electricity consumption should be achieved. In the federal government's planned energy turnaround, wind energy and energy from photovoltaic systems should ultimately make up the main part.
And there are already positive developments: For example, around 45 percent of the electricity that finds its way into households via the power grid is now generated in Germany by solar cells, wind turbines and other renewable energy sources. This means that the share of green electricity in the German grid has more than doubled over the past ten years.
The energy industry encompasses all areas of production and distribution of energy (Town gas, natural gas, liquid fuels, electrical energy, district heating, oil and solid fuels such as coal, coke, peat and wood). The task of sustainable energy management is to gradually convert the energy supply to renewable energies. Renewable energies, also known as alternative or regenerative energies, are forms of energy that are available in unlimited quantities. These include: biomass, geothermal, sun, water and wind.
What about sustainable energy management in NRW?
North Rhine-Westphalia is also relying on wind and sun for the energy transition. Biomass and hydropower are part of this, because they can be used just as flexibly and are grid-friendly in order to make a contribution to sustainable energy supply.
Green hydrogen is showing strong growth in the energy transition in NRW - especially in the energy-consuming industry in the Ruhr area. With the beginning of industrialization in the 18th century, the Ruhr area became a center for the extraction and processing of fossil fuels and heavy industry. Many of the companies founded at that time are still active in the Ruhr area today. But they now have to adjust their production. One example is the Thyssenkrupp plant in Duisburg, which emits 20 million tons of CO₂ per year. That accounts for 2,5 percent of the total German emissions. Thyssenkrupp has therefore decided to fundamentally transform its own steel production with the help of hydrogen and to produce exclusively climate-neutral steel by 2050.
The Ruhr area is a pioneer in the hydrogen transformation and has the most start-ups in this sector in Germany. NRW and Bavaria combine more than half of these companies - the Ruhr area and the Munich area clearly stand out as a cluster.
However, hydrogen is currently still expensive. A kilowatt hour of hydrogen cost 2022 cents at the beginning of 16,5. For comparison: kerosene and diesel cost about 4 cents. Coal about 1,5 cents. Experts expect the price of hydrogen to fall to 2030 cents by 7.
Power-to-Gas, AI, Green Hydrogen & Co. - Potentials and Challenges
Many different technologies and physical processes are used in the generation and distribution of environmentally friendly energy. Traditional processes are supplemented and improved by new technologies.
In order for green electricity to get to where it is needed quickly and safely, the power grid must be fast and reliable. Above all, the transmission grids are important to ensure that all regions in Germany are supplied with sufficient green electricity. With so-called high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines, for example, large amounts of wind power can be transmitted from the north to the south.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
The many parts of the energy system must be intelligently connected and coordinated with each other. Artificial intelligence (AI) is therefore being used more and more frequently - for example in the control of power grids and the merging of the energy sectors of electricity, heating and transport. In this way, the security of supply can be guaranteed even better. In addition, AI also takes over the protection against cyber attacks.
Smart grids are an example from the energy industry. These are intelligent power grids that combine the generation, storage and consumption of energy. With the energy transition, renewable energies such as solar and wind power from decentralized generation will be integrated into our power grid. However, green energy sources do not consistently produce the same amount of energy as coal or nuclear power plants do - they are far more volatile. AI is able to intelligently regulate the fluctuating energy supply and power supply in the grid.
Artificial intelligence (AI), also known as artificial intelligence (AI), is a sub-area of computer science. AI is mainly concerned with automating intelligent behavior and machine learning. Instead of being programmed for every purpose, an AI can find answers and solve problems on its own. It learns independently from the data available to it - what it learns is determined in advance by humans by designing the AI.
However, renewable energy does not necessarily have to be transported in the form of electricity. With the help of so-called sector coupling, experts are pursuing the approach of converting green electricity into other forms of energy in addition to the direct use of electricity in the transport, heating and industrial sectors. Power-to-X technologies are used here, which convert green electricity into other types of energy. This means that green electricity is optionally converted into a liquid fuel (power-to-liquid), into heat or cold (power-to-heat/-cold) or into a gas (power-to-gas). This is also called reverse flow.
A promising technology to make green electricity usable is the so-called water electrolysis. In this process, water is split into its elementary building blocks, hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2), using an electric current. If green electricity is used for this splitting process, one speaks of green hydrogen. The gaseous hydrogen is then collected in large pressure vessels and can be stored there or in underground cavities (caverns) for many months.
Need for innovation in storage and transport
The many technical possibilities for sustainable energy generation and distribution are promising.
