Conference on Grand Challenges: Answers from North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) – Flexible power plants for the Energiewende


The ‘Grand Challenges’ here are a whole range of issues, from climate change, to the ageing society, to the efficient use of energy resources. ‘Energiewende’, usually left in German, refers to the energy supply philosophy in Germany, with its emphasis on moving increasingly to low-carbon, especially renewable, sources, and elimination as soon as possible of fossil and nuclear fuels for power generation. However, most of the speakers at this meeting were very clear that, even with 80% of electricity eventually coming from renewables, fossil plants would remain essential to respond quickly to fill the gaps when the wind did not blow or the sun did not shine. The meeting was attended by MEPs, Commission officials and a regional government minister from Germany.

I suppose I represent the ageing society bit referred to in my first sentence, but the substance of this meeting was the NRW programme aimed at providing the analyses and solutions to the maintenance of secure electrical power for consumers, at a time when so much of the generation infrastructure is increasingly based on wind and solar sources, which will turn up, down or off, without so much as a by your leave. I have spoken myself on this difficult situation before, particularly the recent progress on solving the technical aspects, but it was good to listen to others on the subject.

There were short introductory talks from Reiner Stephans, the Director of the Representation of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia to the European Union, and Svenja Schulze, the Minister for Innovation, Science and Research of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Jeroen Schuppers, Deputy Head of the Unit for Advanced Energy Production, DG Research and Innovation, European Commission, then gave a talk on the Horizon 2020 objectives, roadmaps and action plan (446 actions). He cited example areas for potential project funding including developing flexible renewable plants and developing technologies to convert power to fuel gas, e.g. by electrolysis, for storage. A questioner said that a lot of effort for preparing funding applications was needed, yet availability of funds had meant the probability of receiving funding was low. The reply was that the Commission is considering moving back to a one-step application system, but this would require a more prescriptive application process.

Margit Thomeczek, Deputy Chairwoman of the Board of Rhein Ruhr Power e.v. described: ‘Challenges for the conventional power supply’ and said that what were needed were flexible fossil plants and marketable solar thermal plants.

Dietmar Lindenberger of the University of Cologne described the work on ‘Economic challenges and outlook’. He also emphasised the need for despatchable conventional plants to meet large, fast load swings until massive electricity storage could become available – not expected for some decades. A technology-neutral capacity market mechanism was needed. Technical means needed included power to heat storage, power to fuels and demand side management.

Hans-Joachim Meier, of VGB, described the VGB-coordinated project ‘Steam power plants as partner for renewable energy systems’. His presentation was as excellent and fluent as we have come to expect of him, and, speaking to me earlier, he had said that was very pleased to see that I had made the journey over to attend on behalf of IEA CCC. As ever very helpful, he offered to deliver his presentation to the CCC Executive Committee.

Areas of VGB’s two-year project, concluding in June 2015, include modelling by one of the universities to evaluate the costs of achieving flexible thermal plants. This showed that reaching lower minimum loads would save fuel and emissions and start-up costs and increase grid stability. Definition of reference hard coal and lignite plants forms another part of the project (led by Steag). This has allowed comparison of computer data with actual plant data. It revealed a difference in requirements of hard coal and lignite plants. Implementation of thermal storage to increase flexibility has been facilitated by cooperation with solar thermal experts. Boiler developments, led by Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Europe, have included achieving single mill operation, indirect firing and better flame monitoring. Steam turbine developments, led by Siemens, include reducing start-up times and reducing inspection times.

Hans-Joachim concluded with a plea for an integrated capacity market for Europe so the costs of providing and operating flexible fossil plants can be properly covered to ensure the essential flexibility is forthcoming.

Klaus Görner, of the University of Duisberg in Essen, covered ‘Future projects and synergies’. He said that the current scale of electricity storage was 1000 times too small and flexible fossil plants were needed. Areas for flexibility developments include pumps; thick-walled components; corrosion modelling, monitoring and protection; temperature sensors for gas turbines; CHP; gas cleaning, including CCS. He asserted that CCS was proven and ready for market and could increase flexibility. CO2 utilisation, e.g. conversion to methanol or SNG, would have potential to use excess power. Future plants needed to be smaller and less capital intensive, be capture-ready, and have heat extraction capability, ready for future CHP when possible.

View from the hotel


I queued for lunch but progress was glacial, and I had to leave before having any of it, to make sure I reached the airport in time. I am sure, from the pervading aromas, that it would have been of good quality, but I may have had to miss out on most of it anyway, judging by the very meaty and fishy smells.

This was only the second time I had been to Brussels. The last time was in 1973 when I was driving down to Austria. The Grande Place with the lovely Hôtel de Ville is unchanging, and there is still an intimate small town feel in that immediate area. It is a world away from the European Commission and European Parliament buildings, just a couple of kilometres to the east. The venue for this meeting was somewhere between those two parts of the city centre.

I avoided the taxis (I have a phobia of them since China) and used the much cheaper train to get to the centre close to where my hotel was. The ticket inspectors were very polite and friendly on both the inward and return trains. It is always good to have everyone showing that they regard you as welcome. The hotel I used is sited in a nice largely traffic-free square on the Rue du Marché aux Herbes, a few hundred yards from the Grande Place. My room had a magnificent view across to the steeple of the Hôtel de Ville, and the hotel (Carrefour de L’Europe) was small with a friendly welcome.