2020 was a significant year for Katherina Reiche. Not only did she take up her post as CEO at the Essen-based energy service and infrastructure provider Westenergie. The 25 members of the National Hydrogen Council, newly convened by the German government, also elected her to the top position.
A heavy workload for Reiche (49), but the graduate chemist brings a lot of experience with networks, networking, and leadership. From 1998 to 2015, Reiche worked for the CDU in federal politics, including as Parliamentary State Secretary at the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, then at the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure.
Then in 2015, her seamless move from politics to business, or more precisely to the board of the Association of Municipal Enterprises, was not without controversy, just before the waiting period for politicians was passed. At Westenergie, Reiche is now responsible for a seamlessly functioning electricity, gas, water and broadband network to the furthest corners of North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate and Lower Saxony.
Plenty crisis experience
The 174,000 kilometers of the power grid are under particular scrutiny because not only consumers are connected to it, but also solar, wind and biomass plants that feed electricity into it. And it is not only energy networks that Reiche weaves. At the Fempower Academy she founded, Reiche, herself a mother of three, prepares women in the company for management positions and offers them networking opportunities.
Reiche has all kinds of crisis experience in her work: the Covid pandemic, the flood in the Ahr Valley, the Ukraine war and the resulting gas crisis. Add to that the interrupted or restricted supply chains and the tensions between the West and China. All of this makes the urgently needed development and expansion of resilient networks more difficult. After all, to make networks more resilient, they need to be given digital components.
“If, as in the Ahr Valley, the entire infrastructure fails – electricity, water, gas, telecommunications, Internet, cold chains, gas stations, simply everything – then I have to start rebuilding everything at some point,” Reiche explains. “To do this, we install 450-megahertz radio technology, for example, which allows us to transmit machine data quickly and over long distances. For example, we can restart a power plant from the outside.”
Smart meters in every household
In its strategy, the previous German government already stipulated that Germany must become independent of China, explains Reiche. The technology used is now no longer considered solely in terms of price but also in terms of cyber security, espionage and resilience against potential attacks, and where possible, components from Europe are selected.
But to get a picture of the situation in the first place, we need more digital network components, so-called digital local network stations, to monitor the network via control centers. Even better: smart meters in every household to be able to determine precisely where the infrastructure is damaged or has disappeared altogether. Reiche would like to see more speed and consistency from the German government in this area.
However, the government is moving ahead with hydrogen. The National Hydrogen Council, which Reiche chairs, has been working intensively since 2020 on how hydrogen can be procured in sufficient quantities and distributed to the necessary locations. Here, Eon subsidiary Westenergie is testing in several projects how entire cities can be supplied with hydrogen instead of natural gas in a climate-neutral way in the future to reduce dependence on fossil fuels from abroad. Lisa-Martina Klein