It's amazing what science can do

All across Germany, researchers are working on high-tech solutions for our energy system of the future. Last year, the government made 863 million euros of support available for this work.

Solar panels in production. 'HELENE' collaborative project - Highly efficient low-cost PERx-type solar cells – a technology that is to pave the way for cost-effective PV systems with storage capabilities. Sponsored by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. © SolarWorld AG

It's spring and the sun is back! Even though the sunshine is still holding back a little, it has already helped us set a new record this year: this spring, researchers from Saxony succeeded in harvesting a record level of power from solar light.

The new PERC solar cell translates 22 per cent of the solar energy it captures into power – more than any other solar cell that is manufactured on an industrial scale. Only last year, about 18 per cent was considered a normal ratio. So that's a massive success for the SolarWorld Innovations GmbH from Freiberg, Saxony. And there's a lab in Freiburg, on the other side of Germany, close to the Black Forest, that says it can do even better. In this lab at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE), scientists developed the prototype of a solar cell with a special coating that allows it to convert more than 25 per cent of the solar energy it harnesses into electricity. That's quite some result, even for a prototype that has yet to be developed into a product that can be mass-produced.

Bring on the new ideas!

Every day, scientists all over Germany come up with cutting-edge solutions for our future energy supply. The basic and applied research they conduct in labs, research institutes, SMEs and large corporations is the stuff of which our future energy system will be made.

Daring to enter into new technological territory never comes without business risks. But this really shouldn't be holding back our research. This is why the Federal Government is supporting energy research in Germany, providing a grand total of 863 million euros for this purpose last year alone. That's twice as much compared to ten years ago, and 5.3 per cent more than the figure for 2014. This increase reflects the fact that energy research has become an ever more important strategic instrument of energy policy.

Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, Sigmar Gabriel, said on the subject: "Our future energy system will be characterised by a high level of sustainability. At the same time, whether or not the energy transition will be seen as a success story will depend on Germany's capability to safeguard its industrial competitiveness and to continue to ensure a secure supply of energy at affordable prices. Energy research lays the ground for technological progress in this field."

74% of energy funding goes into renewables and energy efficiency

Whether it's new solar cells, better batteries, smarter grids, small-scale power units to be fitted in the cellar – our energy transition depends on a host of innovative technologies. The government's research programme is there to create an environment that is conducive to innovation. Many of the results achieved so far are simply stunning. The two fields that will make or break the success of the energy transition are renewables and energy efficiency. Last year, 74 per cent of all public funding for energy research was spent on either one of these two fields. But why is that?

The energy transition very much depends on energy efficiency and renewables. The Federal Government has set itself the target of reducing Germany's primary energy consumption by 20 per cent by 2020 and by a whopping 50 per cent by 2050. And by 2025, the share of wind and solar power and other renewables is to have risen to nearly half of all the electricity we use (40 to 45 per cent, to be more precise). Renewables already account for roughly a third of our electricity supply, which makes them Germany's number-one source of electricity. As you can see, we are right on track, but we certainly can't afford to just rest on our laurels.

A fresh breath of air

Last year, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy provided 85.39 million euros in funding for wind power alone. This led to an increase in the number of research projects being launched, from 63 in 2014 to 103 in 2015. One of the results of this research is a gigantic test bench for wind turbines. From the outside, the Dynamic Nacelle Testing Laboratory (DyNaLab) in Bremerhaven looks similar to an oversized garage. It allows for nacelles used in wind-powered installations to be tested in real-life conditions – without any of the complex measuring equipment needed for this having to be set up in the field.

New storage technologies

Among the research areas to receive funding last year – alongside renewables and energy efficiency – was the development of cost-effective, high-performance energy storage technologies. A frontrunner in this field is Energiepark Mainz, which has the capacity to convert up to six megawatts' worth of wind and solar power into hydrogen. The gas is then fed into the grid and can be used at a later time. This is one of several ways in which energy from renewables can be stored and fluctuations balanced out.

Funding for networks

The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy is in charge of coordinating the government's energy research policy and does so under the Federal Government's 6th Energy Research Programme. This programme, in which other ministries are also involved, is marked by a strong focus on the energy transition.

Furthermore, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy is working to ensure that innovative processes and technologies quickly find their way onto the market. Last year, in order to facilitate this, the ministry launched its Research and Innovation Platform. Within this forum, 60 experts from business, science and the political sphere are looking for ways of achieving greater synergies between different research activities and of making sure that the results can be put into practice.

To find out more about individual projects and about funding amounts, please consult the 2016 Federal report on energy research (in German only) recently adopted by the Federal Cabinet. This report provides for transparency on public-sector funding and also includes figures from the European Research Framework Programme and data about energy research activities supported by the Länder.

For more details about the ministry's funding activities and about individual projects, please see the annual 'Research for innovation' report (in German only).