Peter Birkner: A sustainable energy future

15 September 2016

Energy expert Peter Birkner reveals in the second part of the interview how much digitalisation the sector needs and why he's campaigning for a sustainable energy future.

#explore: Does a power company now need to be well positioned digitally to cope with the necessary changes?

Peter Birkner: Yes and no. There is also the question of how deep the company’s added value will go in the future and which partners it will be working with. When we launched the energy turnaround, we thought - and here I’m exaggerating a little - we just needed to throw up a few wind turbines and stick a few solar panels on the roof, and that would essentially be that. The thinking of the big companies in the sector very quickly reverted to tried-and-tested dimensions. Expansion of the transmission system and the construction of huge off-shore wind projects for the North and Baltic Seas, which then turned out however to be very complex and expensive. So it should come as no surprise that the first radical success model of the energy turnaround was the rural wind turbine in the range from two to three megawatts. In any case, we significantly underestimated the fundamental potential for change of the energy turnaround, at least to start with, and carried on thinking for a long time in the same old boxes. Politically, we’re still doing so to some extent.

#explore: What’s so interesting about this three megawatt turbine?

Peter Birkner: The fact that it can produce a significant amount of electricity, has relatively high runtimes across the year and can also be manufactured and erected in large numbers in an increasingly standardised way. On the cost side this makes it as efficient as a large power plant, which, while it may be larger as an individual, is only manufactured once. This miniaturisation of energy generation - and here I mean the step down from a 1,300 megawatt nuclear power plant to a three-megawatt wind turbine - is in my view going to continue. Here I’m placing a lot of faith on solar technology. In a few years we’re going to be technically able to couple functionalities. This will further reduce prices.

#explore: Then it will be the wall of your house which generates electricity...

Peter Birkner: ... just like the roof and perhaps even the pavement. Things that we need anyway will also provide us with energy. If I’m right, we will in the future be talking about a huge number of generating units of five, ten or a hundred kilowatts. In other words, a lot smaller than today, but in places where a lot of building will in any case need to be done. This breakdown of the energy turnaround into very small units will need active coordination. In today's energy system it’s clear that, whenever the mains frequency is stable, supply and demand are in equilibrium. If they aren’t, backup power plants kick in. With large numbers of extremely small power plants, that will no longer work - they will need to communicate actively with each other. Which is why the energy turnaround and digitalisation are going to converge. There will be a digitalised energy turnaround.

#explore: How should we interpret this?

Peter Birkner: The energy system will in the future be determined to a large extent by intricate and diverse structures. The many small consumers and producers will therefore need to organise themselves, coordinate and act in concert. If you like, the control process which operates within a large power plant will, as it were, be copied to the electricity system and executed centrally there. It's a different kind of control logic. If you have solar panels on your roof, although you can generate 100 percent of your electricity consumption yourself, only about 30 percent of it will be available at the right time. So 70 percent needs to be exchanged with the grid and with other sources and consumers. A battery would reduce this value from 70 per cent to, for example, 30 per cent. Companies such as Sonnen or Beegy offer owners of solar panels and batteries the option, via a community made up of what are known as virtual pools, to take over the management of the remaining 30 percent. The mix of the different supply and consumption patterns increases the level of self-sufficiency of the community in comparison to individual plants. The members support each other with preferential conditions, and the amount of “third-party trading” is reduced. The result is favourable pricing independent of the market. This is a completely new power supply structure which is arising independently of the established energy industry.

#explore: What will the technical grid structures of the future look like?

Peter Birkner: I’m convinced that we’re going to have to think in modular terms. The very smallest module is an individual building. As a “prosumer”, it will have a degree of self-sufficiency in terms of the time of production and consumption. Shortages and surpluses will at other times be physically exchanged with the neighbouring buildings. At the end of the day, the neighbourhood will have a higher degree of self-sufficiency, as various different generation and consumption patterns will be coupled together via the grid. If that's not enough, the next cell - the town - will have to be called upon. This will then “communicate” with the surrounding area. The next step will see the involvement of the regions. Finally you’ll get Germany and Europe. At this level the energy balance will always need to be in equilibrium. All of this can be mapped both physically and in terms of billing, and the community principle that I’ve outlined will have to be able to work within this grid structure.

#explore: What degree of self-sufficiency will the modules need, and how can they do their job?

Peter Birkner: This depends on the technical options and the type of module. The better the equilibrium in the local energy balance, the less the demand on the upstream grids and systems. Irrespective of this, the modules will need to communicate with each other with regard to the required energy exchange, and the available correcting variables, that is to say, generators, storage facilities and consumers, will need to be deployed within a module in a way that ensures the maximum level of self-sufficiency. For this, energy and communication will converge. However, communication can do so much more, and here we’re looking particularly at Industry 4.0 and autonomous driving. Energy is just one aspect of digitalisation.

