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Systems Research

The objective of the German Federal Government’s Energy Concept is the long-term reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. This is to be understood as guiding principles for an overall energy policy that involves more than just the phasing out of nuclear energy. The Energy Concept encompasses all sectors of energy supply and demand, from energy conversion and industry to the transport sector and private households. Accelerating the integration of renewable energies into the energy mix and improving energy efficiency are the concept’s most important pillars. This strategy can only become a reality if new technologies are developed and launched on the market – for example electric cars, thermal insulation systems, and storage technologies, all of which would contribute to sustainably reducing energy consumption and therefore greenhouse gas emissions. Not all of these technologies are already available today, and considerable research and development (R&D) is required in the field of energy technology.

At first glance, it appears that this mission is simple enough to implement by means of R&D, but, in fact, it is still difficult to say what methods and technology lines will eventually prove successful. How can promising approaches be developed to facilitate their market introduction? Are these technologies the most cost-effective solutions? Is society ready to utilize these technologies and prepared to accept the associated risks? This is the starting point for energy systems analysis at Jülich: it evaluates new technologies and analyses them in the context of the energy system, taking into account society, the economy, and the environment.

Methods of Systems Analysis

The methods used are determined by the issues under consideration. As technical, economic and social aspects are analysed, established methods used in the relevant disciplines are applied. What all these approaches have in common is that they are quantitative and often based on computer models that are capable of reproducing the complex interconnections in the energy sector. From a technical point of view, energy system models provide an overall picture of the energy supply in all sectors in the form of scenarios. The pace at which new technologies or strategies can be integrated is also the subject of research. Using economic models, Jülich scientists study the impact of such changes on the national economy. Technology monitoring is used to survey whether the population is aware of future technologies, what they know about them and their attitudes towards them. Technologies are also analysed with methods from empirical social science to enable an accurate assessment. The results of these analyses are then combined to form an overall picture, which allows technologies to be evaluated comprehensively and help decision-makers in research, politics, and industry to identify important positive developments as well as undesirable developments and investments.

Example: Separation and storage of carbon dioxide

More than 40 % of global carbon dioxide emissions are caused by coal- and gas-fired power plants. However, in order to achieve the ambitious goals proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), CO2 emissions from fossil-fired power plants must be reduced considerably. In addition to improving the efficiency of conventional power plants, another option involves the separation of CO2 from the flue gases of power plants and its subsequent storage. This option is often referred to as carbon capture and storage (CCS). Numerous issues related to the technical, economic and social implications of CCS are still open and need to be clarified before the technology can be introduced: What are the technical options for CO2 separation? Is CCS economically feasible? What infrastructure (e.g. CO2 pipelines) is needed to transport the separated carbon dioxide to the reservoir sites? Are there any alternatives to storage, such as using CO2 as a raw material? Will society accept CCS? Scientists at the Institute of Energy and Climate Research (IEK) are working to find answers to these questions. For example, researchers at Systems Analysis and Technology Evaluation (IEK-STE) are using complex computer models to analyse the role CCS could play in a national greenhouse gas reduction strategy and the possible impact of reduction strategies on the national economy. IEK-STE supports the development and fabrication of membrane-based CO2 separation techniques at IEK by means of life-cycle analyses (LCAs). These ensure that the materials chosen for membrane production in the development phase do not have an adverse impact on the environment. IEK also studies how CO2 can be used as a raw material, for example to manufacture plastics. Whether a new technology such as CCS can be deployed successfully depends on its acceptance by the general public. Scientists at IEK-STE use research methods from social science to survey and interpret the attitudes of the public.

Example: Electromobility

Electric cars play an important role in the German Federal Government’s Energy Concept. For example, it projects that one million electric vehicles will be on the road in the year 2020. It is hoped that this will reduce both CO2 emissions and our dependence on fuels such as petrol and diesel, and therefore on oil.

It is generally assumed that the amount of electricity from intermittent renewable energy sources, such as wind and the sun, fed into the grid will increase considerably. This requires suitable storage technologies. Jülich researchers are investigating whether and how electric cars could be used to store energy. In this context, it is important to find out at what time of day vehicle batteries can be charged with electric power or feed power back into the grid. This is why Jülich systems researchers use detailed technical and economic models to study issues such as the consequences of a fleet of electric cars with charge control that can also feed power back into the grid. It is still uncertain whether charging and discharging vehicle batteries in this manner would be feasible in the current power grid. Together with external partners, IEK is currently exploring the question of grid-related restrictions.

Further information:

Environmentally Friendly Power Plants
Systems Analysis and Technology Evaluation (IEK-STE)