Ahead of the EcoSummit 2012 on 22-23 March in Berlin, Jan Michael Hess reviews some of the "smart green start-ups" from Germany which - he believes - are in a unique position to be successful in the global cleantech market. All have unique technology, have achieved major milestones and are looking for strategic investors, partners and clients to enter new markets and grow faster.
SolarFuel (power to gas) has been nominated for the ECO12 Award and will participate in the EcoSummit 2012 on 22-23 March in Berlin.
Stuttgart-based SolarFuel is a global power to gas (P2G) first mover. SolarFuel is capable of providing an integrated P2G solution and is well positioned to pioneer the new multi-billion euro market of converting renewable energy to renewable methane (synthetic natural gas). P2G is useful for storing and transporting huge amounts of energy by coupling the electricity and gas networks to create the "smart green super grid".
The motivation for developing the new P2G technology is driven by the volatility of wind and solar – the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine – and the resulting need for huge long term energy storage. The potential storage capacity of Germany’s gas network could power the country for several months.
SolarFuel integrates technology and know-how developed by Germany’s research institutes ZSW (Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg) and Fraunhofer IWES (Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology). The P2G pathfinder is backed by two strategic investors – juwi and MT Energie – and has a visionary automotive customer – Audi.
Audi plans to offer CO2 neutral mobility by investing in four 3.6MW offshore wind turbines and buying a 6.3MW P2G factory from SolarFuel in a deal worth 2-digit million euros. SolarFuel’s P2G factory will be operated by EWE and will go on line in 2013, at the time the new A3 TCNG car powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) hits the market. Audi’s end-to-end plan for balanced mobility is to produce the same amount of gas used by Audi cars with wind energy that is converted to renewable gas and fed into the gas network.
This small but powerful ecosystem proves that Germany is a global leader in P2G technology. P2G will create a huge national market and can also be exported to help other nations accelerate the transformation to this 100% renewable energy system. To support this huge potential for faster energy autonomy, governments should establish feed-in tariffs for renewable gas produced at home and minimise gas imports and dependency from foreign resource suppliers.
Unfortunately, today’s electricity grids don’t yet have sufficient capacity to carry all renewable energy during strong winds and bright sunshine. The result is that quite often wind and solar parks have to be switched off as the grid is overloaded, resulting in an incredible waste of energy. It would be smarter to use the green electricity for electrolysis, splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, followed by methanation, combining carbon dioxide and hydrogen into methane. The methanation
can use either a chemical process (Sabatier reaction) or, as Alexander Krajete showed at ECO11, a biological process feeding CO2 and hydrogen to methane-producing microbacteria called archaea.
The renewable gas made in Germany can be stored and transported in the massive gas network and its distributed gas tanks. If needed, the gas can be burned on demand in gas-fired power plants, in CNG cars or in households. The efficiency of P2G is 60%, and 35-40% when converting power to gas to power (P2G2P). This loss during energy conversion is compensated for by the planet-friendly advantages of long term power storage, the ability to produce gas from renewable sources wherever desired and the flexibility of transporting energy on power and gas grids. Plus, gas is a lot more climate friendly than coal.
P2G is a brand new technology that is very complex and still rather expensive. During the next decade it can be made affordable and be brought to the mass market by riding down the cost curves. The author is convinced that P2G is a huge business opportunity for risk taking start-ups and VCs.