#explore: Do innovation and digitalisation always have to go hand-in-hand these days?

Peter Birkner: No, being innovative doesn’t always necessarily mean going digital. In the energy sector we have to think in two categories: On the one hand you have components, on the other, systems. For me, digitalisation mainly has to do with systems, and a system is comprised of many components. Examples include solar panels, batteries and cables, but also e-mobility and heat pumps. These components need to be able to talk to each other to allow the system to be created and to remain stable. For me that would be an innovation in which digitisation would play a major role.

: Can you give us an example of an innovation on which digitalisation has little or any bearing?

Peter Birkner: I’m convinced that material research will also pave the way to major innovations. This applies to the second category, components. The more options the components offer, the more multifaceted the system becomes. Imagine, for instance, that we had solar cells with an efficiency of 20 percent, which weighed only half as much as today’s cells, cost as half as much and were extremely mechanically robust: that would open the door to applications which have so far always been out of reach. We would then be much closer to my scenario in which walls and pavements become power generators. This kind of materials research essentially has nothing to do with digitalisation but is just as important. Of course there’s no getting away from digitalisation, for example when scientists use electron microscopes, perform complex simulations and transfer data across the globe, because institutions work together across national frontiers. In this case, however, digitalisation is not at the heart of things; instead, it’s a supporting tool.

Where does your strong passion for innovative energy development come from?

Peter Birkner: The issue of 'sustainable energy' is one of the key questions that we need to get to grips with on this planet. In the near future we’re going to have to make it possible for 10 billion people to lead a dignified life. This will only be possible with a sustainable energy supply. At the time of the hunter-gatherers, a pure extraction economy was able to support no more than about 10 million people. And we’re talking about an increase of this figure by a factor of 1,000. In this context, what sustainability means for me is that we don’t need to to worry about the lights going out and the technology that supplies the power falling down around our ears - and here I’m talking about nuclear power. Moreover, we need to be more aware of the finite availability of natural resources and the need to protect the environment and climate. I also hope that, with our efforts to promote sustainability, we will at the same time contribute to ensuring that the people will be able to live together better in the long term and we will in the future be more careful with our planet. There is only one Earth, and if it gets burnt out and sucked dry we’ll all have a problem. With this in mind, it’s definitely worth thinking about how components can be developed and combined into systems which will ensure the long-term availability of a sufficient amount of energy. After all, providing access to electricity in developing countries doesn’t just enhance comfort and quality of life but also promotes better education and better health. Basically what we’re discussing is the solution of not a technical but an ethical question.

A sustainable and secure energy future is a global task. Is Germany on the right track with the energy turnaround?

Peter Birkner: As far as the technology, the systems and the intellectual understanding of how an energy turnaround works is concerned, Germany is on an outstandingly good path. And yet, the way in which the energy turnaround is being implemented is not beyond reproach. I find the current regulatory framework pretty odd. We think we can use one single instrument - such as the Renewable Energies Act - to control the development centrally. I don’t believe that anyone - and here I include myself - currently knows in technological terms how the energy turnaround will at the end of the day be implemented. There will be some surprises on the innovation side. Nevertheless, politicians are trying to dictate the policy instruments for the implementation of the energy turnaround. The climate couldn't care less whether carbon dioxide emissions are reduced on the producer or the user side. Our political philosophy needs to be decarbonisation - ever lower CO2 emissions. The state should concentrate on this process and leave finding the solution to the market, science, industry and customers. I’m all in favour of the social market economy, even of an eco-social market economy, but without statism. We in Germany need to show that the energy turnaround is efficient, effective and economically feasible. This is our mission, and it needs work.

In the first part of the interview Peter Birkner explains why large corporations struggle to implement new trends and how a change in corporate culture itself should be initiated.


Peter Birkner is an Honorary Professor at the University of Wuppertal and teaches in the Faculty of Electrical Power Engineering. He also heads the "House of Energy e.V." in Kassel, whose aim, in tandem with companies, research institutes, colleges and universities, as well as the Hessian State Government, is to advance the cause of the energy turnaround with regard to research and development.

Peter Birkner also participates in numerous advisory boards, associations and groups of experts. He is currently supporting two new start-ups - enersis suisse AG, Bern, and Athion GmbH, Cologne. Alongside Michael Stelter, Deputy Head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Systems, Peter Birkner is one of the external experts on the Innovation Board of the Industrial Services business unit of TÜV NORD. The panel discusses the status of current innovation projects and evaluates new ideas and potential research projects.