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Thermal power plants generate power when the sun and wind do not supply enough energy.

Thermal power plants

With the energy transition, Germany is bidding farewell to nuclear and fossil fuels for heat and power generation. Instead, renewable energies such as wind or sun are to be used. At the beginning of July 2020, the Federal Government passed the Coal Phase-out Act for this purpose. This established further binding steps in the transformation of the energy system. The central target: No coal is to be used for power generation by 2038 at the latest.

The governing coalition of the SPD, Greens and FDP set this goal even more ambitiously in its coalition agreement in December 2021. It states: "In order to meet the climate protection targets, it is also necessary to accelerate the phase-out of coal-fired power generation. Ideally, this should be achieved by 2030."

Change in research priorities due to energy transition and coal phase-out

The political course has also changed the research priorities for thermal power plants. While they were in continuous operation just a few years ago, in times of the energy transition they provide on-demand support when photovoltaic and wind energy plants supply less power due to weather conditions. The associated frequent starts and transitions to partial load operation pose new challenges to the plants. Scientific teams are therefore developing plant concepts and operating processes adapted to these requirements. The materials used must also be optimised, as the components are exposed to frequent thermal changes of several hundred degrees.  In addition, the capture, storage and utilization of climate-damaging carbon dioxide has moved into the research spotlight. Contributions on the CO2-cycle economy can be found on the Industry Energy Research Portal.

2022: around 72 million euros for power plant research

Thermal power plants thus continue to play a decisive role in the restructuring of the energy system. The German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK) therefore supports various research activities in this field. Specifically: In 2022, the ministry funded a total of 356 ongoing projects with around 30,7 million euros. In the same year, the BMWK also approved 86 new research projects with incentives and grants totalling around 41,7 million.

Focus on alternative fuels

The existing large-scale power plants are also expected to play an important role in the green energy system of the future. The 7th Energy Research Programme focuses on funding research projects that use alternative fuels and fuel mixtures such as biomass or waste instead of coal in power plant operation. Components and the entire system must be adapted to this. New materials for individual components are just as much in demand as changed operating processes. Additionally, gas and steam turbines must be optimised and further developed for combined operation in gas and steam power plants or in combined heat and power plants.

If more power is generated than directly required, this can go into intermediate storage. Storage tanks integrated into the power plant operation can help to make the operating process more flexible. Innovative software systems are needed to network these and other power plant sections.

Research on solar thermal and geothermal power plants for export

Solar thermal power plants use concentrated solar energy as a heat source. In Germany they only exist as demonstration installations because of the low direct solar irradiation. However, climate protection and the associated restructuring of energy systems are global challenges. In sunny regions of the world, such as Spain and Morocco, power is generated from solar energy. There is a lot of technology "made in Germany" in these plants. Whether turbines, heliostats, pumps or storage media: German companies and research institutions are world leaders in many areas of solar thermal technology and export their products with the corresponding success.

Geothermal power plants in turn use the energy from the Earth's core to generate power or heat. The big advantage over wind and solar energy: Geothermal energy is available around the clock and can be used not only to generate power, but also directly as a heat source for households and industrial enterprises.