Renewable energy gains ground
Researchers at the event in Germany talk about challenges and identify alternatives for the transition from oil and coal to sustainable sources
By Heitor Shimizu, in Munich
Agência FAPESP – Researchers from Germany and Brazil met October 17 in a panel during FAPESP Week Germany to present and discuss challenges, solutions and opportunities for renewable and sustainable sources of energy.
“We live in a time of tremendous growth all over the world, speaking in economic terms as well as in terms of population, but we are not seeing a corresponding growth in the use of renewable sources of energy. The energy source that is growing the most is coal, which says a lot about the situation we are currently experiencing,” said Thomas Hamacher, professor at the Technical University of Munich, who served as panel moderator as well as one of its speakers.
“In recent years, fossil fuel emissions have increased more than we thought they would. If we look at the scenarios produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the early 1990s, we see that today we find ourselves in the worst-case scenario estimated at that time,” Hamacher said.
“Energy is a very important subject in the current political landscape and these are issues that need to be addressed. We need to find solutions and they have to be global rather than individual solutions. We do not have a answer yet, but certainly one path forward would be in working more with renewable sources of energy,” he said.
Hamacher pointed out how important the issue of what is known as “energiewende” (“energy transition”) is for Germany, which is seeking to replace coal and oil derivatives with renewable sources.
In Brazil, a country considered exemplary in the use of renewable energies, mainly due to electricity generation through hydroelectrical plants and to its widespread use of ethanol as fuel in vehicles, there has been extensive research in the area.
One example is the FAPESP Bioenergy Research Program (BIOEN), which was presented during the panel at the Deutsches Museum in Munich by one of the members of its leadership team, Marie-Anne van Sluys, professor at the Biosciences Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP).
Launched in 2008, the BIOEN program promotes and coordinates research and development activities, using academic and corporate laboratories to promote the advance of knowledge and its application in areas related to bioenergy production in Brazil.
“Because the program encompasses a broad range of activities, it was established with five divisions, which are each quite different from one other,” Van Sluys said. The BIOEN divisions target research in biomass for bioenergy, biofuel manufacturing processes, biorefineries and alcohol chemistry, ethanol applications in automotive engines, and socioeconomic, environmental and land use impacts.
“The BIOEN program focuses as much on basic knowledge as it does on generating new technologies and there has been considerable participation in the program. There have already been 136 research grants awarded under the program and these have involved more than 400 researchers in Brazil and collaborators in 15 countries including Germany,” Van Sluys said.
She pointed out that BIOEN has led to the establishment of the São Paulo Bioenergy Research Center, the Integrated Graduate Program in Bioenergy (which is a joint effort by the three state universities in São Paulo) and research partnerships with companies and institutions from a variety of countries.
BIOEN has also resulted in 15 research projects funded by the FAPESP Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (PIPE) and in 12 projects under the Foundation’s Research Partnership for Technological Innovation Program (PITE).
Van Sluys talked about the importance of making sugarcane an even more significant component in the Brazilian energy matrix. Because of this, researchers associated with BIOEN have studied alternatives that are allowing them to increase sugarcane efficiency in energy production.
The group led by Van Sluys at USP, for example, is part in an international consortium of researchers working on sequencing and analyzing the sugarcane genome, and the group recently published a wide and diverse set of genome sequences of the plant.
An alternative that Germany considers important for “energiewende” is the use of solar energy. Roland Zink, professor at the Deggendorf Institute of Technology, talked about the research his group is conducting with regard to the use of photovoltaic energy in Bavaria.
“The installation of photovoltaic panels, subsidized by the government since 2000, is experiencing strong growth in Germany. Many systems have been installed on rooftops and we have seen implementation of large-scale plants for electricity generation,” Zink said.
“Rural areas, such as those in southeastern Bavaria, have realized the potential for renewable sources as an opportunity for economic development,” the researcher said.
According to him, this type of race towards the use of photovoltaic energy has caused the region to experience problems that are both technical and social, however. One significant technical problem stems from the unplanned installation of systems, which involve factors such as selecting less desirable sites in terms of space and economics.
The most important social problem, explained Zink, is related to the large-sized stations that are further reducing the already scarce growing areas and thus worrying farmers.
The panel on energy at FAPESP Week Germany also included presentations from professors Jürgen Karl (University of Erlangen-Nuremberg), Gilberto De Martino Jannuzzi (School of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Campinas) and Denis Coury (São Carlos School of Engineering at the University of São Paulo).
Karl talked about renewable fuels and storage alternatives. According to him, the use of renewable sources of energy has increased in Germany, where it currently accounts for more than 30% of the country’s energy production and is successfully replacing nuclear and natural gas sources, mainly imported from Russia.
“As the use of renewable sources of energy increases, we will need larger capacities that allow us to store solar or wind energy, not just for a few hours, but for days and weeks,” he said.
Jannuzzi, who is also a member of the Area Panel of the FAPESP Research Program on Global Climate Change (RPGCC), talked about flexibilization of the Brazilian energy system through the use of new technologies and increased energy efficiency.
According to Jannuzzi, energy demand in Brazil has grown more quickly than the gross domestic product (GDP): from 2012 to 2013, demand for energy increased 4.5%, compared to the 2.3% increase seen in the GDP during the same period. The energy sector, historically dependent on hydroelectric power generation, has changed in recent years due to the increased use of other sources such as thermoelectric.
Coury, who heads up the FAPESP-funded thematic project, “Technological development for protection, analysis, supervision and automation of electrical power systems of the future,” talked about the research studies his group is working on using “smart grids.”
“Smart grids” are automated distribution networks based on artificial intelligence and information technology. By offering two-way communication between parties, they allow for optimization of electrical energy use.
With “smart grids,” a washing machine, for example, could be programmed to operate only when it receives information that at that moment, the system’s energy demand has fallen below a particular level. Or the price for energy in a consumer’s home may be increased or decreased according to spikes in usage.