Interview with Professor Eberhard Abele

Prof. Eberhard Abele from the TU Darmstadt is the spokesman for the management committee of the SynErgie Kopernikus project, which aims to make industrial processes fit for the growing proportion of volatile energies. The project partners met for the first time in Darmstadt on Wednesday 30 November 2016.

How did the SynErgie project come about?

Germany stands out in the international research landscape, through the fact that - thanks to the numerous research bodies in universities and Fraunhofer institutes - we’ve been able to build-up a high level of competence specifically in the field of production research. Some of these bodies had already earlier started to address the question of energy efficiency in production, along with the possibilities of so-called energy demand-side management in industry. It was therefore unsurprising that the call for tenders issued by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) met with great interest from the current scientific core members of the SynErgie project.

The initiators of the project benefited from the fact that they had many and varied contacts in industry, and so were able to reach out to and select those industrial partners that were really interested and were suitable for such a large-scale project. The consortium is distinguished by its size and, particular, by the extent to which it covers the German industrial landscape including all the energy-relevant sectors. In this consortium energy experts, researchers, installation manufacturers and operators, together with representatives from various social groups, discuss the future approaches to demand-side management from a wide range of standpoints. The key question that always came up in the application phase was: how can we, from a production standpoint, make the most sustainable contribution possible to the Energiewende?

Was it more difficult to convince the industrial partners?

Of course not every company that hears of a research project is enthusiastic. To achieve that a company must first be convinced that the new approaches offer potential synergies and ultimately new insights. But in the end we’ve assembled a broad-based, highly competent consortium and are convinced that we can achieve more valuable and more sustainable results collaborating with these partners than would be possible working in lots of isolated, individual activities.

What are the objectives?

Within the next ten years we want to create all the technical and market-side conditions for substantially synchronising German industry’s energy demand with a fluctuating supply. That can only happen, of course, if right from the start the research work takes into consideration the legal and social aspects. SynErgie thus wants to contribute to the socially acceptable and cost-effective achievement of the Energiewende based on renewable energy sources. Moreover, the acquired knowledge provides a firm footing on which Germany can become the leader in demand-side management, also strengthening German industry in the future. Four sub-objectives can be derived from this overall goal:

  • Mapping by sector and geographical distribution of the potential for load shifting in industrial processes and cross-cutting technologies (potential analysis).
  • Industrial demand must be brought into alignment with increasingly fluctuating supply. For this the new possibilities offered by ICT must be carried over to demand-side technologies (Smart Grid).
  • We need to identify and evaluate the social requirements and impacts of energy-flexible solutions and include these in development of these solutions.
  • The benefits to businesses and the economy of energy-flexible industrial processes must be demonstrated, subject to regulatory framework. To do so appropriate market and electricity pricing systems must be developed and evaluated.

To permit the research results to be efficiently exploited and transferred successfully to industry, to further research and to education, the SynErgie project has adopted the approach of trialling and demonstrating the findings in pilot plants and demonstrators.

What social impacts could there be from these flexible energy solutions?

Demand-side management can also ultimately affect working conditions in production or logistics environments. If we want to make really sensible use of the available volatile energy, production plants must draw as much wind and solar energy as possible when it is available and run at full capacity during those times. In this context more flexible working-time models, or ones that decouple plant and operators, must be developed in the relevant industrial sectors. It isn’t however all about finding the best economic solution, but rather about finding the most sensible solution for society.

Are you also looking at other countries’ solutions?

Since Germany is trailblazing the Energiewende, the transition to renewable energy, other countries will be following us over coming years and decades and what we’re doing is really exciting pioneering work. There’s been a lot published about technological impact assessment in recent years, but that precise question, against the background of Energiewende, is new. There’s nothing comparable in the European area but we are in close contact with our international colleagues.  Sooner or later other industrial countries will face similar problems and need solutions for demand-side management. Global export opportunities for software, control technology and consultancy services are enormous.

In which sectors do you see opportunities for flexibility?

One of our key sectors is aluminium production. The cement and paper industries, not to mention air liquefaction, should offer equally high potential. On top of that the whole engineering production field is of interest, where the connected load of an individual facility is significantly smaller but thousands of equipments, such as curing ovens, are in operation in Germany.

And what form will the first steps in the project take?

