A technician holding a tablet with wind turbines behind her
Martin Wolczyk / Adobe Firefly
2024-01-01 VDE dialog

VDE ETG: Knowledge and impact

The Society for Energy Technology within VDE began its work 50 years ago. Its original aim was to bundle knowledge, strengthen the position of energy technology and discuss technical issues. However, it took some time before the society began actively tackling social questions as it does nowadays.

By Eva Augsten

If you were to replan our energy system today, it would probably consist of a large number of energy cells: every household, every street, every city district would primarily supply itself. At the same time, the cells would communicate with and support each other as required.

These days, this idea is widespread. City planners incorporate it into new districts, network operators experiment with cellular models in their distribution networks – even the realms of industry and research think in terms of energy cells. The common root of these energy concepts is the VDE study “The Cellular Approach”, which was produced in 2015 by the Society for Energy Technology within VDE (VDE ETG). “Many related projects refer directly to our study,” says Dr. Thomas Benz, managing director of ETG. “The fact that so many experts have adopted our concept and are using it as the basis for their further work is a huge success. We know that our content has provided an important stimulus, even if that's not apparent to outsiders at first glance.” In that sense, the study is largely typical of ETG: it provides inspiration and recommendations for action, but is rarely visible to the general public.

Founding years in the midst of the energy crisis

The origins of ETG date back to a time of social change which bears several parallels to today – and yet was very different. With the new prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, the demand for energy grew dramatically in Germany. Engineers specializing in electrical and energy technology made up the majority of VDE members. For two decades, the Telecommunications Society (which evolved into VDE ITG in the 1980s; see page 12) nevertheless remained the only formally organized technical society at VDE, while the pros and cons of a Society for Energy Technology were argued for almost as long. Critics feared that the association could harm itself if such a large group were to spin off into its own technical society. The VDE Delegates’ Assembly finally gave the green light in early December 1973, and VDE ETG began its work in April 1974.

Top1: Energy transition

Hans-Jürgen Schmitz, Martin Wolczyk / Adobe Firefly (Composing)
2024-01-01 VDE dialog

The VDE ETG was founded 50 years ago in response to the 1973 oil crisis. Whether it’s global warming or the war in Ukraine, the issues we face in the energy sector have grown no less challenging since then, explains chairperson Dr. Britta Buchholz.

Read more

In hindsight, it seems barely conceivable that VDE happened to choose precisely that moment in time to found ETG after such a long period of internal wrangling. At the end of October 1973, just two months before the final session of the founding committee, Egypt and Syria had attacked Israel. The price of oil shot up to about $50 per barrel, adjusted for inflation. While this doesn’t seem very spectacular from our current point of view, after decades of virtually constant oil prices – and given the strong sense of optimism about technology and business at the time – it came as a shock. It impacted a society whose relationship with technology, economic growth and authority in general was in upheaval. However, it seems that most engineers didn’t see any particular technical relevance in the sociopolitical dimension of the energy crisis during the founding of ETG.

Focus on “objective” technology

In those days, there were no studies that penetrated the public awareness like the ones published by ETG nowadays. Even so, several VDE members certainly did call for such an analysis at the beginning of the 1970s. Others, however, thought this was more of an attack on the prestige of engineers from the ranks of rebellious academics in the humanities. They were convinced that technical progress would by its very nature serve the benefits of society, and this attitude shaped the work of ETG at that time.

In this sense, the freshly founded technical society plunged headlong into the debates about the latest technical trends and developments. Instead of the expected 200 participants, more than 350 visitors came to the first technical conference in May 1974 in Munich. At an adjacent press conference, Dr. Konrad Geigenmüller – the founding chairman of ETG and the first head of the Technical Committee for Electrical Machinery and Drives – expressed the hope that people would develop a “more objective attitude” toward technology during the crisis. To improve people’s living standards (including in developing countries), he believed engineers needed to ensure a secure, economical and environmentally friendly supply of electricity.

The fundamental structures of ETG emerged in those days, and they have stood the test of time in terms of their ability to bring experts together. The aim from the very outset was to map the entire chain of electrical energy technology – from the generation of electricity through to its distribution and use. To this day, its technical committees meet at regular intervals, and the ETG Congress is held every two years. The close networking of science and business is just as important here as keeping the discussions as open as possible. Even the major annual conferences are a comparatively familiar space where it’s also possible to discuss problems without ending up in the tabloid press.

Power failure task force: ETG expertise attracts public attention

At the very latest during the liberalization of the energy markets in the 1990s and the corresponding wave of privatization, it became clear how closely technology and the natural sciences are interlinked with society and politics. New regulations at the European level ensured that a great deal had to change that had seemed immutable for many years: connection users became customers, a distribution system became a market and vertically integrated energy providers became power generators, network operators and energy suppliers.

