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Print„New records in renewable electricity generation“ – „Wind and solar yesterday covered lion’s share of energy demand” – media and the internet are not short of success messages on renewable energy generation. Peaks in energy supply are so high that up to 5 billion kWh of renewable electricity have to be cut off per year because the grid cannot accommodate it.

At the same time, Germany struggles with meeting its climate goals due to the ongoing emissions from coal power plants that are needed in order to ensure the energy supply on windless nights.

The existing storage capacities such as pumping plants and reservoirs are limited and in Germany almost exhausted. Battery technology is being pushed, but scalability is restricted and the consumer uptake of electric mobility is slow. Moreover, in order to level out summer/winter fluctuation in renewable energy generation, long-term storage is required.

Therefore, researchers and industry are looking for alternatives. “Power-to-X” is one of the hot topics of the day – a vision moving towards application. The basic idea: Unused electricity is used to produce chemicals that can be stored without significant loss and can either be reconverted to energy or used as a basic resource for the chemical industry. This is more than just a technological innovation – it will change businesses and value chains fundamentally, as Jonas Aichinger, Mainzer Stadtwerke AG, explains: „Convergence of previously separated sectors like electricity, gas, mobility and industry link these markets and can be realized through Power-to-X technologies“

The “traditional” conversion path of electricity to energy-rich substances is the electrolysis of water. Hydrogen has multiple potential uses, making it a flexible and versatile energy store, especially as it can – at least to a certain limit – be coupled with existing gas infrastructures. So far, however, the technology is not competitive. Projects such as HYPOS – Hydrogen Power Storage & Solutions East Germany e.V. are taking up the challenge to find the most cost-efficient pathway and create a showcase by combining technological innovations and existing networks and infrastructure.

“The energy conversion will only succeed with hydrogen”, says Dr. Bernd Pitschak, Hydrogenics GmbH – and hydrogen will play a key role in the ongoing transformation of the energy system. But current “Power-to-X” concepts take the approach one step further: They use renewable electricity to produce not only hydrogen, but by drawing on CO2 as an additional readily available resource, they synthesize methanol or more complex molecules such as synthetic fuels. This could provide the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: By producing carbon-neutral fuels, greenhouse gas emissions from the mobility sector could be drastically reduced long before the onset of the era of electric mobility.

Even if all passenger cars should one day rely on batteries, there still remains the challenge of heavy-duty vehicles and aviation. Says Benedikt Stefánsson, Carbon Recycling International in Iceland: “Transport presents the most difficult challenge in decarbonization as only certain segments of urban mobility can be electrified with batteries, leaving long-distance driving, heavy goods transport, marine and aviation dependent on liquid transport fuels.“ And Patrick Schmidt, Ludwig-Bölkow-Systemtechnik GmbH, adds: “There is a real risk that any efficiency improvements in aviation will be overcompensated by aviation’s growth. For long-term greenhouse gas emission mitigation in aviation the use of sustainable carbon-neutral fuels is indispensable. […] For a robust strategy to manage energy transition in the transport sector a dual approach is required: the electrification of drivetrain/propulsion systems, and the electrification of the primary energy basis of fuels.”

What sounds so easy in theory, however, poses big technological challenges: The conversion of CO2 requires a lot of energy and/or highly sophisticated catalysts. Many chemical companies such as Covestro or BASF are putting a lot of effort in the development of these catalysts – and with success. MicroEnergy follows a different approach, using hydrogen as “feed” for methane-producing microorganisms. Methane, like hydrogen, can be fed into the existing natural gas grid. As Thomas Heller, MicrobEnergy, describes: „Renewable electricity turns into primary energy and has to be integrated into all other energy sectors in order to fulfil decarbonisation targets. This does not consequently lead to an all-electric society, but rather to a high demand of storage systems and sector coupling applications like Power-to-Methane is.“

If these technologies become successful – and experts certainly expect this to happen – an unexpected challenge might arise: So far, CO2 conversion technologies depend on punctual sources. One day, if CO2 conversion is a standard addition to any CO2 emitting plant, CO2 might actually become a scarce resource. The Swiss company Climeworks is setting forth to address this problem: They have developed a technology to capture CO2 from air and are aiming at capturing 1 % of global CO2 emissions from the air by 2025, says Dr. Jan Wurzbacher, Managing Director.

But is the success of Power to X technologies up to engineers and scientists alone? No, say experts almost unequivocally. Dr. Ralph-Uwe Dietrich, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt e.V., warns: „Without strong political authority the market introduction of power-to-X will not start.“ And Dr. Max Peiffer, AssmannPeiffer Attorneys, adds: „The current energy legislation does not provide a proper framework for Power-to-X-systems. The legislator needs to implement changes.“ Marcus Newborough,
Development Director, ITM Power plc., points out „the urgent need to place a value on having ‘renewable gas’ in the gas grid and for policymakers to establish a framework that enables the roll out of power-to-gas systems“

Power-to-X technologies require the cooperation of different sectors. The PRAXISforum Power-to-X  brings them together. Be part of this exciting story and join the PRAXISforum Power-to-X (18-19 October 2017, Frankfurt)

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