Experts talk

Europe: Energy Transition – using Electricity and Gas

Prof Dr Klaus-Dieter Borchardt, Deputy Director General of the EU Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy, and Amprion’s Managing Director, Dr Klaus Kleinekorte, discuss progress towards a low-carbon economy and the opportunities of sector coupling.

As part of its efforts to check climate change, Europe is investing in renewables to generate the power we all desperately need. Will the energy transition succeed?

Prof Dr Klaus-Dieter Borchardt: In December 2018, the European Commission, Council and Parliament agreed on new rules for the EU electricity market. This package of meas­ures entitled “Clean Energy for All Europeans” will see us take a huge step towards a European energy revolution. It may sound a bit melodramatic, but the world is looking to Europe to see how, step by step, we can achieve a low-carbon economy by 2050. And we can actually do it!

Dr Klaus Kleinekorte: It is all about increasingly inte­grating wind and solar energy – which, since they are dependent on the weather, fluctuate greatly – into the energy system, but also into the electricity market. By going down this route, Europe is opening the next chapter in the energy transition process. We all want to decarbonise our economies, that is, change the way we generate energy so that we release less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. To this end, Europe’s politicians must set up incentives. No single nation can do this alone – it requires the wider community. For instance, if we want to make electricity consumption across Europe more flexible in order to adapt it to the fluctuating feed-in of renewables.

K.-D. B.: I agree. We can no longer manage the essential restructuring of the energy system at the national level. I’m convinced of that. We need an integrated electricity market in Europe. It can only work if we have an integrated power grid whose lines transmit more electricity across national borders than is currently the case. Such cross-border lines – industry experts refer to them as “interconnectors” – must be prioritised as we work to expand the grid, because they facilitate electricity trading within Europe. It will help us to better balance out fluctuations in electricity generation that result from the massive expansion of renewables.

Prof Dr Klaus-Dieter Borchardt, Deputy Director General of the Directorate-General for Energy of the EU Commission

»The world is looking to Europe to see how we can achieve a low-carbon economy by 2050.«

Prof Dr Klaus-Dieter Borchardt

In the discussions on reform of the EU’s electricity market, there was a certain degree of disagreement between the EU Commission and Germany’s transmission system operators with respect to interconnectors.

K.-D. B.: The question in dispute was with regard to how much interconnector capacity the transmission system oper­ators should make available for cross-border trading. The more trade we make possible, the better. I still see a lot of room for improvement there – as do the EU Commission, Parliament and the Council: they have decided to lay down clear legal requirements on this account as of 2025.

K. K.: The problem is this: interconnector capacities are kept open for electricity trading even when the transmission grid is not actually in a position to provide the relevant capacities owing to reasons of physics. We’re talking here about a virtual capacity that can only be guaranteed by means of massive redispatch. The level of outlay for this would cost us, and therefore German electricity consumers, a great deal of money.

K.-D. B.: In future, the following principle will apply in Europe: anyone who creates problems for cross-border trading must also bear the cost of eliminating them. Granted, as things stand today, it would cost the transmission system operators in Germany a lot of money to assume the obligations as currently laid down. But this will give us incentives to speed up grid expansion over the next few years and to eliminate bottlenecks in the grid. That’s badly needed. If I look at Germany today, my head spins. The sluggish rate at which Germany’s grid is being expanded is a huge problem for Europe, because Germany is a major conduit for electricity flows. Something has to happen – and something is happening now. If you expand the transmission network in Germany by 2025 as planned, you will have the major cost items under control. I therefore believe that both politicians and transmission system operators can live quite well with the new rules.

Dr Klaus Kleinekorte, Managing Director and CTO at Amprion

»Power-to-gas will enable us to extend the reach of renewables to other sectors, too.«

Dr Klaus Kleinekorte

Germany is phasing out nuclear power, and possibly coal, too. What impact will this have on the power grid?

