Future is green for German flatlands

By Vera Eckert, Reuters

PRENZLAU, Germany — Germany’s solution to a large part of its energy dilemma may lie in a muddy field in desolate, windswept flatlands in the northeast. In an area 75 miles north of Berlin that until now has attracted more birdwatchers than cutting-edge industries, start-up Enertrag AG, with the help of partners Vattenfall, Total and Deutsche Bahn, is operating one of the first plants to generate wind power and convert it into hydrogen.

Politicians and utilities are looking to the new technology’s potential as Germany withdraws from nuclear power and turns to green power to reach 35 percent of its electricity mix by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, from 20 percent today. “My personal wish is that we help create the energy turning point and that wind power-to-hydrogen will take on a leading role. The politicians are very interested in what we are doing here,” Werner Diwald, 46, an Enertrag board member, said. Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan last March, Germany closed eight nuclear reactor blocks in one fell swoop, leaving power grids vulnerable to any gaps in output from less predictable power from wind and sunshine. Hydrogen, among its many advantages, is predictable. It can be contained and transported without any carbon emissions. It can be used to generate power and heat, fuel cars or go into natural gas pipelines as an extra ingredient. “Hydrogen is the only energy source that can safeguard energy supply over long periods,” Diwald said. The Enertrag plant has been online since October after two years of construction at a cost of 21 million euros (US$27.9 million). When the wind blows, its three turbines can generate up to 6 megawatts of power. The power is passed through water and split into oxygen and hydrogen via an electrolyser, which is housed in a supersized garage and then stored in five tanks. The plant can convert up to 0.5 MW into hydrogen, producing 12 kg per hour or enough to power a hydrogen car for 1,200 km. This technology turns wind into a source of baseload power, the industry’s word for 24-hour supply.