By Dr. Eric Maiser
The Paris Agreement heralds fundamental change not only in the energy sector, but also in industry, transportation, agriculture and the building sector. While a wide array of technologies is already available to address the challenges ahead, others still need to be brought to market maturity. Implementation frameworks and infrastructure measures on a global level play a key role in this.
Power-to-X - electrical energy as the basis for other forms of energy - is considered a promising solution. A highly complex topic, it offers great opportunities for the machinery sector as a provider and user of efficient and low-emission technologies. VDMA Future Business took up this topic in a scenario study called "Power-to-X 2030", which was conducted in close collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute for System and Innovation Research (ISI). In addition, the new VDMA "Power-to-X for Applications (P2X4A)" platform was established to foster collaboration between industry and science on implementing these technologies.
Fuels from water and CO2
Power-to-X technologies use electric power indirectly by converting it to other forms of energy such as synthetic fuels, heat and chemical intermediates. In the production of synthetic fuels, the combustion process is essentially reversed: Water is split into hydrogen and oxygen, which can then be used directly in other processes. Adding carbon dioxide to hydrogen, for example, yields synthetic methane or liquid fuels, which can be used to replace natural gas or diesel and gasoline, respectively. A key factor in this is electricity from renewable energies, for this is the only way to ensure that the processes are greenhouse gas neutral.
Openness to new technologies for optimum solutions
"It was important to us to find out whether power-to-X can make a relevant contribution to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement," said Hartmut Rauen, VDMA Deputy Executive Director. The mechanical engineering sector is the go-to supplier when it comes to key technologies, in terms of "power" (e.g. wind energy), "X" (as in process engineering) and "A" (as in applications, e.g. mobile machinery). "In today's race to find the best solutions without technological bias, is vital," added Rauen.
Thorsten Herdan, Head of the Energy Policy department of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, also highlights the significance and potential of power-to-X technologies. "Direct electrification using power generated from renewable sources is not conceivable or beneficial in all applications that play a role in our daily lives - just think of high-temperature industrial processes, the shipping industry or air traffic. We are working to create a level playing field for all technology options."
Sector coupling unlocks potential
"Electrical power is used very little in the transportation and building sector, for example for heating or warm water, and in many other industries," said Prof. Dr. Martin Wietschel, coordinator of the Energy Economy business unit at Fraunhofer ISI. Optimizing energy flows across the energy, industry, transport, agriculture and building management sectors harbors considerable potential for more efficient use. This sector coupling includes both direct use of power and indirect use via power-to-X.
Scenarios instead of forecasts
Power-to-X is a promising and flexible option for the use, storage and conversion of power. But there is also a catch to the current debate, as it is very difficult to make predictions about technological progress and the interaction between international players, policymakers and markets over the next decades. This is why the study relies heavily on scenarios instead of forecasts, enabling mechanical engineering companies to prepare for all eventualities. In the first scenario, "Harmony", coordinated international climate policies stimulate the development of technologies that use renewable energies effectively and efficiently, either directly or via power-to-X. In the second scenario, "Diversity", all technological options for achieving the climate goals remain open, but this impedes the development of an optimized approach. In the third scenario, "Copper plate", the focus is on the direct use of electricity, which is insufficient for achieving the climate goals. In the fourth scenario, "Wall", there are no comprehensive global efforts for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While industry focuses on optimizing tried-and-tested energy technologies, policymakers merely grapple with keeping the impact of climate change at bay. All four scenarios highlight opportunities for the mechanical and plant engineering industry, but they also show that companies need to adapt their strategies.
P2X4A - The new VDMA platform
There is no denying that climate protection is a key challenge for society and companies that can only be tackled by pulling together and looking beyond one's own horizon. Power-to-X plays an important part in this. Most of the technologies required have already been developed. Now the focus is on bringing these technologies to market maturity and creating the framework conditions for business cases. The new VDMA "Power-to-X for Applications (P2X4A)" platform was established to foster collaboration between industry and science on implementing these technologies.