Marie Münster, DTU Management. Foto: DTU

Power-to-X: Smart collaboration across sectors and local public support can make us world leaders

Energy Energy efficiency Energy production Energy systems Mathematical modelling

Marie Münster, Professor of Energy System Modelling, to Energy Supply:  If Denmark is to become a leader in the production of green fuels, we must break down silos and work across sectors and specializations while ensuring that there’s local support for clean energy in Denmark.

Solar and wind power can be converted to green fuels for heavy transport. This technology, also known as Power-to-X, has the potential to help solve the climate challenges and at the same time become a new green export adventure for Denmark, provided we get off to a fast start and develop some effective technological solutions.

However, it’s not enough for us to invent new solutions; they must also be implemented in the infrastructure and throughout the value chain in our energy system. In addition, the solutions must both be competitive and accepted by the general public. This may sound like an almost impossible task, but there’s no getting around it if we’re to become carbon neutral by 2050 and at the same time find new export opportunities. And we can and must do this.

Although it can be difficult to compete with the prices of Power-to-X fuels produced from solar power in Southern Europe, or from blue hydrogen, in Denmark we have several advantages when it comes to getting ahead in the Power-to-X race. First of all, we have plenty of renewable energy in the form of solar power and especially wind power from the North Sea, which we can use to power society. In fact, we have so much wind that we can’t currently use it all ourselves. And even though our electricity grid is connected to other countries, it can sometimes even cost money to let the turbines run in windy weather, as the price of power depends on supply and demand. Therefore, there’s good reason to find ways to store the power, and Power-to-X with flexible power consumption plays a role in this.  However, Power-to-X technologies should not primarily be used to create flexibility, as other technologies can also do this. They should mainly contribute to the production of green fuels for heavy transport without excessive use of biomass.

We can use the green power to produce fuels such as hydrogen, ammonia, biomethane, or methanol, which can be used in engines—the so-called electrofuels. Power-to-X is necessary in those sectors that can’t be easily electrified, such as heavy industry and transport by ships, lorries, and aircraft.

Need for more green power
However, to meet our own need for green power for society and consumption of new electrofuel products for transport—and perhaps even to export them—we need to increase our production of clean energy. In fact, we probably need to double or triple the production. And it would be naïve to think that Power-to-X technologies can be produced solely based on ‘surplus power’. A flexible, digital, and competitive energy system must therefore be developed, and this will require new infrastructure and new renewable energy plants in Denmark.

Without a well-developed energy infrastructure, it will be difficult to create efficient and competitive solutions. Our analyses at DTU Management show that, to avoid being dependent on importing biomass or biofuels in the future, and to ensure that our international transport by ships and aircraft uses renewable energy, Denmark must continue to invest in Power-to-X projects and infrastructure in order to meet a need of around 100-150 PJ by 2050.

The energy system must be linked up
Fortunately, Denmark also has the advantage that we already have a well-developed district heating sector, where surplus heat from fuel production could potentially deliver up to 20 per cent of the future district heating production, depending on technology choices and local implementation. In addition, we have a gas system that can be used to store methane and eventually hydrogen. Finally, we have access to national, sustainable carbon resources from biomass that can be combined with hydrogen to produce green e-biofuels as well. We need to take advantage of all this and find out how the Power-to-X technologies can be linked to the energy system as a whole. We need to develop smart, coordinated solutions for system architecture, data, digitalization, and automation, so that the best synergy with the rest of the energy system can be built up from the start. We need to be ready for new value chains with fluctuating green electricity generation, hydrogen, Power-to-X technologies, and green fuels, and we must ensure good certification so that the green value can be traded.

This requires us to build more new plants that we can test and scale up before we can conquer new markets. And although our analyses at DTU Management indicate that Power-to-X will only become truly topical and competitive on a large scale leading up to 2050, it’s crucial that we maintain a strong focus on research and collaboration in the field so we can export solutions in the long term. The smart technological solutions require us to collaborate across sectors and break down silos within electricity, gas, and heat in the energy industry. Similarly, cooperation with purchasers in transport, agriculture, and heavy industry may be key.

Local public support needed
However, it’s not only in the energy sector that silos need to be broken down. To be a leader, we also need to include the public. Not everyone is keen to have new solar cells, wind turbines, or electricity poles in their local area. So it’s essential that we continue to involve local residents when we look for locations for new plants. Public support can be key when it comes to the speed of implementation, costs, and success of Power-to-X and clean energy. It’s important that Danes can see the purpose of building new plants, wind turbines, and infrastructure around the country. Therefore, we shouldn’t just focus on exports when we discuss Power-to-X, but also involve the Danish public and ensure that they also benefit from the local solutions.

Well thought-out and accepted solutions require collaboration across professional groups, and therefore energy researchers, economists, sociologists, architects, etc. must also be involved. Adapting our society to the green transition is a shared and cross-sector task.

Test solutions on the home market
We’re already used to collaborations across universities, sectors, authorities, industry, and investors. And this may well be crucial, because the solutions that will make Denmark climate neutral and which we would like to sell to the rest of the world must be tested, accepted, and work well in our home market first.

And we’re already well on the way to doing that. An example is Ørsted’s hydrogen project at Avedøre power plant, where the energy company wants to convert wind power into green fuel for buses. Another example is CIP’s Power-to-X plant in Esbjerg. This plant will produce ammonia for fertilizers and fuel using wind power from the North Sea, and companies such as DLG, Arla, Danish Crown, Maersk, and DFDS will help distribute the green ammonia to agriculture and, in the longer term, to the shipping sector. The surplus heat will be used in the local district heating network.  If the plant in Esbjerg could also sell the oxygen left over from the production of the ammonia, it would contribute to an even more cost-effective solution.

Denmark is well on its way—now we must stay the course and ensure continued interdisciplinary cooperation, data sharing, and support for such projects, so we can achieve the climate goals and export our technology, products, and know-how.