In 2003, the topic of energy hit the headlines once again thanks to a series of power failures. The lights went out in North America, London, Scandinavia and Italy within just a few weeks. In some regions, the failures lasted several days. In others, they were shorter, but unusually widespread. For ETG, this was an opportunity to rally the experts and analyze the situation: was Germany facing a similar danger? “That is how the first ETG task force came into being,” Dr. Benz explains. The experts investigated which processes had caused the power failures. In the end, the task force gave the country the “all-clear” – with a few provisos. Germany’s relatively decentralized power generation, high security standards and closely coordinated network operators can prevent many problems. However, the task force also warned that investments in supply security and other tasks arising from the energy transition could not be put off indefinitely. The findings of the expert committee captured a great deal of attention, and the concept of a time-limited and thematically defined task force took hold as a format at ETG. Since then, over 30 task forces have submitted analyses on current topics, almost always with a direct link to the energy transition.

The actual tasks involved are complex. “That’s why it’s important for us to bring together profound expertise from a very wide range of disciplines on these task forces,” said Dr. Benz. This isn't something ETG leaves to chance. “We selectively approach individual people with technical expertise we consider valuable. We also use open calls for experts to reach others we may not have thought of, but who are also important. Putting together interdisciplinary teams like these is sort of what we're known for at ETG,” explains Dr. Benz.

Expertise in service of social aims

To avoid losing track of its objectives in view of the increasingly complex and interdisciplinary issues it covers, ETG defined a series of focus topics in 2018 to go along with its specialist areas. These topics were then updated in 2023. ETG’s task forces and various technical groups and committees can use them as an orientation aid whenever required. The three more scientifically focused topics of “Multi-Energy Systems”, “Sustainability” and “Artificial Intelligence” follow the society’s existing work. The topics of “Politics and Society” and “Training and Winning Young Talents”, meanwhile, have been newly added.

The expertise of ETG should therefore explicitly support social aims, such as the energy transition. “At the same time, we’re still primarily dedicated to technology,” says Dr. Benz, who goes on to explain what that means to him. “Our expertise gives us the responsibility to draw attention early on to any issues that may appear along a chosen path. For instance, to the fact that moving away from coal will also eliminate the oscillating weights used at power plants. We need a replacement for them to keep our electrical power system stable.” Ideally, such indications will be picked up by various parties, such as the federal government in its “Roadmap for System Stability” or the manufacturers of inverters for wind and photovoltaic systems. The aim here isn’t to promote or strengthen individual industries or roles. “We’re not a lobbying association,” Dr. Benz insists. Even so, he certainly wouldn’t mind a greater reach or a more receptive audience: “In the coming years, we also want to reach out more to technically interested laypeople in both politics and the general public. We need a greater shared understanding of the energy transition.”

The next generation has arrived, but specialists remain scarce

Creating excitement about engineering professions in energy technology is one of the tasks that VDE and ETG set themselves from the beginning. This topic is particularly fundamental at a time when rapid development is clashing with an increasingly severe lack of specialists. Not enough young people are starting degree courses in the technical subjects that are necessary to pull off the energy transition. However, it can at least be said that ETG has succeeded in winning a large number of these young talents for VDE. “Although our membership has unfortunately fallen, the commitment of our committees hasn’t wavered. That’s partly because we’ve made a specific effort to get young people involved, including in our task forces,” Dr. Benz reports. In particular, ETG collaborates closely with universities and the VDE Young Net.

Together for a resilient infrastructure with a future

The generation of digital natives is urgently needed for the energy world of tomorrow. When ETG was founded, NTG (the predecessor of VDE ITG) served as a formal template. The topics of these two technical societies are thus now so closely interwoven that you can hardly tell where one ends and the other begins. “In the future, energy technology and network operations will no longer be conceivable without information and communication technology,” Dr. Benz says. Since generators and consumers can only react to each other flexibly when they communicate quickly and securely, automation technology and digital twins are to help the electricity and grid sector map these reactions in all the complex systems at hand.

Apart from the opportunities of digitalization, ETG is also focusing on how to reduce the risks involved. In order to make systems more resilient in times of crisis, interdisciplinary cooperation is becoming more important than ever. In some cases, the decisions of the past are making that more difficult. The principle of unbundling, which dates back to the 1990s, demands that the network planning for electricity, gas and telecommunications be keep separate from each other. “From today’s perspective, that’s no longer in the interests of crisis resilience. If the power fails, the communications network needs to carry on as stably as possible, and vice versa,” Dr. Benz explains. To make sure that happens, the planners of both types of infrastructure don’t just need to share their results; they also have to learn from each other and understand the other side’s thinking. This approach is called “transdisciplinarity”, and it’s becoming more and more important at the moment, including at ETG.

Half a century after its founding, the role of this technical society therefore still lies in the exchange and contribution of technical expertise. Its approach has evolved over the years, and will continue to do so. After all, it will only be possible to solve the tasks of tomorrow with the methods of tomorrow.

Eva Augsten is a freelance journalist in Hamburg who writes about the energy sector and renewable energies.

VDE dialog - the technology magazine