Linth newspaper published an article on 19 April 2023 stating that Switzerland is top in research but the political and other framework conditions prevent the economic use of research results in Switzerland.

Yet the innovative researchers and entrepreneurs would actually very much like to invest in Switzerland and contribute to security of supply and create jobs here. One of the many obstacles is the lack of exemption from grid fees for Power-to-X plants. SPIN is working flat out to improve the framework conditions. While the EU sets guidelines and also provides funds to reduce the initial risks for projects the tipping point in Switzerland could indeed be the grid fees.

Following is a translation of the article ‚Region forscht an Spitze, aber realisiert wird im Ausland’ by Pascal Büsser.

The University of Applied Sciences East (Ostschweizer Fachhochschule / OST) has achieved a milestone in the storage of renewable energy. A start-up is now implementing the concept on a large scale – in Portugal.

Renewable energies are on everyone’s lips. Recently, the National Council spent three days arguing about the right legal basis for their expansion. Less present in the public discussion is the downstream, but no less important question: the storage of electricity from renewable sources.

It is true that the potential of solar power on roofs and facades alone is greater than the current total electricity consumption in Switzerland. The Swiss Federal Office of Energy has already calculated this for 2019. However, there is another problem in addition to the actual expansion of the plants. Like wind energy, solar power does not accrue evenly like nuclear power or cannot be controlled like electricity from fossil sources.

Therefore, the storage of electricity is of central importance for the energy transition. One method is power-to-gas. In other words, converting electricity into synthetic gas. The University of Applied Sciences East in Rapperswil-Jona has recently reported an internationally significant breakthrough.

Test plant in the southern district

With today’s conventional methods, about half of the electricity is lost during the conversion process. Now two research teams from Ost in Rapperswil-Jona and EPFL in Sion have succeeded in increasing the efficiency to 70 per cent. “This means that 70 percent of the invested electricity can be stored in the methane,” explains Luca Schmidlin. He was project manager at the Institute of Energy Technology of the East (formerly HSR) from 2017 to the end of 2022.

The work was and still is being done at a test facility in the Südquartier, opposite the Lido. This is being done with the support of various industrial partners and energy companies, including Energie Zürichsee-Linth (EZL). “Thanks to the design of our research platform as an industrial demonstration plant, the results can be transferred 1:1 to large-scale industrial plants,” says Schmidlin.

In order to provide scientifically valid proof that the new method works, a third series of tests will run at the Ost until the summer. “Technically, however, the milestone has been reached,” says Schmidlin.

According to him, the breakthrough has international dimensions. There have been similar projects in the EU. So far, however, no one has managed to realise such an increase in efficiency over a longer period of time and in several tests. “That is a unique selling point,” says Schmidlin.

The crux of economic efficiency

Since the beginning of the year, Schmidlin has only been involved in the Ost project in an advisory capacity. Since this year, he has been concentrating mainly on his start-up, which he founded with a colleague in 2020. And which now comprises eight people. This is thanks to a project in Portugal. The aim there is to prove on an industrial scale what the research at the Ost promises.

According to Schmidlin, the project, with a production capacity of 0.5 to 1 megawatt, is on the scale of Switzerland’s largest power-to-gas plant to date in Dietikon, which was inaugurated last year. In Portugal, however, the plant uses a catalytic rather than a biological process as in Dietikon. The former has “investment advantages for larger-scale plants”, as Schmidlin explains.

His start-up has already received enquiries for plants five to ten times larger than the one planned in Portugal. “Not surprisingly, these enquiries are also coming from abroad,” says Schmidlin. Specifically from Germany, Austria, Spain, the USA and Korea.

In the neighbouring countries, things are moving forward “because the EU sets guidelines and also provides funds to reduce the initial risks for projects“, Schmidlin explains. Security of supply and independence are currently given greater political weight abroad than in Switzerland. “Of course, certain concepts are not economically viable at the moment,” says Schmidlin. “But if there is no energy at time x, the calculation suddenly looks different.

Researcher sees need for action

According to Schmidlin, there is little missing in Switzerland for power-to-gas to pay off. “The economic viability fails in Switzerland today because of a few centimes,” he says. “The tipping point could be the grid fees.” In the overarching decree on energy and electricity supply, which is currently being negotiated in Bern, it is an issue to waive the grid fees for power-to-gas plants.

Schmidlin also sees the urgency of implementing power-to-gas concepts in Switzerland. He says the gas industry has a target of 15 per cent of the gas it sells coming from renewable sources by 2030. “It won’t be able to do that without power-to-gas,” he predicts. “Companies would have to build plants in the next one to two years. “

How power-to-gas works and what it is for

With power-to-gas, electricity is converted into synthetic gas, specifically methane, for storage. This can be reused as needed. For example, directly as gas for heating. Or for generating electricity in gas-fired power plants. Only as much CO2 is produced as was extracted from the air during production.

Therefore, the process is CO2-neutral, as long as the electricity comes from non-fossil sources.

In principle, according to researcher Luca Schmidlin, CO2 can be extracted from the air. More efficient, however, is the coupling with a concentrated CO2 source such as a waste incineration plant or a cement works. However, the latter is currently not permitted if the synthetic gas is to be considered CO2-neutral. In addition to synthetic gas, the Power-to-X principle can also be used to develop other synthetic, CO2-neutral fuels.

For example, for aviation and shipping, where electrification hardly seems possible because of the relatively low energy density of batteries. Schmidlin also sees potential for using power-to-gas for settlements or neighbourhoods. In Zurich and in Männedorf, there are already residential projects that can use electricity and gas by means of a so-called hybrid box to bridge the winter electricity gap.

“Batteries are suitable for balancing out short fluctuations of a few hours or days,” says Schmidlin. “But not for seasonal storage.” He also says that one advantage of power-to-gas is that existing infrastructures such as the gas grid can be used.