From Ammonia to Zoi: U.S. and Germany Discuss Green Ideas

The German American Energy Forum met at the Newseum in DC – Flickr Creative Commons / afagen

Water trickled down the windows of the Newseum in Washington, D.C., as the Capitol building, only a few hundred meters away, was veiled in grey mist. Inside the Newseum, bright minds gathered at the German American Energy Forum “Global Challenges, Shared Opportunities” to share their ideas and exchange recommendations on how to disperse the clouds hanging over U.S. climate policy.

German Ambassador Dr. Klaus Scharioth opened the conference by reiterating his conviction about the potential for a low-carbon economy, arguing that renewable energy and economic growth were part of the same equation. Just recently, at a meeting with Worldwatch Institute staff, Jochen Flasbarth, head of the German Federal Environment Agency, presented the agency’s newest report concluding that a 100-percent renewable electricity system is possible in Germany as early as 2050. Worldwatch has shown that 50 percent of global energy demand can be produced in a sustainable way if energy efficiency and renewables are implemented in concert.

Later in the day, Acting U.S. Under-secretary of Energy Cathy Zoi  spoke about the U.S. government’s climate and energy policy. She sought to convince the audience of the government’s intention to take significant action to combat climate change, but also acknowledged Congress’s dramatic failure this year to adopt a comprehensive climate and energy bill. The lesson she would like to learn from Germany: how to pass legislation!

The general conclusions of the conference were threefold: First, we need storage capacity for energy—with electric vehicles playing a big role. Second, it’s all about grids—“smart” and interconnected grids that are able to integrate a significant amount of intermittent renewable energy in a decentralized energy generation system. Third and lastly, the United States and Germany need ambitious legislation, including long-term targets, clear timetables, and monitoring. Only this will lead to investments at the scale required.

At the conference, Laurenz Schmidt with the Ocean Energy Institute (OEI) introduced an interesting technology to harness ocean energy—using ammonia (NH3). Driven by the question of how to convert tidal, wave, and wind energy into a transportable and storable form, the OEI believes that ammonia, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, might outpace hydrogen in the race for the most attractive repository technology because it can be liquefied and stored easily. According to Schmidt, existing pipelines for ammonia, which serves as an important agricultural fertilizer, could be used for transportation. The OEI is optimistic that cost equity for ammonia as a replacement for diesel could be reached in 15 to 20 years.

Think this is a new and trailblazing innovation? Far from it! During World War II, Belgian residents who faced a diesel fuel shortage due to the German troop occupation ran their buses with a mixture of coal and ammonia. Still, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), barriers need to be surpassed before ammonia reaches marketability, including safety issues (ammonia is toxic) as well as efficiency challenges related to ammonia production. In its study, DOE investigates the potential role that ammonia might play as a hydrogen carrier for fuel cell vehicles. Despite the need for further research, ammonia seems to be a promising technology for harnessing the ocean’s energy.

Unfortunately, the conference ended with sad news from Germany: panelist Paul Gipe (Wind Works) announced that Hermann Scheer had passed away unexpectedly. Scheer, a good friend of Worldwatch, was a member of the German Parliament with the Social Democrat party (SPD), President of Eurosolar, and Chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy. For his leadership and vision on renewable energy, he received the Right Livelihood Award, better known as the Alternative Nobel Prize, in 1999. Perhaps first among many great achievements, Scheer introduced and advocated the German feed-in-tariff for renewables and later helped to set up the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). He will be sorely missed in the green community.

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