When the grid says 'no' to wind and solar power, this company's technology helps it say 'yes' again

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. German can be a confusing language, but here's a word that isn't too hard: energiewende. Energy is the first part, and the second part, wende, that's a word that suggests a transition. In the case of Germany, that's a big transition, from fossil fuels and nuclear power to mostly renewables. Energiewende. It's happening now, but it will take decades to reach that goal. In terms of how much energy Germans get from solar and wind power, they're already way ahead of most countries. But that also means they're dealing with problems that the rest of us don't know about yet. The World's Environment Editor Peter Thomson traveled to Germany recently. And Peter, one of these problems is actually pretty surprising.


Peter Thomson: Yeah. Too much renewable power. Too much power. At least too much for the electricity grid to handle without a lot of juggling. In some ways, of course, it's a good problem to have, but it's still a problem, and it's a really complicated one and they're still only in the really early stages of dealing with it. I visited with some folks there who are working on one approach to the problem, but just to get everyone oriented, I wanted to start a little closer to home.


Werman: Yeah, you're talking really close at home, right?


Thomson: Yeah. Just down the street from my house here in Boston, on the roof of a building my wife used to live in that she still owns. It's got a flat roof, gets lots of sun, and a couple years ago she did what thousands of other Americans have started doing.


Edith Buhs: I put up these solar panels. There's 28 of them.


Thomson: That's my wife, Edith Buhs.


Buhs: I think they cover about half the building's use for the three apartments. But the way the system's set up, most of the electricity actually goes out to the grid first. So these panels basically feed the grid.


Thomson: That's a standard setup that works pretty well for just about everybody, at least for now. Edith saves about half her electricity costs for the building. The environment gets a little break, because this is nearly pollution-free electricity. And the electric grid doesn't mine because, well, an electron is an electron.


Werman: And I imagine, Peter, the grid doesn't care how they get produced.


Thomson: Right. The grid doesn't care, until it does. And here's where things start to get dicey for renewables, and it's where we jump over to Germany where, as you said earlier, solar and wind are coming on strong, and where, it turns out now...


Clements Triebel: They are two systems fighting against each other.


Thomson: The old system of big fossil and nuclear plants is fighting against the new system of renewables, and it's actually putting something of a brake on the whole energy transition. It's a problem in Germany, it's going to be more of a problem in the US. And this guy's trying to help fix it.


Triebel: My name is Clements Triebel, CTO of Younicos.


Thomson: Clements Triebel is a 56-year-old engineer and lifelong renewable energy geek in Berlin. And he says very few people saw the problem coming because, until recently, renewables were such a small part of the system.


Triebel: As long as you have below 10% wind and solar, nobody notices that you will become any problem in the grid.


Thomson: The grid was built for that old system, a few big, predictable sources of electricity. Renewable sources? Well, they're relatively unpredictable. They come and go on Nature's rhythms, not humans'. Triebel says more than a bit of this intermittent stuff can cause real problems on the grid. Worst case, even a blackout. So to keep the grid stable, Germany's had to slow down the introduction of some renewable sources, and Triebel says sometimes it even has to shut some wind and solar generators down.


Triebel: And this is a very, very, yes, stupid situation. But you can imagine if people knowing more about this situation, say running crazy, says it's not what we want.


Thomson: What more Germans do want is more renewable energy and less fossil and nuclear. They don't want the old stuff essentially squeezing out the new. So enter Clements Triebel and his company, Younicos. Although having spent most of my time for this story just telling you about the problem, I haven't left myself a lot of time to tell you about Clement Triebel's proposed part of the solution. But that's actually a good thing, because if I really had time to go into it in any detail, it would make your brain hurt. Triebel took about an hour to explain it to me. He drew me graphs and diagrams.


Triebel: This is 50 hertz.


Thomson: That's him drawing there.


Triebel: This is last 50% minus 50%.


Thomson: He told me about frequency control and peak shaving and the inertia of rotating masses and intelligent loop controls. But here's the bottom line. Younicos's work involves massive banks of batteries and software and algorithms all combined in a system that can suck up excess renewable power when it isn't needed, store it, and push it back out again when it is needed, and switch back and forth almost instantaneously to keep the grid stable and keep the lights on.


Triebel: And now you can imagine that it is becoming easier to absorb more of the renewables.


Thomson: And to phase out more fossil and nuclear plants. Now until recently, all of this was hypothetical. Younicos was experimenting with its technology in this huge glass and concrete box in Berlin, and a few other pilot projects. But last year it went real-world for the first time with a commercial project in a small city in Germany. It was the biggest battery power plant in Europe. The company has since collaborated on an even bigger project in the UK. It's just a start. Eventually, Clements Triebel says, we'll need to develop a massive storage infrastructure, and there are lots of promising technologies.


Triebel: You have thousands of different types. You can make research right now because you have time for the next 20 years. But...


Thomson: We've got to get started, he says, if we're really serious about making the switch to renewable energy.


Werman: The World's Peter Thomson. Well Peter, who knew the switch to renewables was going to be so darned complicated? So what does this mean for us in the US? I mean like you said, we're way behind Germany in the proportion of our energy we get from sun and wind, but it is growing fast, right?


Thomson: Well, we're going to run into the same problem as the proportion of these intermittent sources like wind and solar grows, so we'll have to confront it as well. In a few places like California they're already beginning to. But, of course, technology knows no boundaries, so Germany's head start may well help us out as well.


Werman: We'll see. So, one more story coming up tomorrow, right?


Thomson: Yeah, it's about storing wind power in the form of hydrogen, and using that hydrogen to drive cars.


Werman: Again, The World's Environment Editor Peter Thomson, thank you.


Thomson: Thanks, Marco.


Werman: Peter's reports from Germany were produced with support from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.