Hobbled by Bureaucracy, a German R&D Program Falls Short of Climate-Friendly Goals

The $440 million Kopernikus effort aimed to develop innovative energy systems. But the initial results have tamped down hopes of a payback.

Share this article

Harbor cranes and a wind turbine are seen as the sun sets in Bremerhaven in northern Germany, on Oct. 19, 2017. Credit: Patrik Stollarz/AFP via Getty Images
Harbor cranes and a wind turbine are seen as the sun sets in Bremerhaven in northern Germany, on Oct. 19, 2017. Credit: Patrik Stollarz/AFP via Getty Images

Share this article

Even as Germany leads European countries in bulk research investment, it is struggling to turn the money into solutions for a transformative climate goal: the largest national energy transition in history.

In 2017, the German government invested 400 million euros, or around $440 million, in four ambitious projects overseen by its Education and Research Ministry. Dubbed “Kopernikus,” after the 16th-century astronomer who upended thinking about the Earth’s place in the universe, these private-public partnerships have enlisted college professors to work hand in hand with CEOs to brainstorm on developing climate-friendly energy systems.

The ideas generated by the projects have been expansive, from a glass factory that would melt sand by using electricity rather than oil, to an electrical grid that could handle surges in wind power.

But six years in, progress on such tracks has been stymied by geopolitical rifts and the German bureaucracy, suggesting that a rapid energy transition, a goal that the United States is now trying to replicate, will not be easily achieved. 

“The idea behind it is brilliant, but they don’t perform as effectively as it should,” Frank Schweikert, a biologist and science journalist who is the director of the forum Hamburg Climate Week, said of the Kopernikus initiatives. 

Election 2024

Explore the latest news about what’s at stake for the climate during this election season.

One of the projects, Ariadne, was essentially a social science experiment that helped German politicians understand whether certain energy measures were politically viable. A top Ariadne researcher described it as a “think tank” that allowed the German government to fund its own recommended research experiments. 

“For research and development, you can’t know if it pays off,” said Michael Pahle, director of climate and energy policy at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a member of the Ariadne steering committee. Pahle said that many of the so-called findings to date amounted to no more than marketing measures. 

Before Ariadne, there was ENavi. 

With a similar social science component, ENavi was created to determine which specific energy interventions were most likely to be realized, given social, technological, economic and political constraints. It was set for 10 years of Kopernikus funding, but the government shut it down after just three. The ending was so abrupt that scientists didn’t have a chance to share their findings with the public, said one of the project’s directors, Dirk Sheer, a senior researcher at the Karlsruher Institute for Technology.

“The Kopernikus initiative was unique in its scope,” Sheer said. “In my view, the results are mediocre. Lots of resources were given away to consortium team-building, and I do not believe this approach will be repeated soon.”

Ensure, the project that focused on Germany’s electricity grid, was supposed to “ensure” that by the time wind farms and solar panels came online, their energy supply could be put to use.

Theoretical development began in 2016, and construction of simulated pilot sites was expected to begin in 2020. In 2022, researchers were still promising that “real operations” would begin. But the first model, on a proposed site in northern Germany, has yet to materialize. As a result, the country’s wind turbines sometimes don’t spin, even on windy days, because the power could overload the system if they did.

At least one pilot project initiated under Kopernikus, DisConMelter, bore fruit, proving that glass manufacturing can be solely powered by excess electricity that the grid cannot use. But the cutoff of natural gas by Russia after its invasion of Ukraine last year has thrown that prospect into doubt.

Engineers involved in the project used periods of energy surplus to melt glass destined for bottles, wind turbines and fiber optic cables. Instead of immediately pouring the molds, they stored the molten glass in massive tanks, using the residual heat to reduce power consumption. 

The technology is now ready to be introduced at plants across the country, said Thorsten Gerdes, the engineering professor who led DisConMelter’s academic team. But as Germany teeters on an energy crisis arising from the loss of Russian gas, he said, major industries like glass are leaning in the opposite direction. 

“At the moment, many tanks are now back to oil,” Gerdes said. “This is exactly the opposite of what we want.”

This story is funded by readers like you.

Our nonprofit newsroom provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going. Please donate now to support our work.

Donate Now

Germany spends more than most EU countries on research and development. Last year the government earmarked $1.4 billion for energy research, including Kopernikus, according to a report from the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action. 

Katharina Grave, a spokeswoman for the ministry, said that no one there could address Kopernikus’ impact and referred questions to the Ministry for Education and Research. That ministry notes that R&D findings “oftentimes lack widespread application and are still too slow.” A frequently cited reason is bureaucracy.

In a report presented to Chancellor Olaf Scholz in February, the government’s advisory Commission of Experts for Research and Innovation noted that a “silo mentality within the federal government must be overcome and cooperation between the ministries improved” to ensure the success of Germany’s energy transition.

Tilman Requate, an economist at Kiel University who serves on the commission, said it was difficult to size up the impact of research and development in Germany because “we don’t really have a good culture of evaluation.” 

“That is also something that we from the EFI commission always criticize,” Requate said. “Government programs should be better and more professionally evaluated. It is not our job to do this.”

Short on accountability, the scientists in the program and their industry partners are continuing to explore solutions, hoping that they will contribute to a significant restructuring of Germany’s renewable power sector. 

Through the Kopernikus project known as Rheticus, for example, the chemical engineer Thomas Haas developed a way to sustainably produce chemicals by feeding hydrogen gas made solely with clean electricity to bacteria. The microorganisms then excrete butanol and hexanol. 

“In the very beginning it sounded like a crazy idea,” Haas said. “But after having proven it, it becomes easier.”

His next goal is to prove that sustainable chemicals are financially competitive. Thanks to Kopernikus’ initial $6.5 million investment in the project, the technology has already found an industry partner, Siemens, that is willing to help fund development. 

“It will not save the world,” Haas said. “But it will do a little part.”

Hi, and thanks for reading Inside Climate News. We hope you liked this article. While you were here, you may have noticed something that sets us apart from many other news outlets: our news is free to read.

That’s because Inside Climate News is a 501c3 nonprofit organization. We do not charge a subscription fee, lock our news behind a paywall, or clutter our website with ads. Instead, we give our news freely to you and to anyone who wants to learn about what’s happening to the climate.

We also share our news freely with scores of other media organizations around the country that can’t afford environmental journalism. We’ve built bureaus from coast to coast to get quality news to everyone who needs it. We collaborate, partner, and share.

Since day one, reader donations have funded every aspect of what we do. We opened our doors in 2007, and just six years later, earned a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. Now we run the oldest and largest dedicated climate newsroom in the country. We hold polluters accountable, expose environmental injustice, debunk misinformation, and inspire action.

It’s all possible because of readers like you. Today we’re asking you to invest in this work, our newsroom, and our continued growth. Help us keep reporting on the biggest crisis facing our planet and reach even more readers in more places. With your support, we can tell stories like the one you just read – stories that change hearts and minds and have seminal and enduring impact. Because of you, they’ll remain free for everyone, everywhere.

Please chip in now with whatever amount you can afford. It takes just a moment to give, and every gift makes a difference.

Thank you,

Share this article