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Germany to Expand Power Grid — Great for Renewables?

 

Last Thursday, the German federal grid regulatory agency — the Bundesnetzagentur — handed a draft for a plan to extend the German power grid to the federal goverment. The content of the plan was especially anticipated by the wind industry, which currently suffers the most from the insufficient power grid infrastructure. A frustrating bottleneck situation that already forces wind power producers in northern Germany to disconnect wind turbines from the grid on windy days in order to ensure grid stability.

The now presented draft of the so called “grid development plan” calls for the expansion of the power grid in order to allow an increasing amount of wind power from offshore and onshore wind to be fed into the grid and provide renewable electricity to industrial centers and households alike. One important part of the plan is the retrofitting of 4,400 km of the existing power lines by 2022. But at the core of the proposal lies the construction of four massive new direct current power lines stretching from northern Germany all the way down to the south with a total length of 3,800 km. This will be a investment will be in the tens of billions of euros over the next 10 years, which is an absolute necessity according to the government.

It should be noted that this plan was drafted in close cooperation with the 4 huge grid operators under the guiding principles of a scenario framework which was developed by the regulatory agency in 2011. The draft will now enter the political process for further discussion and possible changes.

An Important Step Forward or a Step in the Wrong Direction?

While it is obvious that the power grid has to be adapted and expanded for the radically changing patterns of power productions and consumption that Germany is heading for, this particular plan is highly controversial. Many renewable energy experts did already question the fundamental assumptions of the scenario framework that is the basis of this plan back in 2011. The criticsm back then was that the government does not take into account the true development of renewable energy sources and their decentralized application mainly by citizens and communities. And this is a development that has highly increasing momentum since all German states now have their own very ambitious goals for 2020-2030.

Some of the retrofitting and expansions definitely make sense, but the underlying mindset of the draft seems fundamentally flawed. It’s a clear sign of the current struggle between centralization and decentralization. Between the notion that the current fossil and nuclear power corporations are the natural suppliers of renewable energy on the one side, and the efficient use of local renewable energy resources by a huge number of small and medium power producers on the other.

Outdated Mindset = Bad Economics

It’s easy to show that this logic is fundamentally flawed, because it’s founded in the world view that wind power has to be produced in the north because coastal areas are windier. Why is that notion wrong when it sounds so true at first?

There is no doubt that renewable energy potentials are higher at some places and lower at others. But that doesn’t mean that the slightly lower potentials can’t and shouldn’t be exploited. Today, wind power can be produced profitably almost everywhere in Germany. That’s possible due to modern wind turbine designs optimized for low-wind conditions and the removal of arbitary restrictions by state governments.

Don’t get me wrong, wind power is more efficent in the north. There is no doubt that the very same wind turbine produces more electricity at the coast compared to the Bavarian forrests. The average hours of production at full capacity (the capacity factor) can actually be 30-50% higher at the coast. But the critical question is: Is the capacity factor all that important for a renewable energy system? 

In the opinion of most renewable energy experts, the answer is no. Because, for local consumers and local independent utilites, it doesn’t matter that much if electricity produced from wind costs 30-50€ per MWh at the coast or 50-70€ per MWh in Bavaria. In both cases the electricity generated from wind is significantly cheaper than the cost of electricity from the power grid which stands at 110-140€ per MWh (before taxes & fees). And in the latter case, Bavaria benefits in other ways from producing its own electricity.

While I am happy for the necessary improvements for removing bottleneck situations in the power grid, I am bewildered by the level of ignorance on the side of the government coalition which doesn’t even talk about smart grids as it discusses changes to the power gird during the next decades. It also does not take into account that the situation in the states has changed dramatically and that the driving force of renewable energy is not centralized offshore wind, but decentralized investments by local individuals, businesses, and utilities.

In the words of a press release by Eurosolar, the European Association for Renewable Energy:
“Now it’s up to the states to demand the necessary changes.”

As I wrote this post: 17.8 GW of solar and 9.2 GW wind, as well as approximately 3 GW of hydropower and 3.5 GW from biogas produced about 60% of the total electricity demand at 1 pm here in Germany.

 
 
 
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is a close observer of the scientific, political and economic energy debate in Germany and around the globe. Inspired by the life's work of the renewable energy advocate Hermann Scheer, Thomas focuses on spreading information that showcase the possibilities & opportunities of a 100% renewable energy system. Though technology is key for this energy shift, he also looks at the socio-economic benefits and the political, as well as structural barriers.

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