Working together to tackle climate protection and supply security

Steps towards achieving climate-neutral energy supply in conversation with Prof. Dr. Dirk Uwe Sauer about Energy systems of the Future (ESYS)

Paving the way to a climate-neutral world is a task of paramount importance for our society in the 21st century. Despite the current weather events, which are strongly influenced by climate change, such as the floods in Pakistan or the extremely dry and hot summer in Central Europe, the main topic of conversation is currently the high energy prices and gas bottlenecks caused by the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. The good news is that measures to protect the climate and ensure security of supply do not have to be mutually exclusive. This is because switching to renewable energies and saving energy help to reduce dependency on Russian energy sources, result in lower energy prices and ensure security of supply over the long term. Taking into account current CO2 certificate prices in power generation, renewable energies are now consistently cheaper than all fossil fuels.

Implementing the necessary measures to achieve the climate goals set out and legally enshrined by the Federal Constitutional Court is now being aggravated by the challenge of having to save the natural gas that was intended to bridge the gap in many places much faster than planned.

Short-term measures

There is great concern with regard to the bottlenecks in the natural gas supply in Germany and Europe. German and European gas infrastructures are largely dependent on deliveries from Russia – this applies to both the volume of gas and the capacity to transport it. A lot needs to happen in the short term, i.e. within a few months to a year. A cessation of Russian deliveries would mean that up to approx. 25 % of the previous year's gas requirements would not be covered during peak periods. These are the findings of a study commissioned by the academy project "Energy Systems of the Future" and conducted by Fraunhofer IEG, Fraunhofer SCAI and TU Berlin.

To close the supply gap – in peak times also – if Russia were to discontinue gas supplies, consumption in Europe would have to be reduced by approx. 20% in the short term and by 25 % in the medium term compared to 2021 levels. This can initially be achieved through (voluntary) savings in the heat supply, for example by lowering room temperatures, and in industry. The temporary use of alternative energy sources such as coal to generate electricity and oil to generate heat is also an important option.

Moreover, European gas networks in particular will have to be converted and expanded in the coming months: additional terminals for liquid gas are needed to enable deliveries from new partner countries. In many cases, the direction of flow of natural gas in Europe will have to be reversed. And greater pipeline capacities are needed, especially at national borders (so-called interconnectors).

In the future, Germany will have to depend to a large extent on the solidarity of other EU member states, but will also play a central role in the storage and onward transport of natural gas to neighbouring countries. This will require some expensive investments; falling gas consumption will mean that these investments will no longer be needed in the medium term, but they will certainly help to cover the gas demand in the short term.

Advancing the energy transition

At the same time, a system change must be initiated on many levels in order to achieve climate neutrality and ensure security of supply – and this is the case for both the medium and long term. There is therefore an urgent need to leverage efficiency potential. The refurbishment of buildings is fundamental to achieving this objective. The rate of refurbishment has been stagnating at around 1 % for many years. However, a rate of at least 1.5 %, or better still 2 %, is needed in the coming decades. In addition, heat generators must be replaced quickly and the fuel switch away from natural gas and towards renewable energies must be implemented – most notably to the use of green electricity in electric heat pumps. In the mobility sector, there is an urgent need to switch to electric vehicles and hydrogen-based fuels, for example for ships and planes.

The reorientation of the industry is another central task. The high prices of energy and raw materials are currently threatening the competitiveness of European industry. Border adjustment taxes at European level are intended to make the import of products that are manufactured with higher CO2 emissions correspondingly more expensive. The transformation to climate-neutral production processes therefore means a reduction in dependence on natural gas and the decarbonisation of industry. Both measures can play a role in increasing competitiveness. However, with CO2 emissions amounting to roughly 181 million tonnes in the past year, today’s industry is still just below the annual emission level stipulated by the Federal Climate Protection Act, while the mobility and building sectors have clearly missed the targets.

