How the Kopernicus project ENSURE is developing the power grid of the future

One thing is certain, and that is that the energy transition cannot succeed with the energy grid in its current form. That is why scientists, industrial companies, and civil society organizations are developing the energy grid of the future in the Kopernikus project ENSURE, with theoretical development beginning in 2016, a simulation and the first pilot facilities in 2020, and real operation in 2022.

In order to reach the targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement, Germany aims to shift its electricity supply largely to renewable energy by 2045. The problem is that photovoltaic cells and wind turbines produce electricity at a fluctuating rather than continuous rate. In order to be able to cope with this kind of fluctuating energy generation, Germany requires an energy grid that is adapted accordingly. This is also required because today’s power grid is only designed to transport electricity in one direction: from power plants to consumers. However, because more and more consumers are producing their own electricity, for example using photovoltaic cells, the grid needs to be able to transport electricity in both directions.

A new power grid is therefore an essential requirement for a successful energy transition, since in future, electricity will also become a raw material for gas, heating, and transport. Power-to-X technologies can transform electricity into other forms of energy, for example fuels (power-to-fuel), gases (power-to-gas), and heat (power-to-heat).

Scientists call the connecting of electricity, transport, heating, and gas “sector coupling”. In future, Germany needs an energy grid that makes sector coupling possible. The Kopernikus project ENSURE develops potential concepts for such a grid and the route to its realization – taking all available options into account. Up to 2019, the project focused on laying the necessary theoretical foundations: What might the future of energy supply look like? What conditions must be met to establish such a grid? And what problems could occur as a result? In February 2020, based on the work done over the previous few years, ENSURE began real-world preparations for establishing the energy grid of the future. On the one hand, grid operators, industry, and scientists are working together to develop a specific concept for a model region in which, from 2022, they plan to test ENSURE’s evaluated approaches for the energy grid of the future. This region, known as “Energiekosmos ENSURE”, is located in the north of Germany, where an especially large number of future requirements can already be tested today. The current phase of ENSURE examines what requirements are met locally and what concrete technologies can be established in the Energiekosmos region. This examination also considers to what extent the measures tested could be transferred to other regions of Germany, and what is needed to achieve the necessary transformation to equip the energy grid for the future across the entire country. On the other hand, scientists also continue to monitor the current developments in the field of energy supply. If new approaches for potential future energy grids emerge, these are integrated into the conceptual design of ENSURE’s practical phase.

Innovative operating equipment that is necessary to operate the future grid but is currently not yet available is also developed by the ENSURE partners and tested both in computer simulations and in the first real-world pilot systems.

The goal of the second phase of ENSURE is to draft an overall systemic concept for the energy supply that is embedded in the existing socio-economic framework, and to ensure transferability of the results within Germany and Europe, with a time horizon of 2045. In the course of these activities, the concept for the planned Energiekosmos ENSURE region is to be finalized and tested, both as a digital model via computer simulations and within the first pilot systems. Following this, a test grid is to be set up directly on site in the subsequent project phase.

Achievements so far

If you hope to develop the energy grid of the future, you first need to know what the future might look like. To this end, ENSURE developed four possible storylines as part of its activities up to 2019. These storylines illustrate – in qualitative terms initially – possible and expected developments in the energy system and are intended to provide a better understanding of social, economic, and technical contexts.

  • Storyline A (reference) is based on the “Grid Development Plan 2030” (scenario B). It allows for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 of 53 % compared to 1990.
  • Storyline B is the most ambitious: it follows the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 and describes the changes that would be necessary to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Storyline B allows for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 78% by 2030.
  • Storyline C describes an energy transition implemented on a predominantly European level – with the goal of meeting the minimum requirements of the Paris Climate Agreement. Greenhouse gas emissions would have to fall by 67% by 2030 in this case.
  • The same goal applies to storyline D, however it is based on a decentralized implementation of the energy transition, i.e. organized on the level of small regional units.

Up to now, Germany’s energy grid has been arranged in roughly a star shape: central power plants supply energy to every part of the country. If the points of these stars are connected with each other in future like the mesh of a net, the energy can also be transported to its destination via many other routes – much more efficiently and at a relatively low cost in terms of grid expansion. The results from ENSURE show that such meshing can be established across all levels and forms of voltage to satisfy new requirements for generation and consumption.

ENSURE analysed the use cases that the energy grid of the future has to be equipped for if Germany’s energy supply in the coming decades changes in line with the assumptions in the various storylines. The project analysed a total of 93 such cases. The project partners then divided Germany into clusters, asking the question: What energy mix, electricity consumption, and electricity production will be dominant in individual regions of Germany in future? In other words: which use cases does the energy grid in different regions have to be equipped for? Based on this analysis, the project partners selected a region where they can practically test as many use cases as possible for the grid of the future.

Reliable security concepts are essential for the power grid of the future, but they have to be developed first. For this purpose, ENSURE developed the Digital System Protection Design (DSPD), which allows security concepts and parameters in future grid structures to be planned and adjusted. Using routine and automated adjustments of the security algorithms and parameters, new and flexible operating concepts can be implemented with DSPD with little effort.

New components are also needed to build the future power grid. In the first phase of ENSURE, the project team developed innovative converters, among other things. Converters are needed to enable the change from one voltage/frequency to another. The ENSURE converters are lighter, smaller and cheaper than their predecessors.