Power grids; Source: BMWi/Holger Vonderlind

© BMWi/Holger Vonderlind

Present situation in energy terms

Technologies for the transmission and distribution of electrical energy are characterised by high investment costs and long amortisation periods. The next few decades will see great changes in the structure of the electricity supply. The ongoing expansion of renewables, particularly in the field of offshore wind power, is resulting in a far-reaching geographical decoupling of power generation from power consumption.

At the same time, the increasing use e.g. of photovoltaic and combined heat and power facilities is continuing the trend towards distributed power generation. Furthermore, the geographical situation in Europe will significantly increase the transit of electrical energy through Germany in the coming years.

For this reason, new technologies and solutions will be required for a secure, reliable and affordable transmission and distribution of electrical energy; these need to be rapidly developed and applied.

In order to reliably maintain the usual level of energy security in future, the energy supply system must be adapted to cope with a rising share of intermittent energy from renewable sources. This further broadens the required range of advances in technology in the field of the electricity grids.

Smart demand-side management is an important aspect of the solution of the problem of integrating intermittent energy sources. It means that electricity can be used specifically at times when there is a high level of output, e.g. when there is a lot of wind.

The distribution grids, which so far have been designed to be passive, must be developed into flexible, active grids which can cope with high shares of renewables. Also, system services to maintain grid quality will have to be delivered on a distributed basis by renewables in future. This entails a rethinking of the entire system.

In addition to the further development and redesign of the energy grids, storage systems will also play a key role in future in order to balance short-term and long-term fluctuations in energy provision and energy demand.

Technology development and the funding structure

There was virtually no state funding for research and development of new technologies for the transmission and distribution of electrical energy from 1980 until just a few years ago. This was because the commercial and technological risks were small in comparison to electricity generation technologies, and there was therefore no federal interest in providing such funding. The liberalisation of the energy industry, the basic unbundling of electricity generation and electricity transmission/distribution, and the increase in intermittent feed-in from renewable energy sources resulted in a re-assessment of the developmental risks related to the use of new technologies and solutions. For this reason, the Federal Government is putting the necessary conditions in place to reduce these developmental risks and to accelerate innovation by providing funding for research, development and demonstration.

The “E-Energy programme” was launched back in 2007. To this end, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy and the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety established six model regions in cooperation with industry; in these regions, key enabling technologies and business models for the creation of smart grids were researched, developed and tested between 2008 and 2013. The Final Report on the E-Energy Technology Programme shows that the increased use of ICT in the energy sector can generate new markets and business models for companies, e.g. in the direct marketing of the energy produced from many small installations or in the marketing of flexibilities in energy consumption.

The Economic Affairs Ministry’s funding concept for “grids for the electricity supply of the future”, which was published in 2010 and is being continued in the 6th Energy Research Programme, embraced the entire system from feed-in to transmission, distribution and consumption of the electricity. At the same time, the interplay with the other funding priorities of the Energy Research Programme is important.

In January 2013, the Economic Affairs Ministry, together with the Environment and Research Ministries, launched a funding initiative for “power grids for the future” as part of the Energy Research Programme. A total of 306 projects were selected under this initiative, of which 242 were provided with more than €100 million from the Economic Affairs Ministry. This also covered additional aspects of basic research, initial and further training of young scientists and engineers, and grid-specific requirements for photovoltaic and wind power units.

The joint website of the Economic Affairs and Research Ministries forschung-stromnetze.info .provides regularly updated and detailed information about the progress of the research projects.

The Electricity Grids Research Network was set up in May 2015 and restructured at the beginning of 2017 in order to meet the need for cooperation and dialogue between the research stakeholders. The aims of the research networks include, for example, an increase in transparency of research activities and the promotion of quality assurance.

Strategically important funding areas

The “grids for the electricity supply of the future” funding priority covers a broad range of issues. The following fields of research and development are particularly significant:

  • components and equipment for transmission and distribution grids,
  • grid operation, modelling, design and monitoring,
  • demonstration,
  • grid planning, system behaviour and system security.

The Economic Affairs Ministry is particularly providing funding for research projects which aim to optimise the energy supply system to cope with the bulk of energy deriving from renewables.

In spring 2015, the Ministry published a new call for research into “power electronics” in view of the high level of demand for research which had been identified. This offer of targeted research promotion met with a very good response, and 16 projects were selected.

Further thematic areas

Research and innovation relating to the grid are covered by the "Energy Grids Platform" of the Economic Affairs Ministry. Important stakeholders in the energy industry and the scientific community provide information about their work and discuss new technology options. This dialogue generates ideas for further developments in energy research policy in this field. Discussions also focus on how the policy environment can speed up innovation and how new technologies can be transformed into marketable products as quickly as possible.