smart power

Speeding into a bottleneck

Regierung will Stromengpass per Gesetz verhindern
Pile on the pylons, people. Source: DPA

At conference in the German city of Karlsruhe, industry figures discuss the “mobility of tomorrow.” Martin Reiter, managing director of a municipal electric utility, gets more and more anxious as they talk car-sharing, self-driving buses and mini-taxis. The speakers assume all these vehicles will be electric but not one of the 20 presentations says a word about how all these new electric vehicles are supposed to get their power. “That’s something no one’s planning,” Mr. Reiter says.

Martin Reiter isn’t his real name, but he’s tired of seeing his name in the newspapers. As head of one of Germany’s 880 distribution-grid operators, which transmit energy along the last mile from the transformer to the domestic junction box, it’s his job to ensure residents get exactly the amount of electricity they need at any given time.

“Right now, we know neither when nor where we will be needing large amounts of electricity for electric vehicles in the future,” Mr. Reiter says. “All we know is that we need a lot of electricity.”

The land of fanatical planners lacks a timetable for developing a charging infrastructure and supplying the necessary power. It’s clear the current grid will be too weak in some areas. Operators will face billions in investments to digitalize networks and install new transformers, voltage regulators and power lines. But urban planners ignore the issue, politicians avoid decisive action, and city administrations refuse to commit.

“If I knew the best locations in my city are to provide charging stations for 50,000 electric cars in 10 years, the necessary grid optimization would be manageable and not very expensive,” Mr. Reiter says. But he has nothing to work on.

The auto industry long refused to admit electromobility was coming. Now GM, Ford, Renault-Nissan, VW and Daimler are preparing for mass production. Studies predict 3 million electric cars on German roads by 2025, and as many 20 million by 2040 — that’s half the country’s cars.

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