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Sector coupling 

How sectors other than electricity are turning to renewables 

By 2030, Austria aims to generate all of the electricity it needs over the course of a year from renewables – and hydro, wind and photovoltaic also have what it takes to end other sectors’ reliance on fossil fuels. Although they are harmful for our climate, energy sources made from natural gas and oil are still the most widely used fuels for heating and transportation. Renewable electricity will have to be put to use in those sectors in order to decarbonise them, making them carbon-free and climate-neutral. The growing significance of e-mobility is the first important milestone. Green electricity can also be used in industry and for heating – a major contribution to making a success of the energy transformation. And sector coupling will enable all of these areas to benefit effectively from one another.

Energy from one sector to another

Sector coupling is all about taking a holistic view of the electricity, heating, transportation and industrial sectors, and identifying ways to improve the transfer of energy between them. In future, this will mean that surplus electricity in one sector can be used or stored in others. At the moment, if more power is generated on a particularly sunny or windy day than is actually required, in the worst case this has to be offset by lowering production at power stations – so available energy is not put to any use at all.

Sector coupling could also help to solve the problem of seasonal discrepancies in generation. As renewable generation expands, more wind and solar power will be produced in summer than in winter – much more than we are able to consume. Thanks to sector coupling, this excess renewable electricity could be transformed into eco-friendly hydrogen and stored for use during the colder months of the year. Alternatively, hydrogen can be utilised at industrial facilities, making a major contribution to decarbonisation in that sector. Using waste heat from power stations or large companies directly to provide district heating is another example of sector coupling at work.

Climate-friendly heating in urban areas

In future, hydrogen, biomethane and synthetic gases could be used for the continued – and climate-neutral – operation of combined heat and power (CHP) plants. Heat from these generating stations is particularly important in towns and other densely populated areas, where alternative heating systems such as heat pumps are very rarely used. In addition, electricity from these plants is an important resource when it comes to stabilising the power grid. 

Coupling the electricity network with e-vehicle charging infrastructure can also help with network stabilisation, especially if vehicles are mainly recharged at times when sufficient surplus energy is available. This can be achieved directly by means of smart grids, or indirectly by tying tariffs for charging to electricity prices. This would provide a clear financial incentive for people to charge their cars at times when the power network is best able to handle the demand.