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Dr Johannes Tambornino is Head of Energy Strategies and System Analysis at Project Management Jülich.
© Tambornino
BINE interview on system analysis in energy research

The funding for system analysis increased by approximately 6 million euros from 2012 to 2016.
© BMWi, Bundesbericht Energieforschung 2017

“The energy system of today is much more complex than in the past”

Preparations are currently under way for a new energy research programme, which the German Federal Government intends to publish in the coming legislative period. In preparation, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy has started a discussion process between representatives from industry, science and politics in order to identify relevant fields of research. In this interview Dr Johannes Tambornino, Head of Energy Strategies and System Analysis at Project Management Jülich speaks about the growing importance of system analysis for energy research.

BINE Information Service: Why does energy research today need a focus that addresses strategies and the holistic analysis of the energy system? What is different to before?

Dr Johannes Tambornino: System analysis as a whole is not a new area of research. For several decades, it has investigated possible development paths of the energy system. However, this system has become much more complex in recent years. The trend is heading towards decentralised structures in the generation and also the fluctuating feed-in of renewable energies. The player landscape has become more diverse on the part of both producers and consumers. Furthermore, the reduced use of large-scale power stations powered by fossil fuels means that the interlinking of the heat and electricity sectors, as well as the transport sector in the future, has to be put on a different basis. Sound scientific methods are needed in order to maintain a better overview of possible developments in the new more complex system and to have a reliable energy system. And these methods are developed in the support initiative for system analysis from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.


In a project focussing on system analysis, on the one hand recommendations for action for energy research policy are developed while on the other the market potential of individual technologies is assessed. How are the results used?

Tambornino: Diverse technological innovations are needed to achieve the goals of the energy transition. Therefore, the focus of research and development must be constantly adapted and monitored by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. In this respect, the ministry has also established a very broad dialogue process with representatives from industry, science and politics for the new energy research programme. The “Trends and perspectives in energy research” programme that you just mentioned is part of this dialogue process. This project includes a technology questionnaire. Its objective is to collect feedback on a very broad scale from experts in the energy research network and to find out the market potential and the research needs in regard to the different energy technologies. The results will also be incorporated in the further work for the new energy research programme.


Have there been any results already?

Tambornino: Unfortunately, I can’t name any specific results yet because the dialogue process is still ongoing. This process is much more than the questionnaire and discussions have also been launched in the individual research networks. However, an example of an increasingly important aspect is certainly the interlinking of different sectors, e.g. heat, transport and electricity.


I like to term it “sector linking”. Put simply, excess electricity from renewable energy should be used to reduce fossil fuel usage in other sectors. Can you give an example?

Tambornino: For example, electricity can be converted into methane by electrolysis and the Fischer-Tropsch process. This methane can be fed into the natural gas network and then used in the heating sector. Another option is the use of hydrogen in the mobility sector, for example. In the future, fuel cell vehicles may play a part in some transport segments. They use hydrogen as fuel. The excess electricity from renewable energy could, for example, be used to produce hydrogen as an environmentally friendly fuel. For instance, this option has been researched in the inter-departmental “Energy Storage” funding initiative from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The opportunities to implement a hydrogen infrastructure in Germany are being tested in the “National Innovation Programme for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology” run by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy and the German Federal Ministry of Transport. Recently, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy also published a funding announcement for the “Energy transition in transport”.


How important is the increasing digitisation for interlinking sectors?

Tambornino: The subject of digitisation is becoming increasingly important in a energy system that is more connected. That is simply because there are a lot more electricity generation systems in the power grid, which of course must in some way be rationally combined and interlinked with each other. In this regard, technical developments are necessary, for example, in the distribution network field. However, these aspects are also extremely important in the context of system analysis. For example, the described developments can be depicted in system-analytic models. At the same time, the tendency is increasingly heading towards open source development in the case of simulation and modelling in the context of system analysis. That means there are open program codes or even usable databases that are accessible for everyone. In this way, it is ensured that the tools subsidised by public funds are also generally available. The disclosure of the program codes and methods make for a high degree of transparency and comprehensibility of the forecasts using models.


One example is the project entitled “open_FRED”.

Tambornino: In the “open_FRED” project, an open database for feed-in time series of the fluctuating renewable energies is in development. It is being developed on an open source basis. In turn, this database can be used for forecasting in the context of other energy system models. That is a great added value for the whole research community.


Staying on the topic of information and communication technologies, what chances and also risks arise from the increasing importance of this field?

Tambornino: A huge advantage of the increased interconnectedness of the energy system is surely that by sensibly controlling many different systems the necessary flexibility in the energy system is present, for example, to reduce the demand for energy storage systems. If different systems are intelligently connected with each other and the consumers are also controlled in the way that the fluctuating producers possibly require then it leads to a reduction in the demand for energy storage systems. The process is called demand side management. Of course, we can see a risk in terms of security. If you are more connected, then you have to consider secure exchange protocols, for example. Data security is a very topical research subject that is addressed in the “Electricity Grids” support initiative from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.


Change of perspective: Meanwhile, in addition to technology development topics of social science, such as user behaviour and acceptance research, are also important. Why is that the case and how does it affect the technological developments?

Tambornino: Traditionally, the majority of energy system models are set up in such a way that they minimise the economic costs. Therefore, the technology that is associated with the lowest total costs is used. It can be seen in the example of the green electricity providers that this assumption is not always correct because many people chose such a provider although their electricity prices are higher. That means criteria such as attitude, opinion and desire are not considered in a pure cost minimisation model. However, they are very important in order to be able to adequately describe future developments in the energy system. Modelling such “soft” factors is expensive because they are hard to capture. All in all, it is an important research topic in energy system analysis.


Where can social science research still also be relevant?

Tambornino: There is a trend towards a decentralised energy system in which the line between consumer and producer is blurred. Also in this regard, factors of social science are important. For example, the person who uses the electricity may also be the same person who has a PV system on the roof. It is important to map the user behaviour of such a person in a model.


What do you personally think is particularly exciting about system analysis?

Tambornino: The great variety of research topics in energy system analysis fascinates me. The subject area is very interdisciplinary. From engineering research and energy economics to the aforementioned fields of research in social science, there are very many different disciplines. And we are right at the heart of it because of the multitude of projects that we are looking after as project managers.



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In interview

Dr Johannes Tambornino holds a PhD in physics and has a background in mathematical physics. He is the Head of Energy Strategies and System Analysis at Project Management Jülich and among other things he is responsible for the system analysis support initiative from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. As well as the project funding, the department’s portfolio also covers a broad range of topics throughout the energy sector’s innovation chain, e.g. evaluation of subsidy measures, statistical evaluations and strategy processes.

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