Energy research 7.0: From the lab to real-life application

Germany’s 7th Energy Research Programme comes with a number of new features, many of them designed to speed up the transfer of research outcomes into actual products and services.

forscherin betrachtet buntes Prisma© Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy/Holger Vonderlind

Germany’s 7th Energy Research Programme was adopted by the Bundestag on 19 September 2018. For the first time, its focus is on how to improve the way research findings can be turned into new technologies and innovative products, services and processes that are able to compete successfully on the market and get the energy transition to the next stage as planned.

Funding for technologies gives way to funding for systems

Unlike its predecessors, which mainly provided funding for individual technologies, the new Energy Research Programme for the coming years follows a more systemic and holistic approach, with a clear emphasis on practical use. Rather than treating energy generation and consumption separately, we need to see them as two aspects of the same interconnected energy system. This is why, alongside funding on individual technologies, there will be a strong focus on how these should best be combined within the overall energy system.

Sector coupling is of the essence here. It allows electricity from renewables to be used not only in the electricity sector, but also to replace fossil fuels in the heating or transport sectors. This can either happen directly, for instance by replacing traditional cars with electric ones. Or the electricity can be used to produce hydrogen, which can then be turned back into electricity at a later point, for instance in fuel cells that are part of a heating system (to learn more about sector coupling, please click here ).

Another horizontal research question is how to improve our resource management. This could mean using lightweighting technologies for constructing wind powered installations or recycling valuable raw materials from old solar installations. It could also mean developing new materials that allow for valuable resources to be replaced, which could also result in lower production costs.

Digitisation is key

The 7th Energy Research Programme is also the first to address the social implications of the energy transition. More specifically, it calls for transparency and a constructive public dialogue. Nor should it come as a surprise that digitisation also has a key role to play under the new programme, given that it affects almost every aspect of energy research. The Internet of Things forms the basis of smart factories and Industrie 4.0; artificial intelligence can ensure optimal grid management and to calculate future scenarios as accurately as possible. Other examples of how digitisation can help us press ahead with the energy transition include virtual power plants and robotic systems for automated systems monitoring and maintenance work that can be used in electricity generation, storage and transport.

Test the theory and the practical application at the same time

The Federal Government will fund living labs (to learn more about living labs, please click here ) to ensure that promising research findings can be turned into marketable products and services more quickly. Living labs make it possible to test new technologies in a real-life environment for a limited time and in a limited geographical area. The results can then be used as a blueprint for a potential scale-up. This is important as a number of key developments, such as smart infrastructure and its interconnection across districts, sector coupling and digitisation, do not lend themselves to being tested in the artificial environment of a lab. One example of a living lab is the German Smart Energy Showcases designed under the SINTEG programme. To learn more about this, please refer to the June edition of this newsletter here .

Fresh momentum courtesy of creative startups

Startups are also to help with speeding up the transition of research outcomes into marketable products and services. Doing just that, startups have already become a major driver of the energy transition. Under the new Energy Research Programme, they will have better access to research funding and be able to cooperate with large research institutes and industrial companies, as they create innovative products and services.

European and international cooperation

Given that the transformation of our energy system has long been recognised as a global task, international cooperation can be essential in allowing individual countries to get their energy transitions going. This is why the new Energy Research Programme will further step up European and international cooperation on energy research.

At European level, Germany is involved in the SET plan (Strategic Energy Technology plan). As far as the global level is concerned, Germany is part of the International Energy Agency’s global Technology Cooperation Programme.

More than 40 years of energy research

There are three German federal ministries involved in energy research: the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, and the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. Under the 7th Energy Research Programme, some €6.4 billion has been earmarked for energy research up to 2022, representing an increase of approx. 45% over the period from 2013-2017. The adoption of the Energy Research Programme was preceded by a large stakeholder consultation bringing together associations, companies, academia, members of the energy research network, the German states (Länder) and other groups. The process, which began in December 2016 under the leadership of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, was the largest of its kind to be conducted so far. The outcomes were presented to the public in February 2018 and have been fed into the 7th Energy Research Programme.

Since launching the first Energy Research Programme in 1977, the Federal Government has invested around €12 billion to fund over 17,300 projects in the field of non-nuclear energy research.