Research for the energy transition

The Federal Government's Energy Research Programme turns 40.

Female and male reseracher.©

A few years ago, there was no way to generate electricity more expensively than by using solar panels. Today, solar panels are amongst the most affordable technologies in this area, and they have also become more efficient, reliable and durable than before. Without research, none of this would have been possible. And the technological advancement of solar panels is long from being over. Research and development have also been a linchpin of progress in other sectors, for example in the wind industry where electricity generation costs have been slashed by 60 per cent over the last 20 years.

Around 17,300 research projects have received funding so far

In order to ensure that we continue to have the technological innovations we need to drive forward the energy transition, support needs to be provided for research institutes and for companies that run R&D departments. High-tech research is expensive and does not always yield results. In order to encourage researchers and developers to try something new despite these risks and to come up with pioneering ideas that will help drive forward the energy transition, the Federal Government has been providing funding for a wide range of research projects for more than 40 years. The first Energy Research Programme was launched back in 1977. Overall, the Federal Government’s six energy research programmes were worth €12 billion and covered a total of 17,300 research projects.

Minister Zypries: Energy research plays a key role for boosting competitiveness

The fact that German businesses can have their research activities funded also helps them maintain and strengthen their competitive edge on modern energy technologies. “Effective energy research holds the key to new technical solutions and concepts and to the future competitiveness of Germany's industrial base”, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Brigitte Zypries said in the speech she gave at the ceremony celebrating the 40th anniversary of the energy research programmes. The German wind industry, for example, currently exports 70 per cent of the turbines it produces abroad. This demonstrates how competitive this sector is, and helps boost growth and maintain jobs in Germany. At the same time, Germany is making an important contribution to meeting global climate change mitigation targets.

The success of the Energy Research Programme becomes even clearer when we consider the fact that Germany has managed to break the link between GDP growth and energy consumption. It is commonly thought that as an economy grows, energy consumption also increases at the same rate. Countries with a high per-capita GDP, like the US or Canada, also have a high per-capita energy consumption. Germany shows that this does not necessarily have to be the case. The country has managed to break the link between economic growth and energy consumption (for more details, see our informational chart).

The digital transformation helps open up new opportunities

Two weeks ago, an event and a conference were held in celebration of the Energy Research Programmes’ track record. The conference brought together a large number of experts from academia and business to discuss how research funding could be organised in the future. The next Energy Research Programme – which will be the 7th programme – is to place a particular focus on digitisation. Economic Affairs Minister Brigitte Zypries said: “The digital revolution massively influences our research landscape and opens up new opportunities for using new technologies in an efficient manner.”

The Federal Government’s funding programmes are technology-neutral

Before the first Energy Research Programme was launched in 1977 under the lead of the Federal Ministry for Research and Technology, the Federal Government’s funding policy had focused largely on energy security. The Energy Research Programme ushered in a new era of funding, establishing energy efficiency as a second political priority. From then on, new technologies were to be designed in a way that was compatible with the environment. Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal energy and marine energy were also mentioned, but just as a side note.

Every time a new Energy Research Programme was launched, it reflected the challenges that policymakers had to face at the time: the ongoing 6th Energy Research Programme was launched shortly after the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011. This programme is directly geared towards meeting the goals set out as part of the energy transition, paving the way for an age of renewable energy. By 2050, renewables are to account for 60 per cent of gross final energy consumption, and energy efficiency is to be considerably improved. This will not happen without cutting-edge research.

As nobody can foresee what technological developments will catch on, or what new technologies will be discovered in the future, the Federal Government has committed itself to design its energy policies in a technology-neutral way.

The research projects funded under the Government’s project funding schemes also have a clear expiry date. This makes it possible to adapt the focus of the funding measures any time new developments occur. Once a particular research project has been completed, translating the project’s outcomes into practical applications that can be sold on the market is key. The understanding of what government funding is to be used for has fundamentally changed over the last few decades: today, the government provides funding for research activities that are undertaken by the private sector in order to encourage the emergence of new innovations and cut the time needed for their development.

Consultations on the 7th Energy Research Programme have been launched

Last year, the Federal Government for Economic Affairs and Energy started designing the 7th Energy Research Programme. “We are seeking even closer dialogue with industry and science than we have maintained in the past”, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Brigitte Zypries said. In Germany, there is a tradition of companies, commercial enterprises and academic institutions working together. This has led to the creation of an effective research infrastructure that is unparalleled around the world. “By launching the 7th Energy Research Programme, we aim to build on this success.”

The 2017 Federal report on energy research (in German only) gives a detailed overview of the Federal Government's energy research funding policy and of the energy funding schemes that are available at the level of the German Länder and the EU. In 2017, a total of €876 million was spent on energy research – a new record! The following informational chart illustrates how research funding has been continually expanded over the last few years.