Foto Torben Nielsen

We’re overlooking the low-hanging fruit in the green transition

Thursday 11 Feb 21
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Jacob Østergaard
Professor, Head of Center
DTU Electrical Engineering
+45 45 25 35 01
Professor Jacob Østergaard at Energy Supply: We need to act on several technological fronts to achieve the 70 per cent target of reducing climate gases by 2030.

Power-to-X is one of the key pieces in the jigsaw for Denmark to achieve its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 70 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990. However, in our race against time, we must not overlook the low-hanging fruit which can be picked now by digitalizing and linking existing energy systems. At the same time, it will speed up the process of making Power-to-X competitive.

In its research strategy, the Danish government has proposed that we increase research in four areas in the coming years. In addition to climate-friendly food production and the recycling of plastic waste, the research will focus on Power-to-X and carbon capture. These are important elements on the road to climate neutrality in 2050, but the technologies cannot in themselves make a significant difference to our carbon emissions by 2030.

We must act now to move in the right direction. Therefore, a fifth research mission should be added to the government’s green research strategy, one that focuses on digitalization and the interconnection of the energy system. The mission should see our energy system as a whole, where the various solutions are integrated to a far greater extent than is currently the case. Solutions which we have so far allowed to operate separately side by side, but which can promote an effective green transition if they are considered together.

"The government should add a fifth mission to its green research strategy, one which focuses on the digitalization and interconnection of the energy system. "
Jacob Østergaard

It is such diverse areas as electricity, district heating, gas, buildings, electric cars and industrial processes which we must become better at linking together. The large living labs in Copenhagen’s EnergyLab Nordhavn and on the island of Bornholm have demonstrated that it is possible to develop technological solutions across these silos, and that doing so brings significant benefits. These include a climate benefit that can be realized long before 2030 with a research effort which is viable compared to the long-term development of a brand new technology.

There are many examples, and they appeal to our common sense. It is all about shifting how energy is used so that the supply networks do not become overloaded just when everyone needs it. Charging electric cars, for example, can be controlled intelligently, so that it happens when there is a lot of capacity in the power grid. This would save DKK 16 billion, which would otherwise have had to be spent on upgrading the electricity grid between now and 2030 to handle 1 million electric vehicles.

In the same way, the interaction between buildings and the heating system can be exploited more effectively. Danish buildings can easily be kept warm enough even though the heating is disconnected for a couple of hours in the morning on the coldest days, and only reconnected once there is again sufficient capacity in the climate-friendly heating systems.

Waste heat also needs to play a role, even on a very small scale, such as when surplus heat from the cold counters in the supermarket at EnergyLab Nordhavn is converted for use in the district heating network and the heating it supplies to 35 townhouses in the neighbourhood. And on a much larger scale, when the new Power-to-X solutions are built it will become necessary to recycle huge amounts of excess heat from the conversion of power into hydrogen.

We have also demonstrated how large autonomous solutions such as a giant heat pump in Copenhagen’s cruise liner terminal can be linked together with a megabattery at the other end of Nordhavn. By combining the properties of a battery which can be switched on and off quickly with the heat pump’s ability for hour-long constant operation, the two entities can work together to ensure the right balance between consumption and production that is so important for the stability of the energy grid.

In other words, we have a range of different options for devising an interconnected energy system. There is therefore every reason to include this as a fifth mission in the Danish government’s research strategy. The focus must be on getting research to deliver the next step: the smart control mechanisms that are necessary and which involve artificial intelligence and the development of the associated business models that make it sufficiently affordable and interesting for all stakeholders to be involved. It will also enable Denmark to maintain and develop its strong position on the world market within energy-efficient technologies, and to set the stage for a new export adventure where Danish companies can take advantage of the important lessons being learned from our unique living energy labs that receive visitors from all over the world who are keen to learn from our experience.

In my view, a clear plan emerges.

First, we must continue to electrify as much as possible so that we make the most of the energy from wind and solar. This is already happening, with more and more companies’ production facilities being converted, with heat pumps replacing other forms of heating, and now even heavy transport is beginning to run on electricity. This is true of ferries, city buses and trucks, like the delivery vehicle recently purchased by Arla.

At the same time, we must develop the digital solutions that make the energy system smarter. Wind turbines that don’t just produce electricity, but which also incorporate an electrolysis system so they can produce hydrogen are already on the drawing boards at some of the big players in the market. This will make the entire Power-to-X mindset much easier to realize.

Finally, there is an urgent need to integrate our energy system. We have a strong foundation for developing new measures that better utilize the existing energy structure, increase digitalization and integrate the different energy technologies and supply networks to create a coherent, market-based, and flexible energy system. This will quickly and effectively take us a big step forward with the green transition in the next few years, and at the same time accelerate future Power-to-X developments by having the right system solutions in place from the outset. Therefore, there is no doubt in my mind that the government should add a fifth mission to its green research strategy, one which focuses on the digitalization and interconnection of the energy system.

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18 MAY 2021