The future of energy put to a practical test

The first regulatory sandbox for the energy transition – SmartQuart – has been established. It focuses on testing innovative solutions that will shape the future of our energy supply. The solutions are ultimately to be rolled out to other German regions.

The future of energy put to a practical test© AdobeStock/metamorworks

What new ways of generating energy will we discover and how can we use energy in a smart manner? What will urban life and life in rural areas look like in a future where 100 per cent of our electricity and heat comes from renewable sources? And how can we ensure that our energy supply remains stable despite fluctuating amounts of wind and solar energy being fed into the grid? The regulatory sandboxes for the energy transition programme will be an opportunity to find answers and develop solutions to these and many other questions. By adopting this programme, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy is seeking to reduce the time required to move innovations from the lab to the market. In order for Germany to reach its ambitious climate change mitigation targets, the share of renewable energy needs to be considerably expanded. This is what the SmartQuart projects seeks to achieve, by involving citizens, local planners, utilities, municipalities in the implementation of the transition in the energy and heat sector. SmartQuart is the first of a whole series of regulatory sandboxes that look at testing ideas in practice. In July 2019, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Peter Altmaier announced the winners of a call looking for ideas for regulatory sandboxes for the energy transition.

Testing ideas under real-life conditions

'I am delighted that the first regulatory sandbox for the energy transition has now started its work. These sandboxes are innovation projects that are tested at an industrial scale. We are developing and testing technologies that can make a contribution to meeting our ambitious energy and climate change mitigation targets. The sandboxes for the energy transition programme allows for these technologies to be tested under real-life conditions and at an industrial scale', Minister Altmaier said as he handed over the notice approving funding for SmartQuart in December 2019.

Making fossil fuels obsolete

The sandbox looks at the future of energy in urban neighbourhoods and rural areas. One of its goals is to replace fossil fuels such as coal with renewable energies. A mix of information and communications technologies and smart grids allows for different installations to be combined and therefore for the grid to be controlled in a smart manner. For example, this allows for the heat, electricity and mobility sectors to be linked up across three sites in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate.

A hydrogen-based rural micro-grid

The rural municipality of Kaisersesch is planning to build a hydrogen-based micro-grid (a small-scale smart grid). In cases where wind turbines and solar PV installations provide more electricity than can be used, hydrogen is produced as a storage medium. The Kaisersesch region is testing the entire hydrogen value chain from generation, conversion, storage and distribution all the way to consumption.

The energy transition in urban space

The 'Literaturquartier' (which literally translates as 'literature quarter') in the German city of Essen once housed the offices of the German newspaper 'Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung'. It has now been turned into a place where innovative energy technologies for use in densely populated areas are being tested. The neighbourhood, which consists of residential areas, small shops, offices and hotels, seeks to cover a good share of its electricity demand by using a solar PV and hybrid solar system. The system also includes a neighbourhood-owned large energy storage unit and a smart digital energy management system. Charging stations, electric ride sharing and bike sharing services are provided to supplement existing mobility options. This is to help optimise energy generation and consumption at the local level.

Making optimal use of energy by transferring it between neighbourhoods

The key focus of this project is to enable neighbourhoods to transfer energy within and between neighbourhoods, meaning that neighbourhoods with entirely different needs could help one another out on sustainability and economic efficiency. Rural and sparsely populated areas have very different requirements towards their energy supply than inner cities counting large numbers of consumers. At the same time, they also have very different options to generate electricity. Across all three SmartQuart neighbourhoods, residents, utilities and local technology providers are helping implement the regulatory sandbox. Ultimately, the knowledge generated as a result of this project is to serve as a blueprint for other residential and urban neighbourhoods across Germany.

More sandboxes to be launched this year

In 2020, several new regulatory sandboxes are to be launched. These laboratories in which the future of energy is being explored are spread all across Germany, including in regions affected by structural change such as former coal-mining areas. The new feature is that many innovative technologies and procedures – such as the manufacture of hydrogen – are for the first time being tested under real-life conditions and at industrial scale. The sandboxes look at a number of different issues: How can large quantities of hydrogen be produced using green electricity and stored at an affordable price? How can businesses and private households be linked up and what is the best way to supply these with electricity and heat. And: How can existing infrastructure be put to work for the energy transition?

The regulatory sandboxes for the energy transition form part of the Federal Government's 7th Energy Research programme. Under this programme, funding is provided to businesses and research institutes that develop new technologies and solutions for the energy transition.