This is the second blog in a series on the topic of beneficial electrification. In this post, we met with Ever-Green Energy President and CEO Ken Smith on his recent trips to Germany focused on integrated energy applications in Germany and Minnesota.

See part one of the series, where we examine keys to success for electrification to achieve climate, efficiency, and economic goals.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What brought you to Germany?

I am a member of the Climate-Smart Municipalities delegation, which is based on a partnership between North Rhine-Westphalia and the State of Minnesota. The aim of the Climate-Smart program is to bring together stakeholders and leaders to learn from each other and accelerate the transition to a more sustainable and efficient future. The most recent trip focused on modeling integrated energy, which emphasizes cross-sector solutions within the energy-related sectors of electricity, heating and cooling, and transportation to increase efficiency and decrease carbon.

Who was part of the delegation?

Delegates on the trip were representing the State of Minnesota (Departments of Administration, Commerce, Agriculture, and the Pollution Control Agency and Environmental Quality Board), three state senate committees, city councils, school boards, experts representing energy, agriculture, finance, and research, and six Minnesota cities that were selected in a competitive process and have been participating in the cohort since 2016. Representation from Minnesota cities includes Morris, Duluth, Rochester, Elk River, and Warren, with the addition of White Bear Lake in 2019.

Why Germany?

Delegates in Saerbeck.

Several communities in Germany are taking local action to advance their energy systems, in some cases quite rapidly. Some have reached the point where they are meeting all of their electricity needs with renewables. One of the German communities in the exchange that has made significant progress toward energy independence is Saerbeck. Saerbeck is generating more electricity from wind, solar, and biomass than the community consumes. The Morris, Minnesota, community is partnered with Saerbeck through the Climate-Smart program.

One of the reasons Germany is such a great partner is its willingness to openly share its experiences and findings as it transforms its energy system. During several of our conversations this summer, many state and federal leaders spoke about the progress to pivot their work toward holistic, cross-sector solutions to drive down carbon emissions. Included in that pivot is focusing more on decarbonizing buildings and transportation using electrification and working across sectors to achieve better results.

There is a general sentiment that if the energy systems were being designed today, leaders would want to start with a more holistic and carbon-focused approach.

Why was Germany’s energy transformation more focused on electricity?

Germany has established comprehensive climate goals. Among them is their commitment to transforming its gross electricity consumption to be 80 percent renewable by 2050 and its gross final energy consumption (including buildings and transportation) to be 60 percent renewable by 2050. The global 2008 recession created an unexpectedly attractive investment opportunity when Germany, the fourth largest economy in the world, was offering a significant guaranteed rate of return on wind and solar projects. Investments flooded into Germany, leading to a much sharper increase in renewable projects than anticipated, significantly increasing the cost for electricity to households. The German government responded by modifying policies to adjust the investment and deployment trajectory. During this time, the emphasis was on implementing renewable energy, rather than on driving down carbon emissions. The federal government has recognized the need to shift the emphasis and think more broadly.

What is this transformation looking like beyond the electricity sector?

After achieving significant progress on decarbonizing their electric grid, German leadership understood that greater progress needed to be reached in other sectors to meet climate goals. Particularly if they were to leverage the gains made in the electric sector and advance beneficial electrification strategies.

The heat supply for the Grüne Aue district is provided by a combination of three different technologies: a wastewater heat pump, a combined heat and power unit, and a condensing boiler are used in the heating solution.

Germany is able to leverage the widespread district energy infrastructure to facilitate these advancements, integrating renewable energy from a variety of sources to serve and decarbonize commercial and residential buildings. Some systems are using wood chips or biogas and combined heat and power to displace fossil fuel dependency. Others are reducing their system temperatures and leveraging the use of heat pumps, which maximizes the benefit of renewables on the thermal and electric grids. Some systems are also using thermal energy storage to optimize the overall efficiency of electrification efforts.

One such system is the Berlin district energy system, which is owned and operated by Vattenfall. It serves more than 1 million customers and is using a 120 MW power-to-heat unit to produce and store heat from excess electricity, generated by renewable energy sources. The unit serves as a water heater that can optimize the use of excess renewables on the grid to provide buildings with lower-carbon heat. Vattenfall is also piloting the use of chemical thermal storage as a means to store renewable electricity and release the thermal energy when needed to generate electricity and/or heat. Berlin is committed to being climate neutral (having no climate impact resulting from carbon or other greenhouse gases) by 2050 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the city by at least 95 percent compared to 1990 levels.

At District Energy St. Paul, we’re very interested in exploring beneficial electrification in a cost effective, reliable manner. Examples from Germany and other industry leaders help to inform our thinking as we establish our approach to integrating electrification as a reliable resource to reduce carbon.

What is the most important lesson we can learn from Germany’s transformation?