Hydrogen and its synthesis products (e. g. methane gas, methanol, ammonia, liquid hydrocarbons similar to petrol, diesel or heavy oil) will be a central component of the industrial transformation process. Industrial systems are generally purchased for a long period of time and are rarely replaced, which means that a changeover to climate-neutral processes is particularly time-critical. The introduction of Carbon Contracts for Difference (CCfDs) could help to implement this change. These contracts are intended to compensate for the cost difference arising from utilising climate-friendly processes compared to conventional ones. They can thus offer investment security while simultaneously supporting companies in the transition. The Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) was a similar tool used to successfully support the introduction of renewable energies.

To enable the rapid ramp-up of hydrogen and its synthesis products, the construction of electrolysers in Germany and Europe must be incentivised. Similarly, suitable hydrogen infrastructures must be put in place to facilitate the transport and storage of the energy source. However, it is unlikely that Germany will be able to produce the quantities of green hydrogen that will be required in the future on its own. For this reason, it is important that import structures be established with other countries at an early stage – both within the EU and outside the EU. These new partnerships should be designed to be sustainable and on an equal footing with the supplier countries.

Hydrogen, energy savings and the industrial transformation are all necessary components when it comes to achieving carbon neutrality. It should not be overlooked, however, that the basis for climate-neutral energy supply in Germany is the rapid and massive expansion of renewable energies in the form of wind turbines and photovoltaics in Germany, Europe and the world.

These are the pillars of the energy system, without which the transition cannot succeed. When it comes to securing the supply of energy in the future, renewable energies are both an opportunity and a prerequisite for creating an energy policy triad of goals – security of supply, affordability and environmental compatibility.

There are still major challenges ahead of us on the ramp-up path for renewables, as there is a significant gap between the required expansion capacity and the number of new wind turbines and photovoltaic systems that are actually being implemented each year. For the resolutions on paper to become reality, obstacles must be removed at various levels and the pace of expansion must be increased. The range of required measures is wide, e. g.:

  • Standard criteria for nature conservation in expansion projects, which further strengthen the legal and investment security of renewable projects
  • Increase in human resources and targeted further training in offices and authorities in order to promote faster and legally secure examination of applications
  • Mandatory land area targets, e. g. for onshore wind energy; multiple uses of land areas (e. g. by using Agri-PV or Floating PV, but also natural areas to strengthen the populations of wild plants, insects, rodents or birds)
  • Development of all suitable building roofs
  • Involve citizens in the decision-making processes as well as in investment opportunities from the very outset and thus actively promote acceptance of the planned expansion
  • Improved information projects and financial involvement of local communities
  • Expansion of production capacities for PV and wind power plants in Europe also
  • Personnel expansion in trade and construction

Last but not least, the entire energy supply must be adapted to the requirements of the new, volatile energy sources. To be able to absorb these amounts of electricity, which are dependent on both the season and the time of day, and to be able to compensate for regional differences, we need a Europe-wide expansion of the electricity grids and a strengthening of the distribution grids, particularly for heat pump electricity. 

There also needs to be an expansion of the energy storage systems that adapt the fluctuating generation of renewable energies to the consumption cycles and we need significantly greater digitalisation and intelligent control of all the associated components and solutions in order to be able to flexibly adjust consumption. One example is the use of batteries in electric vehicles. By the end of 2021, the capacity of these batteries in Germany was already on par with the total capacity of all German pumped storage power plants.

Looking ahead

Implementation of the short-term and long-term measures outlined in this article is essential in order to be able to continue to maintain the security of supply at the high level that is crucial for Germany as an industrial location, while simultaneously achieving the climate goals. If these are coupled with further measures in the areas of transport, agriculture and digitalisation, it is possible for Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent by the middle of the century. The sheer volume of tasks to achieve this goal is enormous. But this shouldn't stop us from taking big, bold steps. Decisions will be made that are not optimal, but waiting will cause much greater economic and environmental harm.


Prof. Dr. Dirk Uwe Sauer