Until now, surplus wind power has gone unused, but that’s about to change with plans to use it to create green synthetic fuel for cars, planes, heating or a range of other applications.
The German Energy Agency, dena, a government-supported organization tasked with promoting green technology in Germany, secured the support of major firms including automotive supplier Bosch and energy group Uniper to work towards a breakthrough in so-called “power fuels.”
Power fuels are gas or liquid fuels produced through a process called electrolysis. Electrolysis breaks apart chemicals, commonly water or methane, into simpler elements by running an electric current through them. If the electricity used for electrolysis comes from renewable sources, the fuel, often hydrogen-based, is completely climate-neutral.
“Synthetic, renewable energy sources are the third pillar for a successful energy revolution,” dena’s managing director, Andreas Kuhlmann, told Handelsblatt. Energy efficiency and the direct use of renewable electricity alone isn’t enough to cover future energy needs in a climate-neutral way, Mr. Kuhlmann continued.
Research commissioned by dena at RWTH Aachen University showed that the German government’s goal of radically reducing CO2 emissions by 2050 won’t be reached without green power fuels.
Germany in the driver’s seat
Dena wants its “Global Alliance Power Fuels” to create an international network that brings together all parties involved in the process. And German companies could play a central role. There are already some 30 active projects in the country that produce power fuels from renewable electricity.
The challenge in the coming years will be to ramp up production to industrial levels, cut costs and create a suitable regulatory environment.
“From our point of view, power fuels are a global issue with a wide-ranging spectrum of applications,” Bosch project manager Dörte Schramm said. “We believe that if you are serious about seeking full decarbonization by 2050, you won’t be able to do without e-fuels.”
One major drawback of power fuels is that a large percentage of electricity is lost during electrolysis. By some estimates, there is a 30 percent loss. But the study also highlighted the potential applications for power fuels. They can replace natural gas in heat generation, for example.
Calling for regulatory changes
The German government is aware of the potential, and know the coalition agreement reached this year makes reference to it. But companies involved in power fuel production say key decisions needed to develop the market haven’t been made. “We need a regulatory signal to make progress,” Ms. Schramm said.
For example, CO2 regulations for car fleets could be amended to take into account the use of fuels generated from renewable power. It would also be easy enough to lift the upper limit on the amount of green hydrogen that is fed into the gas network. Right now it’s at two percent, and experts say 20 percent wouldn’t be a problem. This alone would sharply reduce the climate impact of natural gas consumption.
Siemens, Bosch and Audi, are front-runners in power fuels, but the sector isn’t confined to big players. Enertrag AG from Dauerthal in eastern Germany has produced hydrogen from renewable power for the last six years.
One manager at Enertrag told Handelsblatt that the company has proven its capabilities with hydrogen projects. But things won’t be able to really get going until the regulatory environment changes.
Klaus Stratmann covers energy policy and politics for Handelsblatt in Berlin. David Crossland adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:firstname.lastname@example.org