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The obsolescence of coal and oil

If it were not for the traumatic events Europe is experiencing at the moment – the refugee crisis as thousands of people flee the war in Syria and Iraq, and head towards Europe; or the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris – then a very different story would occupy Europe’s media. It would be the revolution in our energy supply.

On 30th October 2015 the Green Party in the ‘Landtag’, the parliament of the German federal state of Nordrhein-Westfalen, organised an event to discuss energy storage. The event entitled “Speicher aus NRW für die Energiewende” (North Rhine-Westphalia’s storehouse for the energy transition) brought together politicians, engineers, scientists, business leaders, economists, and members of the public to discuss how renewable sources of energy from the wind and the sun can be stored.

Most people recognise the link between carbon dioxide emmissions caused by burning fossil fuels and global warming and climate change. The problem is how we can find alternative forms of energy to replace coal and oil? These already exist as solar and wind power, but are only available for generating electricity for a power grid when the sun shines or the wind blows. The solution to this problem is energy storage: the energy can be saved for times when there is no supply but greater demand.

The aim of the Greens in North Rhine-Westphalia’s Landtag is to have 100 percent renewable energy supply for their state. The energy storage event was significant because it looked at all the technical options for integrating energy storage into existing energy grids and infrastructure. These options were presented by invited guest speakers, all experts in technical fields related to renewable energy, energy storage, and energy efficiency. The speakers were:

Prof. Dr. Ing. Volker Quaschning professor of regenerative energy systems at the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft (HTW) in Berlin, who spoke about extending renewable energy networks – especially decentralised networks – with the technology we already have available. Dr Gerhard Hörpel director of Münster Electrochemical Energy Technology (MEET) at the Westfälischen Wilhelms-Universität in Münster, who spoke about decentralised solar storage for the energy transition, using lithium-ion batteries. Prof. Dr. Ing, Johanna Myrzik deputy leader of the institute for energy systems, energy efficiency, and energy economy at the Technischen Universität Dortmund (TU Dortmund), who spoke about energy storage as a component of the energy supply system. Prof. Dr. Ing. Michael Sterner professor of energy storage at the Ostbayrischen Technischen Hochschule Regensburg (OTH Regensburg), who spoke about the challenges and potential of power-to-gas technology. Dr Gerhard Henßen coordinator of the taskforce “Business Development Future Technologies” at ThyssenKrupp Clorine Engineers GmbH, who spoke about redox-flow batteries and water electrolysis. Prof. Dr. Ing. Dirk Uwe Sauer university professor and chair of electrochemical energy transition and storage system technology at the Rheinisch-Westfälischen Hochschule (RWTH) in Aachen, who spoke about the storage of electrical energy for stationary and mobile use.

For a political party such as the Greens one of their biggest problems is maintaining public support, and to do that the cost of renewable energy sources along with the required energy storage will have to become cheaper for the consumer than traditional sources of coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power. The question of cost was addressed by some of the speakers at the event. One speaker made the point that not tackling CO2 emmissions is going to be far more costly, as millions of people are displaced from their homes by climate change when the sea level rises by one metre. The resulting refugee crisis will be on a much larger scale than the one we are seeing today.

The price for consumers will drop gradually as the technology of renewable energy and storage is extended to more networks. For this to happen in Germany, the federal government will have to reduce subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear power, in order to give renewable energy and storage a fairer chance to compete. Once this happens there will be further investment in the renewable energy infrastructure. The big energy companies in Germany need to decommission the old open cast lignite mines that are causing so much environmental destruction, and workers need to be retrained for new jobs in the renewable energy and storage sector. In this way jobs and the environment can be saved at the same time.

The revolution in energy supply and storage will mean that with power-to-gas technology: natural gas from fossil fuel sources will be replaced by gas produced by electrolysis from renewable energy sources. This gas will be stored and later turned back into electricity, used for heating buildings, or as fuel for vehicles. Likewise it means that the fossil fuels of coal and oil will become obsolete.


©Jolyon Gumbrell 2015

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