German costs for energy turnaround explode

Unreliable solar and wind power in Germany cause more and higher electricity costs for the power grid. 

German utility company Tennet TSO spent almost a billion euros last year on emergency interventions to stabilize the grid according to a company announcement earlier this week. The costs were about half higher than in 2016 (660 million euros) and around forty percent higher than in 2015 (710 million). Tennet is responsible for the electricity supply in an area that extends from Schleswig-Holstein in the north to southern Bavaria and accounts for around forty percent of Germany's area. In particular, Tennet is responsible for the important north-south routes.

The reason for the increase in emergency interventions is the increasing number of solar and wind turbines in Germany. The share of renewable energy increased from 29 to 33 percent of the electricity supply last year. Wind and solar power are irregular and often unpredictable. This makes the network increasingly unstable. Because according to the laws of physics, the injected and the demanded electricity must always be in balance - otherwise blackouts might occur. German network operators are responsible for directing gas, coal or nuclear power plants to avoid imbalances, by starting their power supply or throttling them back. In part, this involves asking foreign power plants for support. It can also be helpful to instruct wind power and solar plant operators to temporarily stop their production, but doing so means network managers are held liable for compensation because of a purchase guarantee for alternative electricity. Tennet pays money for parking wind turbines.

Network stability suffers

One challenge facing the German energy transition is that the transmission network urgently needs to be strengthened in the face of increasing fluctuations. In particular, there is a lack of high-performance transmission lines from the north, where many wind turbines are located, to the south, where the electricity demand is highest. "We urgently need an energy transition network, i.e. the network expansion project already decided by the legislature," said Tennet executive board member Lex Hartmann on the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Until then, "network bottlenecks, high costs for consumers and an increasingly unstable supply will remain a hard reality".

However, the expansion of the networks lags far behind the expansion plans of the government. According to the McKinsey Energy Turnaround Index last October, only 816 of the 3,582 kilometers of power lines have been built, which are expected to be operational by 2020. McKinsey has called achieving the targeted network expansion "unrealistic".

The reason for the delay is the significant resistance of the public to new transmission lines, which are also partly supported by governments in the federal states. For example, Thuringia's Prime Minister Bodo Ramelow spoke out against new power lines in his state in November. Two years ago, resistance came from Horst Seehofer (CSU), the Prime Minister of Bavaria. Electricity grid operators are often forced to lay new underground lines which has led to larger landscape disturbances, escalating costs and considerable delays.

German electricity consumers pay around 25 billion euros annually for the promotion of alternative electricity, and the trend is rising. The levy, which is charged for each kilowatt-hour consumed, has fallen only slightly from 6.88 to 6.79 eurocents at the beginning of this year. However, costs such as those for emergency access to the network are also charged to the consumers. According to estimates, the energy transition in Germany will cost over half a trillion euros by 2025. The burden for a family of four is about 25,000 euros, which is more than half of the average gross annual gross earnings. In 2016, a total of 330,000 households were shut down due to unpaid energy bills.

Problem also affects Switzerland

The problem with grid stability could increase significantly with the shutdown of the remaining nuclear power plants. On New Year's Eve, the block B of the NPP Gundremmingen in Bavaria went offline. Nationwide seven reactors are still in operation. Block B had a capacity of 1344 megawatts, which is slightly higher than the Leibstadt nuclear power plant. The reactor had produced trouble-free for 33 years. Federal Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks (SPD) was "happy" about the shutdown. The last nuclear power plant in Germany should go offline in 2022.

With the nuclear phase-out, Germany has "laid the foundation for an internationally competitive energy structure in Germany," says Hendricks. But according to the Federal Network Agency, the cost for emergency interventions after all nuclear power plants are shut down could rise to four billion euros.

In Switzerland, too, there is an increase in the number of emergency interventions in the power grid. This is due to the expansion of wind and solar power and network instabilities abroad, which also affect Switzerland. In addition, network expansion is also lagging far behind in Germany. As the Basler Zeitung reported in November, the Swiss grid operator Swissgrid had to intervene 274 times last year through to the end of August, a doubling in comparison with the prior year. Swissgrid plans to announce next week how many network interventions occurred in 2017 as a whole.  

Translation to English using Google Translate


JAN 6 2018
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