“An energy future built on renewable energy sources is in sight.”

A conversation with Professor Gerd Heilscher

Professor Heilscher, you first studied electrical engineering with a focus on communication engineering. However, you also have a Master of Science in renewable energy. Do you think it was a visionary understanding of the future that pointed you towards this key issue?

During my university days in Munich, I was already grappling with visions of how to engineer the decentralized supply of energy. However, that wasn’t in the classroom, but in the Protestant student association, where I led a working group that focused on renewable energy. Even back then we were looking at solar electricity and electromobility.

By the time I arrived at the university in Oldenburg, all of these visions were suddenly solid science. We are still building on this scientific foundation today. Many topics that people were already looking at in detail back then have only now become relevant – in that sense, solid, visionary science. The research field of energy meteorology was established in Oldenburg at that time.

You are concerned with photovoltaics and the energy industry at your Steinbeis Transfer Center, and smart grids are one area of focus. Could you please give us an overview of this approach?

The continuously growing number of local renewable energy sources necessitates a fundamental change in the energy industry. Millions of small power stations feed electricity into the grid, but the amounts vary in accordance with the weather and based on their own demand and load. Constantly maintaining a balance between power requirements and the amount of electricity fed into the grid (load balancing) is routine in the energy industry. But up until now it has relied on a handful of large power plants, and load requirements could be reliably calculated by measuring the large industrial operations and the standard load profi le of residential and commercial customers.

However, the direct usage of solar power by households and businesses has changed this static load profi le, which was based on past experience, and led to an increased uncertainty in forecasting load. This leads in turn to an increased need for reserve energy to maintain the balance between feed-in and load.

At the same time, feeding electricity into the grids – low voltage grids in particular – from local renewable energy sources has led to new challenges for the planning and operation of such grids. Due to the increase in local energy feed-in, what previously functioned with basic network planning and without the need for measurement now has to be re-examined in the planning stage and continuously measured and monitored during operation.

We have introduced a flood warning system for rivers that monitors precipitation and water levels. For the electrical grid, we need new planning approaches in the low-voltage area and more information from the operations – which leads us to smart grids.

The Steinbeis Transfer Center for Local Renewable Energy Systems helps grid operators perform network analysis, in particular with regard to the challenges associated with further growth in local energy feed-in.

Among other things, your Steinbeis Enterprise is also examining the impacts of such local feed-in on the distribution network. Critics say that these energy inputs could lead to voltage fl uctuation problems. What has your experience been here?

That is basically correct – feeding in electricity leads to an increase in voltage. However, if and when this will cause problems can be reliably determined in advance by applying new planning approaches. Building on this, technically effective and economically efficient grid expansion measures are then developed. Step by step, this is how the current network will be refashioned into a smart grid which can keep pace with demand and can also accommodate the voltage fed in by local solar energy sources.

You are also involved with the topic of energy meteorology, a relatively new research field that bridges renewable energy and atmospheric physics. What led to the development of this field of research, and what are the objectives of this discipline?

When I leave the house in the morning and the weather forecast has predicted rain, I take an umbrella. The weather forecast for the energy industry has to be much more precise. How intense will the sunlight be at 2:00 p.m., at 2:15, at 2:30? That is a completely new pattern for meteorology, and a new challenge for the future of weather forecasting. Meteorologists, the energy industry and experts in renewable energy systems must learn to understand each other and develop a common language.

Things got off to a bumpy start but, at present, I see a lot of progress. Meteorologists are finding new jobs in the energy industry. And energy meteorology has also become an established field at meteorological conventions. Above all, promising progress has been made in forecasting solar irradiation and wind speed – on the European level by ECMWF (European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts) and on the national level by the German weather service’s EWeLiNE project (Erstellung innovativer Wetter und Leistungsprognose-Modelle für die Netzintegration wetterabhängiger Energieerträge).

Until now the focus has been on the uncertainty of solar and wind forecasting. Right now in Ulm, we are looking at weather situations with different types of clouds and how they affect the operation of electricity grids. This generates direct dialogue between meteorologists and the energy industry, with the results leading to the reliable operation of grids that include a high percentage of solar and wind power stations.

We also associate meteorology with delivering prognoses. What is your forecast for our “energy future”? What positive and negative developments can we reckon with?

We are starting to see the success of the liberalization of the energy industry. Grid operators increasingly see themselves as service providers for new customers who don’t just purchase electricity, but at times also supply it. The operators are also investing in start-ups that are driving innovation in the field of solar and wind forecasting. For the first five years, my professorship in energy data management for local renewable energy systems was also funded by the regional power company. Here we can see a move towards an energy future built on renewable energy sources.

The green energy revolution – I like to call it the energy system transformation – will also have its losers, as we can see in the current drop in profitability among large energy providers as well as municipal utilities. At the heart of a transformation is a move away from a stable state – a time of chaos which then creates a new, (more) stable state. During this time, it is important not to lose sight of the final objective, even when, as often happens, you get blown off course.

The caterpillar will become a butterfly, but the caterpillar probably doesn’t know it yet. In terms of our current situation, this means that people who focus exclusively on the high fees – which are a component of electricity prices under Germany’s Renewable Energy Act (EEG, Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz) – are behaving recklessly in my opinion. The transformation of the energy system, which is being financed by the EEG fees, is already resulting in an energy system that is environmentally sound as well as competitive, reliable and independent in the long term. That is the objective that we mustn’t lose sight of, even when we experience setbacks now and in the future.


Professor Gerd Heilscher heads up the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Local Renewable Energy Systems at Ulm University of Applied Sciences. The services offered by the center include consulting on project management for solar power equipment, yield assessments, and consulting on the development and introduction of products and services in the fields of smart grids, smart meters and smart homes.

Professor Gerd Heilscher
Steinbeis Transfer Center for Local Renewable Energy Systems (Ulm)
SU1513@stw.de | www.steinbeis.de/su/1513

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