April 7, 2016

40 years of DLR energy research: How renewable energy came out of the niche

This year, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) is celebrating 40 years of energy research and reflects on the very first days with the the protagonists. Gerd Eisenbeiß is one of them. He was the Programme Director for Energy and Transport Research at DLR and later the Director for Energy and Materials Research at the Jülich Research Center. Eisenbeiß studied physics and earned a doctorate from the University of Karlsruhe. In 1973, he worked in the former German capital, Bonn, first as adviser in the Federal Chancellor's Office and later at the Federal Ministry of Research. There, he was responsible for energy technology, energy policy, and information technology. He was also responsible for European cooperation on research matters in various EU bodies in Brussels. Eisenbeiß was repeatedly spokesman for the Solar Energy Research Network (FVS). In 1996, he was honoured by the German Association for Solar Energy with the DGS Solar Prize.

Science journalist Tim Schröder speaks with Gerd Eisenbeiß about the beginnings of energy research at DLR and in Germany.

Dr Eisenbeiß, before coming to DLR in 1990 you worked in the field of research policy for 17 years. You witnessed the development of energy policy and research in Germany and Europe and partly shaped it. What was the energy world like at that time?

When I came to the Federal Chancellery as a consultant for research in 1973, Willy Brandt was Chancellor. The research agenda of the social-democrat government had only three focal points: data processing, nuclear power and aerospace. Nuclear energy was considered to be the solution to the growing demand for energy in the future. Renewable energies were almost non-existent.

But then, in the autumn of 1973, the oil crisis occurred – and the world suddenly looked very different...

That's correct. The oil crisis led to humanity being confronted with the finite nature of fossil fuels. Suddenly, topics such as the efficient use of energy and alternative energy sources such as the Sun and wind were on the agenda. From that position, DLR, then still the DFVLR (German Test and Research Institute for Aviation and Space Flight) was able to play a part in the development of these alternative technologies. The knowledge acquired from the development of helicopter rotors could be directly transferred to wind turbine blades. The expertise from the development of engines could in turn be used for basic combustion research and the optimisation of power plants. At that time, the DFVLR developed outstanding diagnostic techniques for looking inside flames. That was pretty much unique.

But there was still a long way to go before renewable energies could establish themselves.

Of course, but the research picked up speed. On the initiative of the then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the International Energy Agency was founded in Paris as a counterweight to OPEC, an important platform for cooperation in energy technology that still exists today. The IEA then launched an international cooperation project in Almería, in southern Spain, to build the first solar power plant – a plant in which using solar energy, steam is generated, which in turn drives a turbine. This was a completely new technology at that time. The DFVLR took over the technical management but, like all the others, had to build up its expertise first. At that time, as Head of Unit in the Research Ministry, I campaigned for financial support for the major international project in Almería. In addition to this, there was hydrogen research. Here, the DFVLR was able to contribute with its knowledge of rocket engines.

In 1982, the CDU won the Bundestag election with Helmut Kohl. You remained in research policy, were active in EU bodies and later closely cooperated with Research Minister Heinz Riesenhuber. How did energy policy develop further?

Research into solar and wind energy continued to progress. Hydrogen research was finally established at the DFVLR. The German Federal Ministry for Research promoted the idea of producing hydrogen using solar energy nationwide with a 100 million DM programme. Ultimately, we came to the realisation that, despite its great potential, 'renewable' hydrogen as a fuel for road vehicles was far too expensive. It was therefore not surprising that industry at that time had no interest in hydrogen technology. It was ahead of its time.

And what happened to solar and wind technology?

In 1985, Riesenhuber asked me to create a ranking of energy technologies that could be supported with a relatively small sum. I suggested investing an additional 10 million DM in solar thermal power plants and geothermal energy. He refused. That was a damper. However, a year later, the Chernobyl accident happened, and that radically changed the perspective on things. Riesenhuber immediately realised that a political change of direction and more money for research into renewable energy sources were needed. In fact, he immediately committed to an additional 50 million DM. And in subsequent years support also continued and this then secured funding for research into solar thermal power plants at DLR.

Then you were Programme Director for Energy and Transport Research at DLR – as someone who knew energy research policy very well.

That was a great advantage. I knew exactly what kind of projects had any chance of getting funding. My responsibility as Programme Director consisted not only of allocating funds and setting research priorities, but also of raising third-party funds both from government and from industry. For this, industry-oriented applied research was needed. Consequently, during my 11 years at DLR I supported projects – or not.

Or not?

Wind energy research, for example. It was already so well established in the early 1990s that other institutions and industry were performing excellent development work here. I terminated wind research at the DLR. And that has proven to be a reasonable thing to do. Of course, this termination was not an obstacle to the selective introduction of special skills in materials research and aerodynamics into externally funded cooperation projects. Today, DLR's expertise in wind energy is more in demand again. That is encouraging and deserves support.

What was the situation with hydrogen?

There was no market for hydrogen in the 1990s. The basics were explored, but industry was still not interested. Of course, DLR had just conducted significant research here – for example, in the development of the fuel cell. In the late 1980s, researchers worked for a long time on a fuel cell that could only work with carbon dioxide-free air – a complicated technique with little practical application. Then, the membrane fuel cell, which is one of the leading technologies today, was developed at DLR. However, I could not stand up and celebrate hydrogen technology as the solution to the energy demands of the future. During a public discussion, I let slip the phrase 'hydrogen is so light that it easily goes to your head'. Hydrogen advocates held this against me for a very long time.

What priorities did you set instead?

Among other things, solar energy and transport research, which I was able to build up from 1996 onwards. I am proud to have promoted solar research at DLR. In recent years, as a DLR Programme Director I was at the same time the virtual director of the solar divisions in Cologne and Almería. Before my departure in 2001, I succeeded in merging the Solar Group organisations in Almería, Cologne, and Stuttgart. The establishment of an independent Institute for Solar Research in 2011 was the result. We have worked on many different things in Cologne. In the late 1980s, solar chemistry was a topical issue – the idea of meeting the energy needs of the chemical industry with solar energy. Consequently, the solar furnace in Cologne was built with support from the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, which up to today has produced many interesting research results. Highly acclaimed today is DLR's research on solar power plants and heat storage for very high temperatures, which can store so much energy that the turbines of the solar power plants can also be operated at night. Certainly, DLR experts did not work alone in any research field but their contribution was, and is, essential.

Were there any priorities other than renewable energy?

Yes, of course; energy efficiency for example. We have been working on the optimisation of combustion processes for power plants. And last but not least, systems analysis was an important component of the energy research programme – the development of energy scenarios that have prepared or even promoted the energy revolution in Germany. All in all, my time at DLR was a very satisfying phase of my career with great colleagues in the institutions and among the board of directors. Where my time in the Ministry had somewhat alienated the engineering part of my training, this skill was required again at DLR. After my time there, from 2001 to 2006, I was Director of Energy and Materials Research at the Research Centre in Jülich. During this time I was once again more in demand as a physicist. At the same time, I was Energy Coordinator for the Helmholtz Association – and in this role I have always gladly promoted DLR’s contributions to joint energy research.

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Dorothee Bürkle

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Media Relations, Energy and Transport Research