There are days in Germany where regions of the country meet 100% of their load with renewables, and they’re learning by doing. Grid operators are finding that when they start experiencing 60-80% penetration of renewables on the grid, storage becomes increasingly important for grid stability. There’s also an understanding that you can’t just electrify all facets of the economy and place that load on the electric grid. It would overwhelm the current infrastructure and production assets.

It all comes back to thinking holistically. We have to drive up efficiency, decrease the consumption of primary energy sources (wind, solar, fossil fuels, nuclear), and leverage wasted energy sources that exist in our society by using technologies such as combined heat and power or heat pumps. Germany is utilizing excess or wasted energy in multiple facets, including heat from data centers and industrial processes to serve district systems and building loads, therefore lowering strain on primary energy sources and reducing fossil fuel inputs.

We must also continue to ask ourselves: How can we use excess renewable electric power when it is available for strategies like thermal storage? The industry continues to accelerate this unprecedented change for greater efficiency and carbon reductions, and we see growing opportunities for processes like power to gas, power to heat, and power to chemicals.

Are there are specific sites you visited that are ahead of the curve?

Saerbeck worked with local farmers and the municipality to build two biogas plants at the BioEnergy Park.

One that continues to be an amazing example is Saerbeck, a municipality in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. They have worked to integrate waste streams, with circular economy principles very much at play. District energy is part of the core infrastructure that allows them to optimize wasted energy and decarbonize thermal systems. They’ve committed to being climate neutral by 2030, and have implemented wind, solar, combined heat and power, energy efficiency, biogas digesters, and biogas storage. The community’s organics collection includes collecting manure from pig farms and corn that will generate biogas with the added benefit of waste heat going into processes on-site to heat buildings.

The Saerbeck community continues to ask itself, “How do we better integrate these sources and maximize their ability to work together?” They keep progressing by, for example, expanding the biogas digesters and integrating agricultural biomass. You continue to see this community is learning and advancing their strategies.

The attitude ingrained in their culture is that if they don’t learn, advance, and shape their community, this energy transformation will happen to them and without them. In other words, they maximize the benefit to their community by being active participants in shaping the transformation in their community. They are now experiencing thousands of visitors from around the world coming to Saerbeck to learn from their community.

Are some of these advancements happening in Minnesota?

Green Prairie Community residence hall at the University of Minnesota – Morris.

The University of Minnesota Morris is advancing on a number of fronts through their Morris Model, which focuses on efficiency upgrades, biomass, solar, wind, transportation, and more. On multiple fronts, the Morris community is leading the way in Minnesota by focusing on long-term resilience and energy independence. Ever-Green is excited to be working with U of M – Morris through our Roadmap to Carbon Neutrality program that we are piloting this year. The program aims to help campus leaders create actionable plans to make their sustainability and carbon neutrality goals a reality.

Towerside is a 370-acre site that stretches between Minneapolis and Saint Paul on the eastern edge of the University of Minnesota that has been developed through a partnership with local community leaders in the public and private sectors. Through a partnership with Ever-Green, this project is pursuing the potential of an aquifer thermal energy storage source for a low-temperature district energy system. This would use a form of geothermal exchange for heating and cooling, paired with heat pumps and heat recovery chillers in individual buildings and would lower the carbon profile and water consumption for all connected buildings.

What were your key takeaways from this trip?

This trip reinforced some key components to success during the energy transformation:

  • Cross-sector, holistic approaches rooted in partnerships. You can’t do this alone. Partnership is key.
  • Energy productivity and overall carbon reductions are key. Beneficial electrification considers the impact of each change from a technical, financial, and climate perspective and recognizes that renewable thermal, integration of waste energy sources, and overall efficiency need to be part of the solution to reach climate goals.
  • This transformation is not optional. It is happening. It’s a matter of either embracing it and finding ways for your community to benefit from it, or letting it happen to you or possibly without you.
  • Where there are public-private partnerships and leadership at the local level, communities will advance further and faster. In Germany, people are engaged in this transformation, from different levels of government down to the local level, in the private sector, and at the citizen level. The more engaged the community, the faster the community is advancing.
  • No one size fits all. Every community and region has different attributes, challenges, and resources, and the solutions will need to be just as varied.
  • Constant evolution is required—no set it and forget it. It is important to be constantly learning and advancing. Feedback loops are important. Plan, do, check/learn, act, and repeat.
  • The rate of technology advancement and adoption will continue to be unprecedented. It will increasingly put pressure on the speed at which we need to review and adjust policies and regulations. Many of our policy and regulatory practices that guide our energy infrastructure related decisions were established for the world as it has been, not the world that is on the fast-approaching horizon.

Learn more about beneficial electrification and the work Ever-Green is doing to show what is possible through innovation and holistic system-level planning in our beneficial electrification projects in part one of this blog.