SolarFuel pioneers Power to Gas technology and new multi-billion Euro market

Yesterday I joined the Power to Gas (P2G) conference organised by Bundesnetzagentur and Fraunhofer IWES. It was a fantastic event, I learned a lot and a couple of things are clear to me now. The German startup SolarFuel is the global Power to Gas first mover. In fact, SolarFuel is capable of providing an integrated P2G solution and insanely well positioned to conquer the new multi-billion Euro market of storing renewable energy as renewable methane (synthetic natural gas) and coupling the electricity and gas networks to create the smart green super grid.

SolarFuel uses technology and know-how from Germany’s smart green research institutes ZSW (Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg) and Fraunhofer IWES (Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology). The P2G pathfinder is backed by 2 awesome strategic investors – juwi and MT Energie – and has a visionary automotive customer – Audi.

Audi plans to offer CO2 neutral mobility by investing in four 3.6 MW offshore wind turbines and buying a 6.3 MW P2G factory from SolarFuel in a 2-digit million Euro deal. SolarFuel’s Power to Gas factory will be operated by EWE and go online in 2013 by the time the new A3 TCNG car powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) hits the market. Audi’s end-to-end plan for balanced mobility is to produce the same amount of gas used by the Audi cars with wind energy that is converted to renewable gas (e-gas) and fed into the gas network.

This small but powerful ecosystem already proves that Germany is a global leader in Power to Gas technology and will not only be able to create a huge national market but also export it to help other nations use P2G to accelerate the transformation to 100% renewable energy. To support this wonderful potential for faster energy autonomy, governments should create feed-in tariffs for renewable gas made at home and minimise gas imports – the Nord Stream pipeline wasn’t my idea.

SolarFuel Power to Gas Infographic

The cooperation between Fraunhofer IWES, ZSW and SolarFuel was already announced in May 2010. The motivation for developing the P2G technology is driven by the volatility of wind and solar – the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine – and the resulting need for huge long-term energy storage. The potential storage capacity of Germany’s gas network could power Germany for several months.

Unfortunately, today’s electricity grids don’t have enough capacity to carry all renewable energy during strong wind and bright sunshine. The result is that quite often wind and solar parks have to be switched off as the grid is overloaded. What an incredible waste of energy. It’s smarter to use the green electricity for electrolysis, splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, followed by methanation, combining carbon dioxide and hydrogen into methane. The methanation can either use a chemical process (Sabatier process) or, as Greenthitan Founder Alexander Krajete showed at ECO11, a biological process feeding CO2 and hydrogen to methane-producing microbacteria called Archaea.

The renewable gas made in Germany can be stored and transported in the massive gas network and its distributed gas tanks. If needed, the gas can be burned on-demand in gas-fired power plants, in CNG cars or households. The efficiency of P2G is 60% and 35-40% if you convert power to gas to power (P2G2P). This loss during energy conversion is compensated by the planet friendly advantages of long-term power storage, the ability to produce gas from renewable sources wherever you want, e.g. made in Germany, and the flexibility of transporting energy on power and gas grids. Plus, gas is a lot more climate friendly than coal.

Of course, P2G is a brand new technology that is very complex and still rather expensive. But during the next 10 to 20 years we can make it affordable and bring it to the mass market by riding down the cost curves. I am convinced that Power to Gas will be a huge playground for risk taking startups and VCs and I encourage you to get into the game. Prof. Dr. Jürgen Schmid, Director of Fraunhofer IWES, will speak at ECO12 and we are already working on getting more of the above-mentioned pioneers to join our Power to Gas session at Ecosummit 2012.

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