Over 80 partners from research, industry and social organisations are currently represented in the SynErgie Kopernikus project. As you can imagine, keeping work in such a large-scale project efficient and focussed requires considerable effort and structuring. To make the project manageable, various sub-consortia are looking specifically at individual aspects such as, for example, relevant key production processes in all the energy-intensive sectors, the production infrastructure, the market and electricity system including the social stakeholders, or the use of information and communication technologies. These focussed activities are embedded within two overarching research topics: the cross-sector analysis of the predominant technically and economically feasible potential for flexibilisation in German industry, and in a second step looking at the economic, ecological and social aspects using tools such as the “Energy-flexible model region Augsburg”.

Can you give an overview of the questions you’ll be tacking in the first year of the project?

The first year is initially to obtain a clear analysis of the overall situation: How big an expansion of renewable and fluctuating energies should we expect? What overall potential for flexibility do we have? Where and how can this be exploited in the short, medium and long term? How can sectors, companies and regions be motivated to use this potential for flexibility? How much local network expansion can we avoid through SynErgie? Further questions that will engage us at the start are: In which technologies should research and development be consequently further intensified? How will prices in the load balancing market change as a result of the increased flexibility of industrial customers? And how can negative prices on the energy exchanges due to the project results be avoided?

What main hurdles do you envisage?

The challenge lies on the one hand in the complexity of the energy system, but also in the heterogeneous nature of Germany’s industrial landscape. The project consortium members are convinced that the industrial sectors and production companies with their widely varying structures can all make some contribution to increasing use of volatile energies. However, in addition to the technical possibilities for the plants, particular incentives must be created to ramp up future output in energy-intensive facilities when “the sun shines and the wind blows”. Since every company is unique with respect to its production plant and control, identified model solutions are not immediately transferable to other companies. This is one major task for the project, to do some pioneering work and come up with the widest-ranging stimuli possible for German industry.

To what extent does the duration of funding influence your research?

As shown by all the recent discussion, the Energiewende in Germany is not a task that can be achieved in a few years. To successfully realise this ambitious national project there still remains basic research to be done, including right here in the SynErgie project, along with the many developments needed in production technology, and the pilot trialling of these across various sectors. It is sincerely to be welcomed in this respect that the Kopernikus programme has deliberately been set-up on a long-term basis with a ten-year research framework. A small-scale research landscape characterised by short-term research projects would not do justice to the visionary goal of the Energiewende.

How do you see the outcome?

We asked ourselves the same question when designing the project, and from that developed a vision: By integrating the requirements of flexible energy demand into the many measures already adopted by German industry aimed at efficient energy use, we will achieve a situation in which the future demand for energy for production processes can be effectively synchronised with fluctuating supply. For companies this results in better conditions for purchasing their energy, while the electricity system benefits from acquiring additional and easily available capacity for flexibility.

An energy synchronisation platform manages and monitors energy distribution within the production system and responds very dynamically to the energy system’s requirements. To be able to meet their demand at optimal cost, companies take active part in the electricity market and proactively shape their production planning. In industrial plants load balancing and flexible energy procurement translate into a freely selectable and effectively marketed degree of automation in electricity system offerings.

How is your Kopernikus project contributing to the success of the Energiewende?

We are convinced that over the next three to ten years companies can contribute significantly to the success of the Energiewende through ever-faster and greater matching of their energy demand to fluctuating energy supply. One important element for achieving this is the networking of solar modules or wind turbines right through to the production machine. Because companies can respond only if they know precisely when very large or very small amounts of electricity are being generated from renewable energies, and the exchange is signalling this through low prices. This applies equally to the many small and medium-sized companies in Germany which have not to date seized this opportunity. These companies must first be motivated to think about the potential! To achieve this, it is important the entire process be made more transparent. As well as the companies, the electricity market and grid operators must of course also be made “fit” for the Energiewende. Here again, the networking between producers and consumers is important.

Finally, the electricity market operators and grid operators must ensure that electricity supply and demand are always balanced. This requires that electricity producers, electricity consumers, and the market and grid operators must all be networked together. However, four projects - even of the size of the Kopernikus projects - are naturally not enough to ensure the success of the Energiewende. Ultimately we all have to help each other to change how we do things, across a wide range of projects large and small, if together we want to make a success of the Energiewende.