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Heidi U. Heinrichs

Heidi Heinrichs is head of the "Energy Potentials and Supply Pathways" group at the Institute of Energy and Climate Research - Techno-economic Systems Analysis (IEK-3) at Forschungszentrum Jülich GmbH. Her professional focus is energy system analysis, currently with a focus on the global energy system. She received the ERC Starting Grant from the European Research Council for the project "Material Realizable Energy Transformation - Navigating the Material Bottlenecks of a Carbon-Neutral Energy System" (MATERIALIZE). Her focus is on security of supply for Germany and Europe. In this interview, Heidi Heinrichs gives us insights into the complexity of her research and its benefits for the energy transition.


What are you currently working on?

Heidi Heinrichs: I am currently working with my research group on various projects in the field of "global greenhouse gas-neutral energy systems", at the moment with a special focus on hydrogen and hydrogen products. We are particularly interested in how Germany and Europe can shape their hydrogen imports to avoid a situation like the current one with Russia - i.e. too much dependence on one country.

My current projects are manifold. The two most important ones are currently the BMBF-funded "H2 Atlas Africa" and MATERIALIZE, which is funded by an ERC Starting Grant from the European Research Council.

For the H2 Atlas Africa, we are analyzing the hydrogen potential first in western and southern Africa, and we are making our findings available on an interactive website. With this we hope to support energy partnerships with Africa, because the conditions there, for example for solar energy, are much better than in Germany. Parallel to this project, there is also a graduate school in West Africa, where I also give a lecture.

In MATERIALZE, the focus is on materials, as the name suggests. For a greenhouse gas-neutral world, renewable energies must be massively expanded. Some of these technologies are very material-intensive - often more so than conventional energies. A global transition requires immense quantities of various raw materials, from iron ore to rare earths. The latter in particular belong to the so-called critical materials, which are often only extracted in a few countries. This can lead to bottlenecks that endanger the global energy transition. MATERIALIZE aims to identify these bottlenecks and how they affect the global energy transition. The focus is on alternative energy technologies using non-critical materials and their impact on the energy system. It is important here that our models and data are detailed enough. Only then can we make reliable statements.

What is your personal motivation?

Heidi Heinrichs: I would like to help make the energy transition a success story. Today, it is often portrayed, at least in part, as a story of sacrifice. It isn't, and it doesn't have to be. And I can contribute to this by providing knowledge for decision-makers: scientifically sound knowledge for the energy transition, robust and resilient and clearly communicated.

Scientifically, I am attracted by the complexity of energy systems and their interconnections with other sectors of society. We always have to ask ourselves how much detail is needed for our models, which method is the right one in each individual case: "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail," as Maslow's Hammer says.

What kind of challenges are you facing in the near future?

Heidi Heinrichs: Currently, it is a great challenge to find suitable personnel. And that's despite the fact that the working conditions at our institute are very good. We have a great team and everyone enjoys working together. We always have our employees' development in mind as well, so that everyone can develop in the best possible way. And there is definitely no lack of exciting research ideas in our field. But industry can offer higher salaries - and more predictable prospects.

If you could make a wish for something for your research, what would you wish for?

Heidi Heinrichs: I would like to see more understanding that the energy system is an incredibly complex matter, and accordingly, so is energy systems analysis. Let's take a typical example of our work, the modeling of wind turbines in Europe: We start by identifying possible placements by processing and combining dozens of geographically high-resolution datasets in terms of technical, economic, and societal aspects to end up with precise geolocations for potential sites. For onshore wind turbines alone, we come up with several million potential sites in Europe. For each of these sites, we automatically select the optimal wind turbine and calculate the possible electricity feed-in for each of these wind turbines across weather years. This results in huge amounts of data, which we then have to aggregate as far as possible without any loss of information so that we can work with them at all. For onshore wind turbines in Europe alone, this gives us several hundred million data sets that we have to reduce to "just" a thousand for our energy system models. And this is only for Europe and only for one technology in the whole energy system. But all this is necessary to be able to map the interdependencies of technologies in the energy system in a robust way. What I'm saying is that there are no easy answers for the energy transition. Too many people - including scientists - are simply not sufficiently aware of this.

And above all, I hope that my results will reach and convince the decision-makers of the energy transition, because that is precisely what we are working for, and that is why we want to generate and make available knowledge and insights (knowledge for action).

Where do you see your discipline in 5-10 years?

Heidi Heinrichs: Energy systems analysis must deal much more with uncertainties. Up to now, we have focused mainly on selected scenarios. However, systems analysis needs to cover entire areas of possible futures instead of analyzing individual pathways. Only in this way can we reliably identify the key levers as well as challenges and opportunities. This also includes, for example, the influence of climate change on our energy systems.

It will become enormously important to identify tipping points, forks in the road, for individual technologies or technology groups. These can be triggered by all kinds of influences: technological milestones, climate change, material prices, political upheavals, you name it. For example, the cost of various renewables has been coming down and down in recent years, but for no technology as much as for solar PV. That's why solar is now showing up more in our future scenarios, even in regions that tend to be good wind regions. If we systematically identify such tipping points, we can develop concrete if-then statements that will be of enormous help to decision makers.

ORCID: 0000-0001-9536-9465