"Sektorkopplung": is this a broken deal for Germany?

"Sektorkopplung": is this a broken deal for Germany?


By abandoning nuclear power, Germany has failed to meet its CO2 emissions target. However, from a German point of view, the question of energy goes beyond the production of electricity. It is about heat, cooling, transport and electricity, all of which are derived from fossil fuels and will have to be replaced by renewable energy sources. The Germans have called this holistic effort for change "Sektorkopplung" (more or less translated as sector shift).

A biased view of production and consumption

While by 2015 energy production from renewable sources would cover 33% of national consumption, this percentage represented only 13.4% of final consumption in the first quarter of 2016.

This glaring difference confirms the fact that consumable energy is not just electricity. The notion of final consumption includes heating and cooling networks, transport, lighting, etc. While German electricity production is increasingly based on renewable energy sources, the production of both heat and cooling as well as transport fuels are predominantly fossil fuels.

The post-nuclear challenge in Germany does not only lie in the growth of renewable energy, but also in a profound transformation of the heating sector - both in homes and businesses - and of transport. Many households today are turning to photo- and geothermal energy, heat pumps combined with electricity production from renewable sources. When this clean electricity is used to reduce the use of fossil fuels in other sectors, this is known as "Sektorkopplung".

However, make no mistake about it. If the intention is there, the road is not yet done and the signals, both political and societal, are sometimes divergent.

Green electricity: the good pupil 

The German law passed in the summer of 2016, better known as the EEG 2017 on renewable energy, supports the already well-advanced movement for change. While 17% of Germany's electricity consumption in 2010 came from renewable sources, this figure is now 33% and is expected to rise to 45% by 2025. The other side of the coin is more painful: the remaining 55% is mainly produced by coal-fired power stations.

The EEG 2017 was intended not only to allow better planning of the location of wind and photovoltaic installations on the territory, but also to reduce the costs of implementation. One of the main points of the law is also and above all a better integration and synchronisation with the existing traditional grid.

Heat: the pariah in the landscape

Gas and hydrocarbons still dominate in the production of heat in German homes. This must change and quickly. The German plan foresees that renewable energies must play a preponderant role: this is Power-to-Heat. 

Power-to-Heat wants fossil fuels to be successfully replaced by renewable energy sources either directly or indirectly. It is one of the pillars of the country's CO2 emission reduction. New buildings are relying on heat pumps that heat the air sucked in from outside, or even compensate for the heat of a liquid preheated underground (geothermal energy) with electricity from renewable energy sources. The efficiency of such a system is well established: with one KW/h of electricity, these pumps produce several KW/h of heat. And thanks to the heat accumulators, this efficiency is increased.

Waste-to-energy: are our rubbish bins a renewable source of energy?

Waste-to-energy, where a waste incinerator is used to produce heat or electricity, is the poor relation of "Sektorkopplung", which is little known to the general public but is nonetheless indispensable to the energy ecosystem. Waste production is an obvious societal problem and all attempts to recycle and reduce it seem quite vain. The problem is often summed up by the simplistic equation: a small infinite number + a small infinite number = a large infinite number + a large infinite number.

Waste-to-energy, which was surprisingly not included in the list of ecological solutions by the European Green Deal, partly solves the problem of rubbish bins while producing energy for the electricity or heat grid. Greenhouse gas emissions and health hazards are now being reduced in such a way that it is now possible to ski on the roof of such a waste-to-energy plant in Copenhagen, at the foot of its stack. We produce so much waste that, in the long term, the cynical question arises as to whether it has not become a renewable source of energy.

Transport: the most popular route to change

The transport sector is Germany's third largest energy consumer. Here again, electricity wants to play a role. The electrification of the car, which is already strongly represented in the media, is increasingly taking the spotlight. The general enthusiasm for this new motorisation must certainly not deny the environmental problems of producing and disposing of the batteries that make it up, but the future is electric. Owners of electric vehicles even get a bonus for installing a charging station.

More in line with Germany's environmental and ethical goals, the use of hydrogen as a fuel is on the way. Although today a large part of hydrogen is produced by cracking hydrocarbons, electrolysis has made so much progress that it is becoming economically viable. It would then be real Power-to-Gas. The German hydrogen network is today developing at great speed and certain automobile brands pledge to decline their whole product range in hydrogen between now and the end of the decade.

Anyone who has ever driven on a German motorway understands that the car cannot be the only target of the "Sektorkopplung". Trucks must also be converted to electric vehicles. For this purpose, some parts of the motorways are used as laboratories and are equipped with overhead lines which can supply the necessary electricity to the trucks using them, just like urban trams.

What’s up now?

While the transport sector has been the major beneficiary of the stimulus and subsidies for both businesses and individuals, the real change in the heat and electricity networks has not taken place. The EEG 2017 law has not achieved its goals and the costs of installing and operating renewable energies have increased.

The "Sektorkopplung" is not, of course, an idea to be rejected. It is necessary for companies to take the initiative, without waiting for any public support. Change must take place in the conduct of traditional operations. The train of change is not yet at the station, so there is still time to get on board; there are many opportunities for industry, for instance:

The traditional industry must become interested in hydrogen; 

Grid operators need to research artificial intelligence solutions that can help them integrate renewable energy into the grid in an efficient and profitable way; and

Industrial parks must connect the various units on site and integrate new technologies in addition to their traditional energy sources.

This list is obviously not exhaustive.

To help you in the organisation and implementation of this change, Copper Oak has developed working tools and team support. Our engineers are able to identify the needs and strategies representing your ticket for the "Sektorkopplung" train.