Flexible Energy Conversion Research Network
Most power plants still run on fossil fuels. In future, alternative fuels such as biomass will replace coal and gas. In this research network, the members exchange expertise about the latest developments, initiate joint research projects, and discuss funding and research priorities with subject specialists from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi).
The function of conventional power plants has fundamentally changed in the age of the energy transition. While the power plants were in continuous operation some years ago, today they are in demand as flexible suppliers. Their purpose is to produce enough electricity to secure the energy supply when there is little sun or wind. This means that the plants have to be started up and shut down, or operated in partial load, more often than before.
There is also a demand for innovative solutions to reduce or store the CO2 emissions produced by the plants, or otherwise to convert them into fuels and chemicals in an energetically viable manner. This will, for example, allow CO2 to be used as a base material for producing liquid fuels.
Solar thermal power plants with no CO2 emissions
Solar thermal power plants, which convert solar energy into electricity, produce virtually no CO2 during operation. However, these plants require a high level of solar radiation, which is only feasible in countries such as Morocco or Spain. Therefore, power plants and their components that are developed in Germany cannot be deployed at home. Nevertheless, exporting them contributes to a reduction in carbon dioxide worldwide.
In order to deal with these various challenges, experts from universities, scientific research institutions, and industry came together in the spring of 2017 on the initiative of BMWi to form the Flexible Energy Conversion research network. The research initiative that existed prior to this, Cooretec, which was concerned with CO2 reduction technologies, has been integrated into this open and self-organized network of experts.
Working in the Flexible Energy Conversion research network
During the consultation process for the 7th Energy Research Programme, the Flexible Energy Conversion research network worked intensively to help closely align the demand for research funding with the needs of scientists and members of industry. Participation in the network is open to any interested experts on the condition that they register for free as members of the network. It is possible to join one or several of the five working groups, whose recommendations provide impetus to the political arena for future research funding.
The working group deals with research and development topics relating to gas and steam power plants, which are run on solid, liquid, and gaseous fuels and convert the thermal energy thus released into heat and electricity. These also include plants based on new process variants and hybrid concepts. Even though the energy carriers deployed today still predominantly consist of fossil fuels, in the long term advanced thermal power plants can also run on renewable fuels, for example those produced in power-to-X processes. The research conducted by the working group’s members covers how power plant operation can be made more flexible and how CO2 emissions can be reduced. Other topics include the use of alternative fuels, digitization, and innovative system services.
Combustion processes in power plants cause the majority of global CO2 emissions, followed by production processes in industry. The working group’s members work on solutions that allow CO2 to be separated from exhaust gases, to be stored, or to be reused as a raw material.
Technical solutions for electricity production in power plants already exist in demonstration facilities and make it possible to isolate CO2. These technologies should be developed further until they are ready for the market and transferred to other production processes. Carbon dioxide can also be processed further to produce fuels or chemicals. In order to use CO2 as a raw material, research must be conducted into innovative storage facilities and their infrastructure. The group’s previous research and analyses factored in the requirements of large-scale power plants. In the distributed energy market of the future, both distributed and temporary storage options will be required.
Solar thermal power plants use solar radiation to produce electricity in a “climate-smart” manner – meaning without generating greenhouse gases. Even though Germany does not make for a suitable location for this technology, owing to its weather conditions, the planning, construction, and operation of such power plants in sunny countries such as Morocco or Spain offer attractive business opportunities for German companies.
Innovative digital technologies, which help to further reduce the costs of power plants and improve their efficiency and reliability, are researched in the working group. These technologies include additive production methods, modern data analysis methods, and network-based monitoring. Furthermore, the group’s experts work to define and standardize measuring and testing methods for components.
Storage facilities allow the production and consumption of energy to be decoupled from each other with respect to time and space. This is a crucial factor in integrating more electrical power from renewable energy sources into the power grid, since solar and wind power are dependent on the weather and therefore fluctuate considerably.
The experts in the working group deal with issues around short-term and long-term storage, as well as options for thermal storage. Optimized power-to-X processes such as electrolysis should contribute towards coupling electricity production with other sectors, such as transport, industry, or households. The experts conduct research into topics including electrocatalysts, materials, power plant technology, and system integration.
Gas or steam turbines are needed to convert and transport energy from renewable sources. These turbines are key components that can be operated with synthetic fuels, biological fuels, or hydrogen. Solar thermal, geothermal, and hydropower plants, as well as pumped storage, are also dependent on them.
The working group’s experts therefore conduct research into ways of achieving high levels of efficiency while simultaneously reducing pollutant emissions and maintaining fuel flexibility. High-resolution and multi-disciplinary simulation techniques are further developed with the help of digitization. In addition, digital systems make it possible to record and interpret operating data in real time.