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PPRE Excursion 2019

Following curiosity

by the Press and Communications team: Anna von Brandis, Alejandro Reyes, Jiope Herman, Claus Steinenboehmer and Majd Nasr

When people start a journey there is usually a goal behind it: escape from the daily routines, meeting old friends (or new ones), discover new places or visit again somewhere we already knew, etc. On this occasion, 30 students from the Postgraduate Programme Renewable Energy (PPRE), the Masters in Physics, and the Mechanical and Electrical workshops at the University of Oldenburg joined efforts and undertook an excursion which, for many of those involved, has been lifechanging.

On a mission to follow their curiosity, the students carried out a trip in which they sought to get answers to several questions concerning renewables energies. These questions came from the technical (which technologies are most promising for a future energy supply?), social (how do renewables help in creating a more just distribution of resources?), environmental (does the use of renewables actually reduce the amount of GHG emissions or simply switches from one process to another?) and political perspectives (what characteristics should a successful energy transition have and how do we implement it into society?).

The planning process for the excursion had begun at the start of the year, where the first round of suggested institutions to visits by all students happened. It became clear, very fast, that there would be a very diverse mix of places focusing on the rather technical aspects of renewable energies as well as those which looked at the interface between the technical and social spheres. After the decision on which institutions to visit was made, the planning phase started. Here, the topics of interest and the organization of the visits were planned together with representatives of the companies chosen.

On the 14th of July, it was finally time to get going! The excursion lasted 11 days, and what an adventure it was! Together with the five companies selected, the students also toured a former lead mine and hiked up to a mountain hut isolated from the grid.

The excursion started at the Sauerlaender visitor mine in Ramsbeck, where the team learned about the scarcity of resources and how this issue was affecting mining societies – low prices, mine shutdowns - but also about the production and consumption of modern technologies which still require raw materials. In stark contrast, the next visit was to the recycling facility of lead-acid batteries at Hoppecke, a positive note after the mine visit. This facility is currently able to recycle lead-acid batteries almost entirely. Here, the students were greeted with insight into the most modern applications batteries have, grid stability, isolated systems, vehicles and machinery. To complement this knowledge, a later stop included the battery storage testing field of Innogy in Goedenroth, which is used to save energy from times where there are excess production and supply in periods of underproduction, for a small-scale population.

The social and political issues were the focus at both the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology (KIT) and the Wuppertal Institute (WI). KIT presented the Technology, Innovation and Society program and research examples of current energy system transformations. A major highlight here was the realization that universal access to energy did not lead to the actual reduction of poverty in Brazil, contrary to what was believed. On the other hand, WI was an example of optimism. Their view of the social, political and economic challenges around the irruption of new technologies into society was a breath of fresh air and hope to those who were sceptic about the current path our world has chosen.

Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy gave students an overview of their various research projects. Among them, how Photovoltaic systems (PV) and Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) needed to be integrated into different fields outside of energy production and increase their participation in industries such as mobility, on the way proving itself a mature and competitive solution. Coming from the strongly wind energy focused region around Oldenburg, it was a great opportunity to broaden perspectives.

At the end of each visit, a wrap-up session was performed with the aim of consolidating inputs and resolving some previous questions. These prompted inspiring discussions where technical solutions were debated, concerns addressed and, most passionately, several aspects of sustainability and impacts on society were raised. All this fed the mind of people from 18 different countries and 4 continents, a large variety of backgrounds. However, not all questions were resolved and instead, others cropped up. Which sustainability goals should we, as a society, set for ourselves? How will education and governance help us reach these goals? Where do we need to start when aiming for equity and justice? How can education boost the transition towards a more sustainable and fairer world? How can we implement concepts that have been successful in one place into another country?

The excursion was brought to a conclusion by a hike up to Brunnsteinhütte in Mittenwald. Here, some of the inputs from the earlier visits were brought together in an off-grid application. This is a business that is run in an isolated system and has dealt with the economic and social challenges of integrating renewables in such an application. Moreover, the hike was a beautiful opportunity to grow together within the “PPRE family”.

The journey finalized on July 24th with a new air in the student’s minds and a call to action. The enthusiasm the speakers and hosts showed for their work and the optimism with which they faced the challenges of our century were impressing and inspiring. With new questions for the students, the experience they enjoyed will help them face their chosen paths.

The students of the PPRE18-20 batch thank all the institutions and their employees for the warm welcome and hospitality received. Also, the University of Oldenburg and Mr Holtorf and Ms Schwerz for giving us the means to enjoy such a unique and uniting experience. It is thanks to those mentioned and their goodwill that many of us leave with renewed hope and assume the responsibility we chose to face.

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