Cable Conflict

Germans Embrace Transition to Renewable Energy, Just Not in Their Backyards

Tubes for the underground cables
Germany is building electricity grids above and below ground.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The cost of Germany’s plan to transition from fossil fuels to wind and solar energy, estimated at up to €30 billion, could double or triple if a new national power grid must be built underground.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Germany adopted its new renewable energy plan after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.
    • The plan is requiring the shut down of all German nuclear power plants over the next decade.
    • The plan has subsidized the construction of wind turbines and solar panels, which has caused a glut of electricity and a halving of the wholesale electric price.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

The costs of Germany’s ambitious plan to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy are set to soar as regional governments rebel against plans to build a new national electric grid.

The plan, known in German as the “Energiewende’’ or energy transformation, aims to phase out nuclear power by 2022 and generate 80 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2050. The transition was agreed to after the March 2011 meltdown of a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, which prompted the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, a trained physicist, to agree to phase out Germany’s stable of nuclear power plants.

Analysts have estimated that it will cost €20 billion to €30 billion to upgrade Germany’s electric grid using primarily above-ground cables. But if the same infrastructure has to be placed underground – which may be necessary to appease residents living along the route – the price of the mammoth project could double or triple in cost, one expert estimated.

But these costs are likely to soar in the face of fierce local opposition to the new power lines and pylons that are supposed to be built to support the new electric grid.

Germany’s existing power networks were built in the last century, and were designed to transport electricity from power plants to factories and large towns. In the new era, the grid has to collect locally generated electricity and distribute it across the entire country.

 

The government plans to build 2,650 kilometers (1,643 miles) of new power lines by 2023, and to reinforce and modernize 2,800 kilometers of existing lines. So far, around 300 kilometers of the new lines have been built.

Some of this redistribution can be done with existing networks, but new power lines have to be built to transport energy from the wind turbines along the North Sea to the populated south.

The government plans to build 2,650 kilometers (1,643 miles) of new power lines by 2023, and to reinforce and modernize 2,800 kilometers of existing lines. So far, around 300 kilometers of the new lines have been built.

Building the lines requires the consent of local and regional authorities: something the German government is struggling to secure.

In prosperous, politically powerful Bavaria in the southeast of the country, Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian minister president and leader of the regional Christian Socialist Union party has led the opposition, claiming some of the new construction in is not needed.

Earlier this week, the German federal government, in an apparent concession to Bavaria, shelved plans to build a new above-ground electric power line between Halle in central Germany and Augsburg in Bavaria.

German officials said the government will now consider putting the power lines underground – which would drastically add to the costs of the project.

electricity network

Blue: Future planning

Red: In regional planning

Orange: In plan approval

Yellow: Authorized or under construction

Green: Completed

Source: Bundesnetzagentur

 

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Ilse Aigner, Bavaria´s economy minister said, the regional government would not force residents to accept the grid in its current form.

“One thing is clear. We cannot push through with our grid against resistance from citizens,’’ Ms. Aigner said.

Moving cables underground may appease some residents fearful of losing their view of the countryside, but such as decision could anger German farmers, who will have to deal with the disruption of having fields overturned by the construction.

Amprion, one of four companies responsible for electricity transmission in Germany, has a pilot project in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in northwest Germany to lay electric cables underground. A spokesman, Andreas Preuß, said the project has run into huge opposition from local farmers, who are furious at the disruption.

“Urban people think if you want to put a cable underground you just dig up the sidewalk, put something down and leave it. But the reality is more complicated,” Mr. Preuß said.

An underground grid requires 12 cables, laid inside a pipe and surrounded by liquid soil. The whole structure will be around 22 meters wide and have a width of 35 meters.

 

A labourer installs an attachment to an electricity pylon. Source: Reuters
A labourer installs an attachment to an electricity pylon. Source: Reuters
A labourer installs an attachment to an electricity pylon. Source: Reuters

 

Above-ground cables, by contrast, require just six cables.

The agricultural land in the North Rhine-Westphalia project has five levels of soil, and after digging up the land, Amprion has to ensure the soil is replaced in the same order. Mr. Preuß also noted that the junctions of above-ground and underground cables require a tract of land roughly half the size of a soccer pitch.

There are also fears that heat from underground cables will damage crops, although Mr. Preuß said current research shows no danger of this happening.

Even running underground cables through unpopulated, non-agricultural areas will not be easy. While laying cables, trees cannot be closer than 34 meters to the cable. Once the cable is laid, it still needs a tree-free space of 22 meters along the length of the cable.

Lars Waldmann, an expert at Agora Energiewende, an industry consultant, said Germany’s plans are based on the assumption of a new grid consisting of overhead cables and pylons. If that changes, the costs will explode, he said.

“It is about two to three times more expensive to put a cable underground,” Mr. Waldmann said.

A report on the technology by the German Energy Agency, a government-sponsored consultant, stated underground cables should be the exception, not the rule. Currently, just four short stretches of underground cable planned, and Amprion’s project in North Rhine Westphalia is the first where construction has begun.

The German government has done a poor job of selling the ambitious energy project to its citizens. Official government documents explaining the program are written in flat, bureaucratic language, and the first visible effect of the program has been a sharp rise in energy prices, amid surcharges to fund construction of the network.

At the same time, the plan has caused severe financial distress for the nation’s producers of conventional energy, such as RWE and EON, which have struggled as the wholesale price of electricity in Germany has plunged by half amid a glut of wind and solar power.

EON and RWE have both reported huge losses since the program began, and have responded by mothballing brand new coal-powered and nuclear plants, saying they are no longer profitable in the new pricing environment.

 

 

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