How the Kopernicus project SynErgie helps industry match its electricity demand to the supply

By 2050, all electricity in Germany should come from renewable sources. The problem is that wind and solar power do not provide a regular electricity supply, but rather fluctuate. Sometimes more electricity is available than is actually needed, sometimes less. The Kopernikus project SynErgie studies how industry can help to offset these fluctuations by flexibly adapting its demand to the electricity supply – meaning deliberately increasing or decreasing its electricity consumption – without allowing production quality to suffer as a result.

Industry alone accounts for around 40 % of electricity consumption and a quarter of heating consumption in Germany. Single companies, for example in the aluminium industry, account for over one percent of total consumption nationwide. This means that industry has the potential to offset a significant portion of the fluctuations in the power grid. If too little wind and solar energy is being supplied, industry can adjust its electricity and heating demand and reduce its power consumption until more electricity is available once again. It can also do the opposite: if more electricity is being generated for a brief period of time than is actually needed, companies can deliberately increase their electricity consumption to offset power fluctuations. Scientists call this adjustment demand-side management – a key factor in the success of the energy transition, since demand in the power grid always has to be just as high as supply – otherwise the grid collapses.

Solutions for particularly energy-intensive sectors

The Kopernikus project SynErgie intends for industry to make these adjustments. The project is taking its first step towards this on four levels:

Level 1: Firstly, the sectors with especially high electricity and heating consumption were selected: for example the metal, glass, paper, and chemical industries (see graphic for all industries). SynErgie now develops solutions in these sectors to make particularly energy-intensive processes flexible in their energy demands, i.e. design them so that they can still operate while consuming less or more power. This step alone is enough to allow companies either to greatly reduce or greatly increase their electricity consumption.

Work steps in each sector that SynErgie makes more flexible
  • Chemical industry: chlorine-alkali electrolysis and extraction of carboxylic acids
  • Paper industry: pulp production
  • Metal industry: light metal die casting and massive forming
  • Gas industry: air separation
  • Steel industry: hybrid heating systems and electric steel production
  • Aluminium industry: aluminium electrolysis
  • Plastics industry: injection moulding production line
  • Production infrastructure: cooling and heating systems

Level 2: Along with options for adjustments in individual sectors, SynErgie also examines solutions for the overall production infrastructure, which can in principle be transferred to many different sectors. Once again, the project concentrates here on just the sectors where particularly large reductions and increases in energy consumption are possible. This is the case for applications such as air conditioning units, cold stores, heat supply, production processes, or building technology. Because structural modifications to enable flexible energy consumption in factories are often very expensive, SynErgie’s partners also outlined a solution to include energy flexibility in the plans from the beginning when constructing new factory buildings.

Platform synchronizes supply and demand

Level 3: To allow the production technologies from the first two levels of SynErgie to actually be used profitably, the project’s IT partners are working on developing a software platform that analyses various questions: What is the electricity supply on the market like at the moment – is there a shortage or an excess? How fast do reactions have to be, and how long do they need to last? And what companies can act straight away to offset this shortage or excess? An intelligent control system is needed to strike this flexible balance between supply and demand. In addition, the researchers analyse how electricity markets should be structured in future to motivate companies to offer greater flexibility.

Level 4: To ensure that companies have incentives to reorganize themselves to deliberately consume more or less electricity, the project aims to show that the developed technologies are also generally efficient. Project researchers are therefore using Augsburg as a model region for flexible energy consumption to test out potential options for balancing electricity fluctuations locally – together with local energy suppliers, grid operators, industrial companies, citizens’ initiatives, and policymakers.

In order to be able to bring demand-side management into use across Germany soon, SynErgie also regularly invites doctoral researchers to seminars, where they have the opportunity to meet interdisciplinary experts and discuss their own research into flexible energy consumption in industry. This is because SynErgie can only implement flexible energy consumption solutions throughout Germany and beyond if enough experts are familiar with these solutions in future. Visits by project partners to companies that can already demonstrate successful flexible energy consumption innovations are organized for the same purpose.

Concepts to overcome legal obstacles

In parallel with this, SynErgie scientists work to ascertain how great the potential for industrial demand adjustment could be in future. How much can companies increase or decrease their demand by, and for how long? What is the situation regionally, nationally, and internationally?

SynErgie’s results are already promising. Nevertheless, there are barely any incentives at the moment for companies to invest in reorganizing to allow flexible energy consumption. This is because the law still penalizes companies that have fluctuating energy consumption rather than rewarding them. SynErgie partners are therefore developing concepts for future legislation that would provide companies with incentives to act in a way that benefits the power grid. This also requires business models for how companies can be rewarded for helping out the power grid over brief periods of time, since structural modifications to enable flexible energy consumption are not only expensive, but they also often shorten the lifetime of the plants in which they are implemented. Accordingly, energy suppliers, grid operators, industrial companies, scientists, and citizens’ initiatives work together in SynErgie to develop implementation options for demand-side management that will ultimately benefit everyone.

Achievements so far

SynErgie was able to determine how much more or less energy German industry could consume in case of grid fluctuations. It found that if German industry were reorganized to allow for flexible energy consumption, it could increase its output by up to 1.1 gigawatts for 15 minutes. That is roughly equivalent to the output of a nuclear power plant. The potential impact of reducing consumption is even greater: if there are electricity shortages, industry could reduce its output by up to 2.5 gigawatts for 15 minutes. This would cause a brief drop in electricity demand roughly equivalent to two nuclear power plants.

Flexible adjustment by industry to fluctuations in the power grid is already in practice, largely among companies with especially high electricity consumption. The largest electricity consumer in Germany’s private sector is the Essen-based aluminium manufacturer TRIMET. TRIMET accounts annually for 1.6 % of the total electricity demand in Germany. Before SynErgie was launched, TRIMET was dependent on constant consumption of electricity. Any fluctuation could have destroyed the aluminium furnaces on their sites. The strong electrical current produces a magnetic field in the huge electrolysers used. If the current fluctuates, the magnetic field will fluctuate – causing the entire furnace to be thrown off balance. Now, together with TRIMET, SynErgie has found a way of keeping the magnetic field constant even when the electricity supply fluctuates. The result is that the company can increase or decrease its electricity consumption by 22.5 megawatts for up to two days. That is equivalent to the power used by approximately 25,000 three-person households.

The air separation units operated by gas company the Linde Group consume a similar amount of electricity to TRIMET. Air separation involves separating air into its individual components in order to obtain rare gases. Previously this was only possible with constantly high electricity consumption. Together with Linde and MAN Energy Solutions, SynErgie developed simulations and facilities that show that the process of air separation can also be conducted with fluctuating levels of electricity.

Flexible energy consumption in industry has huge potential to stabilize the German power grid. However, the law in its current form tends to penalize efforts towards flexible energy consumption rather than create incentives for them. For example, grid charges and the EEG levy are pegged to constant electricity consumption. For that reason, SynErgie created a position paper (link) outlining which regulations require changes in order to be able to make use of industry’s potential.

In order to be able to use flexible energy consumption technologies in industry on a broad scale, both expertise and dialogue are needed. Therefore, to date SynErgie has organized three seminars for doctoral researchers to open interdisciplinary communication between young scientists and engineers. Over thirty people took part in each seminar.