Interview with Prof. Holger Hanselka

Professor Holger Hanselka, President of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) talks about the citizen as an electricity producer, the associated cabling need, and a grid that responds flexibly even to sharply fluctuating electricity production and constantly changing demand.

How did the ENSURE project come about?

In my capacity as vice-president of the Helmholtz Association, the largest scientific organisation in Germany, I’m responsible for energy research and we’ve already been looking into the topics of Energiewende, power grids and network structures for some time. The starting point for the ENSURE project was the agenda-setting conference of the BMBF’s Energiewende Research Forum. This conference brought the scientific community together in Berlin in October 2014 to define the key challenges facing the Energiewende. Out of this arose the Kopernikus projects and with it our own project for new network structures. The question I’ve asked myself right from the start of the ENSURE projects is: How do we get the key partners together to build the best possible consortium for this challenging task? As President of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) I have an extensive network of contacts in both science and business. In addition to the KIT and the RWTH Aachen as scientific partners, we succeeded in persuading the energy supplier E.ON, the network operator TenneT TSO and the technology companies Siemens and ABB to join the board of the ENSURE project. Since then a further 17 partner organisations have joined from the worlds of business, science and civil society. This unique consortium enabled us to win through in the competition.

What are your starting goals?

On the technological side there’s already much available that we can use as a basis for developing rational network structures. The manifest requirements need to be researched, but we don’t see ENSURE as just being about technological aspects. We’re also concerned about the shape that a feasible and acceptable energy grid structure can take when considered from the technical and economic - but also the society - aspects. We’re examining the interaction between centralised and decentralised energy production. This gives rise to questions such as: “Do I get my electricity from the power station or from the solar panels on my roof?” A closely related question is the integration of new IT technologies. It’s important that we can both “send” and “receive” through our cabling. On the one hand I must be able to feed the electricity I’ve generated into the grid, while at the same time when I need electricity, I must be able to receive it into my house or business through the same cable. The electricity customer thus also becomes a supplier. This paradigm shift, and the associated process of social transformation, must always form part of our thinking in our project. Finally, our solutions need to be economically reasonable and technically stable. 

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

ENSURE is planned to run for ten years and falls into three phases. Everything we initiate in the first phase must contribute to the third and final phase of the project. Our objective at the end of the project is a multi-modal network demonstrator. What does that mean? Taking as an example a city and surrounding area, we want to show how electricity, gas, heat and storage technologies must combine to provide people with a stable energy supply. We can now work back from that objective: in the second phase we need an energy laboratory, at pilot scale, in which we can test out our research results. This means that the research work now beginning is already set out. In the first phase we’re starting by looking at the basics. One of these basic tasks is to develop scenarios that factor in the socio-economic environment. An important element in all this is the social acceptability of the planned technologies. Take for example the much-discussed high-voltage power lines in Bavaria. And, finally, the subject of IT security is of the greatest importance - the electricity grids must be protected against attacks by hackers, if we aren’t to see an entire city paralysed.

So before you start, you first ask yourself what result you want to achieve in ten years time?

Precisely. We are taking a broad approach to the research but we will start to focus as soon as possible on the lines of research that are most promising from the technological, economic and social points of view. This also means that, to use an appropriate metaphor, we’ll be “putting less energy” into some lines of research that in the course of the project have proven less practicable.

What main hurdles do you envisage?

That we succeed as effectively and appropriately as possible - and within a tight time-frame - in identifying, then developing, the practicable technological developments that will take us towards our objective, and not put our efforts into the wrong topics. By that I don’t mean fundamentally wrong, just topics that don’t help us to achieve our objectives within the Kopernikus project. To this end we have 23 hand-picked partners in ENSURE, to whom I can entrust this selection task with absolute confidence. However, I know it can often be difficult to let go of a topic close to your heart. I see that as a management challenge.

How is civil society involved?

We’re working with representatives of civil society right from the outset. Because without social acceptance, all our research and development work could be in vain. As we all know it’s always easier to complain from the sidelines than it is to actually sit down at the table and work to find solutions. For this reason the BMBF has provided three non-governmental organisations with a budget enabling them to participate as partners in the project and allow us to work with their knowledge and networks: the Öko-Institut, Germanwatch and Environmental Action Germany. On the one hand these NGOs will be asking us the right questions. But at the same time they’ll be helping us find appropriate answers to those questions.

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

The exceptionally long funding period of up to ten years is a personal commitment and makes this project unique. So right from the beginning we have to think everything through to the end, meaning we need to consider right now which of our ideas are capable of surviving the second phase and being implemented in the third phase. That’s the particular charm and fascination of this project - and something I and the entire team are greatly enjoying!

How do you see the outcome?

We want to show what the energy supply system could look like for an urban area and its surroundings, with a population of 50,000 to 300,000 residents. So we’re trying to establish the optimal combination of electricity, gas, heat and storage technologies. As part of that we also need to think about mobility, electrical or otherwise, to take it into consideration and integrate it effectively.

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

The Energiewende means that we gradually replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. But that’s only on the producer side. On the other side, we have the consumer. When a consumer switches on the washing machine, he or she doesn’t usually wonder where the electricity is from. The main thing is that electricity is there, reliably and in sufficient quantities. Overall we want to show how we in Germany can integrate energy from decentralised, fluctuating, renewable sources, such as sun and wind, into the grid while at the same time guaranteeing an environmentally sound, reliable and affordable energy supply.