The global average temperature has been rising for years. This is caused by increased levels of greenhouse gases – such as carbon dioxide and methane – in the atmosphere. They work similarly to a greenhouse, where heat is stored. Most of the carbon dioxide comes from burning fossil fuels such as oil and coal – for example with heating, electricity generation and mobility. International climate policy aims to limit the rise of global average temperature to two degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels (better 1.5 degrees Celsius).
In Germany, this encompasses two main goals – phase-out of nuclear power while simultaneously drastically reducing CO2 emissions by replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources such as wind and solar, and by increasing energy efficiency. Unfortunately, the first goal – phasing out nuclear power – hinders achieving the second goal. It is generally accepted that we will manage to exit from nuclear power by 2022 – just as planned. However, these targets will be missed for the reduction of CO2 emissions. We came a long way regarding the “electricity transition”. Germany has largely increased the electricity generation from renewable sources and they represent over a third of the German electricity mix; in the WindNODE region it is significantly more than half. Now we need to reduce CO2 emissions in the remaining sectors as much as possible – for example heating supply and mobility.
Germany has been aiming to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent until 2020 (compared to 1990). The target for 2030 is 55% and for 2050 the goal is at least 80%. But by now it is clear that the targets for 2020 will be missed unless fast and fundamental measures such as phasing out large parts of coal power plants are taken. The EU targets 20% (2020), 40% (2030) and at least 80% (2050).
Renewable and Fossil Energy Sources
Fossil energy sources such as coal, oil and gas come from the natural decomposition of ancient plants and animals. Their energy comes from carbon compounds and they release carbon dioxide (CO2) when burnt. Renewable energies, however, emit no CO2 and therefore don’t harm the climate. Furthermore, there is a basically unlimited supply – compared to the limited amounts of fossil fuels. However, most renewables are intermittent – if the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, they cannot generate electricity. Therefore, we will need to adjust our energy consumption to the generation and develop intelligent energy storage technologies.
In a very near future, there will be two million decentral energy producers – such as wind parks, biomass plants, solar panels on rooftops – instead of a few hundred large power plants. All of which will need to be coordinated. This can only be done if the plants are linked and can exchange information. This is where digitalization comes into play: it is the link between producers and consumers and thus makes the energy transition possible. For example, electric heating, cooling systems or manufacturing processes can ramp up when there is enough electricity from renewable sources. Furthermore, digitalization enables new business models for energy services. This is similar to the introduction of smartphones: at first there was only a handful of apps, today there is a multitude of solutions and options.
Energy is needed in various areas – not just in the electricity system, but also for heating and mobility. The energy transition aims to link those sectors in order to optimize the renewable energy consumption. Electricity from wind and solar can be used to generate clean heating or charge the batteries of electric cars, that therefore become electricity storage devices.
Change of Mind – Change of Action
In the old energy world every detail could be planned. Large power plants provided a constant base generation, and flexible power plants provided peak demand. When it comes to renewable energy, we need to change our ways of thinking and act in new ways. For example, industrial consumers need to adjust better to whether the sun is shining, or the wind is blowing. In other words, consumer flexibility is key.