K. K.: In Germany, our source of reliable, stable power feed-in will gradually diminish and then disappear. I expect a similar development in the neighbouring countries to the west of us. Belgium will be shutting down its nuclear power plants in 2025, while France and Switzerland also face similar deci­sions. All of us will suffer gaping black holes in our capacity to generate electricity. I’m deeply worried about this scenario: without a sufficiently reliable supply of energy to the system, we cannot operate the grid stably. The risk of disruptions is growing right across Europe.

K.-D. B.: I share these worries. These are challenges that we also see.

What form of solution would be necessary to ensure the security of supply?

K.-D. B.: Above all, such a solution must give the European energy system a second leg to stand on: we need to exploit the potential of gas! In my opinion, gas is of crucial importance as a stabilising factor in Europe’s future energy system.

K. K.: There’s not a lot of daylight between us here. Take the “hybridge” project, for example, in which Amprion is working intensively on the question of how the electricity and gas systems can best be coupled together. Power-to-gas plants act as a bridge between these two sectors. They enable electricity to be converted to hydrogen. And this should also be seen against the background that industry, households and the transport sector consume far more gas than electricity. The heating sector alone is 56 per cent gas-based. Power-to-gas technology will enable us to extend the reach of renewables to these sectors, too. Together with the gas TSO Open Grid Europe (OGE), Amprion intends to trial this technology on an industrial scale.

K.-D. B.: I would very much like to pay Amprion and OGE a huge compliment, not only for thinking along these lines, but also for pressing ahead with it. You have my full support! Without expansion of the gas sector as a second string to our bow, Europe’s energy transition will not succeed. For this reason, the EU Commission is now preparing to reform the gas market, as a follow-up to its reform of the electricity market. Sector coupling as you have just described it will be a key element of this reform.

What type of gas do you think of when you talk about “power-to-gas”?

K. K.: By “gas”, we’re not just talking about synthetic methane gas, but first and foremost about hydrogen. And we can then also envisage making this available for use in fuel cells in cars, buses and trains.

K.-D. B.: Hydrogen still divides opinion. To what extent can it be admixed with conventional natural gas in existing gas lines? Or do we have to build new pipelines? That’s what we’re re­searching right now.

K. K.: I don’t believe we need to build a completely new infrastructure specifically for hydrogen. We should try to use the existing gas network. The odds are good: the thermal insulation measures introduced in Germany are ensuring the need for gas for heating buildings is continuously decreasing. This is freeing up gas lines. As part of our pilot project, a section of OGE’s existing gas network will be converted to exclusively transport hydrogen. The hydrogen, which is gained by means of electrolysis, will be fed into this hydrogen grid. Small volumes of the hydrogen will also be fed into the natural gas grid.

What is the potential of power-to-gas?

K. K.: Let’s take Germany as an example. The planned expansion of wind farms, especially in the North Sea, would require around ten gigawatts of sector coupling capacity by the period between 2030 and 2050 in order to cope with the volatility involved with renewables. At the same time, this would greatly reduce the need for further expansion of the transmission grid. I can imagine that in addition to large-scale power-to-gas facilities installed in the transmission grids, smaller PtG gas units in the distribution grids – to which wind farms are also connected – will also help. These decentralised units could be used, for example, to produce hydrogen for fuel cell cars in use in the local region. We’d have to think about this systemically and holistically.

K.-D. B.: This form of dual-track system employing electricity and gas would also be more robust than one that relies solely on power and digital control. It would be less vulnerable to cyberattacks. And let’s face it: 100 per cent electrification based on renewables could only be achieved if we had invented some kind of super battery. But we haven’t. We don’t have an elec­trical storage system that is capable of helping us cope with the volatile supply of wind and solar power. Only the gas system is capable of doing that. Here’s my prognosis: by 2050 we will have an economy that is more electrified than it is today, but that also exploits the enormous potential of power-to-gas.

Interview: Volker Göttsche Photos: Hartmut Nägele