The Werksviertel-Mitte district near Munich’s East Train Station has undergone a radical transformation. Over the past five years, the roughly nine-hectare industrial area has morphed into a vibrant, multi-use urban space that brings together businesses and residences, commerce and culture. Franz Völkl, project engineer of E.ON subsidiary Bayernwerk Natur, is in charge of giving Werksviertel-Mitte a largely autonomous supply of sustainable energy.
To start, two technologically advanced gas-fired combined-heat-and-power (CHP) units. They supply electricity and heat to the 15 buildings that make up Werksviertel-Mitte. Their efficiency is impressive. When cogenerating heat, they transform about 90 per cent of the fuel they consume into energy. For comparison, the average thermal power plant in Europe is only about 50 per cent efficient. But you don’t see the CHP units. They’re tucked away in the basement of Building 1, below a hipster café and a bar. We’re exploring whether to supplement the CHP units with solar panels. That would make Werksviertel-Mitte entirely self-sufficient with low-carbon energy. Enabling individual buildings to meet their own energy needs is something that Bayernwerk Natur and several other E.ON companies do all the time. Doing it for an entire district has been something special.
Well into the 1990s, it was all about potatoes. Pfanni, a German food manufacturer now owned by Unilever, made dumplings and mashed-potato powder here. When Pfanni left, artists built studios in former warehouses; many are still here. Later, nightclubs and discos moved in. In 2015, with much of the industry gone from the district, the city decided to reconceive it and hired us to design a sustainable energy plan for it. Our approach is holistic, which means we try to orchestrate the production and consumption of all energy types – electricity, heating, and cooling – so that they’re as efficient as possible. A restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator, for example, produces waste heat. We capture this heat and pipe it to another user in Werksviertel-Mitte. By matching users with complementary thermal energy needs, we reduce the amount of new energy that has to be produced. Low-carbon on-site energy production combined with smart usage: this is what the energy transition looks like up close.
Exactly. Werksviertel-Mitte has about 1,000 electricity and 50 heat and cooling delivery points, many of them with meters or sensors connected to a central energy control system. It’s a bit like a formula 1 car sending data in real time to the team’s engineers at the pit wall. Similarly, our system knows what’s happening at most of the radiators and sockets in Werksviertel-Mitte. It also remotely controls some equipment to better harmonise production with consumption. One challenge is that the district is already growing. For example, a large commercial kitchen moved in that prepares food for day care centres and schools around Munich. It needs so much electricity that we had to give Werksviertel-Mitte a new, larger transformer station. Being part of Bayernwerk and the E.ON Group gives us flexibility to make these kinds of changes swiftly and efficiently.
We’ve installed about 200 on-site generating units at companies, housing complexes, and public buildings across Bavaria. We’re responsible for operating and maintaining all of them. Our team of engineers, technicians, sales people, and office staff totals about 100 people. We know the region well and can serve all classes of customers, from real estate developers to big industrial companies. Many of them have the ambition – or are required by law – to become more sustainable. So our business is growing well. Our good reputation comes from the success of our projects and the dedication of our people, many of whom go out of their way – sometimes even at night and on weekends – to meet customers’ needs. Sustainability requires special people, and we have them.
A lot. For example, we’ve become very good at estimating how much energy a new building or new tenant will need. A project like Werksviertel- Mitte involves a lot of metering and data analysis, so we’ve built up a storehouse of knowledge in these areas as well. Thanks to E.ON’s partnership with RWTH Aachen University, we receive scientific support and also work with its research teams to explore topics like energy-smart building technology. Regulatory knowledge and sales experience are important too. It’s the whole package – successful track record, knowledgeable team, and advanced technology – that convinces customers to entrust us with making them more sustainable. One day I’d like to put it all together to enable a city district to be completely carbon-neutral.
First and foremost, I’d say that nature plays a big role. I grew up on a farm in a heavily forested part of Bavaria, and interacting with wood has always been important to me. I built myself a small house out of wood. I also chop the wood that heats the house. It’s a great counterpoise for my work in the city. As for sustainability, I find that it’s a popular topic. If I were an insurance salesman, no one would probably be very interested in my work. By contrast, people want to hear about sustainable energy, and almost everyone has an opinion. Ideally, these discussions will help set some of my friends and acquaintances on their own sustainability journey.
Franz Völkl was born in Weiden, a small town about 85 kilometres northeast of Nuremberg. After completing a master’s degree in energy and process technology at TU Munich, he joined E.ON subsidiary Bayernwerk in 2011 as project engineer, focusing first on biogas plants and later on cogeneration. Franz and his family live in Munich, where on weekends he enjoys beekeeping.