However, there is still a need for innovation in the transport and storage of the various energy sources. Many processes are currently very expensive or in the development stage.
In the field of sustainable energy management, the storage of the generated green energy is of great importance. They ensure a balance between the generation and consumption of energy. This applies in particular to wind and solar energy, as these depend on the weather conditions. And consumers also need electricity when it's not windy or sunny.
Research and development focuses in particular on increasing the energy density and reducing storage losses in electricity storage systems. This applies to both household batteries and huge storage units in the megawatt range, short-term and long-term storage.
Current research projects deal, for example, with a hybrid storage system, the vanadium redox flow battery (the largest battery in the world), or the economics of storage methods. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia has set up an initiative specifically for this purpose Energy Research Initiative.NRW.
Transport of green hydrogen
Hydrogen is highly reactive and highly flammable. Its molecules are so small and mobile that they can diffuse through plastics, glass and even metals. Gas lines and transport containers can be permanently damaged if they regularly come into contact with hydrogen particles. A comprehensive network of lines is therefore needed that can safely transport large quantities of hydrogen over long distances.
Political and societal challenges
In addition to the technological challenges, the various applications of renewable energies must also be communicated convincingly in order to be accepted by society. Because without acceptance by the population and companies, the transformation of the energy system or its subsystems can only proceed slowly. This can be seen, for example, in the generation of wind energy. The most important obstacles at a glance:
- In spatial planning, too few areas are designated and secured.
- Legal provisions on distances between wind turbines and residential uses lead to delays or cancellation of projects.
- A lack of standards in nature and species protection leads to legal uncertainties.
- Planning and approval procedures for wind turbines are error-prone and lengthy.
- Regions do not benefit sufficiently from the energy transition, which leads to less local acceptance.
- State and federal funding procedures are not permanent.
Sustainable energy management is zdi's theme for 2023
Demand for skilled workers in the energy industry
In order to master the energy transition, Germany needs a lot of skilled workers. The Competence Center for Securing Skilled Workers, KOFA for short, examined in a Study (November 2022), which professions are necessary for the expansion of solar and wind energy, and what the current situation of skilled workers in these professions is. For example, there is a shortage of around 216.000 skilled workers in the professions that are relevant to the expansion of solar and wind energy. The sub-sectors of building electrics, sanitary, heating and air-conditioning technology and IT are particularly affected.
zdi.NRW is countering the shortage of skilled workers with a state-wide network of zdi centers and multipliers from education, business and science. This is how we are already following the recommendations of the KOFA study: The offers of the network partners emphasize the attractiveness and relevance of the required job profiles. The matching of young people with trainers in companies and at universities is being improved. The advancement of girls and women is also an integral part of zdi.NRW's work.
zdi community platform
Courses and workshops, in the field of Career and study orientation and beyond, create visibility for companies with relevant training occupations and universities with corresponding courses. Practical approaches in the courses holistically convey the importance of the respective professions in the field of environmental and climate protection.
All courses and the opportunity to network can be found on the zdi community platform.
zdi robot competition
Also the annual one zdi robot competition takes up the topic: "Power-Up - don't be a fossil!" is the motto. Pupils develop robotic solutions for all aspects of sustainable energy production, energy transport or energy management. The zdi robot competition thus offers references to all STEM subjects and takes up a topic that many young people can identify with. In addition, low-threshold access to IT is provided, one of the sectors most affected by the shortage of skilled workers.
zdi heroines October
Within the framework of zdi heroines of October we pay special attention to female role models and how young women can be inspired for the STEM field. This year, the focus is also on women who are involved in the field of sustainable energy management.
On our topic page we regularly provide information about our activities related to the annual topic 2023.
This article is essentially based on research on the internet. The most important sources at a glance:
KOFA study: Energy from wind and sun. Which skilled workers do we need? (November 2022)
The study analyzes the skilled worker situation in the two sectors of solar and wind energy. It provides an overview of which skilled workers are needed in these sectors for the further implementation of the energy transition, how they are available on the labor market and in which occupations there are bottlenecks.
Institute for Ecological Economy Research
The IÖW analyzes the complex interrelationships of the economy with other areas of society and the natural environment as well as their dependence on ecological limits.
Information platform of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection
A platform that provides information about research on energy systems. It was created by the Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection as a result of a decision by the German Bundestag.
Environmental Council – Scientific Advisor to the Federal Government
The SRU has been advising the federal government since 1972, making it one of the oldest institutions providing scientific advice for German environmental policy.
Explanatory video on the digitization of energy systems
Information portal of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia
Energy Atlas NRW