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.

Almost half the necessary power is already being generated. The question is, can the power be delivered when and where it’s needed?

The Energy Economy Research Center, or FFE, calculates that if everyone drove an electric vehicle, Germany would need an extra 105 terawatt hours (TWh) of power. That’s about 15 percent of current production. Even with this additional demand, “the power supply certainly would not collapse,” Florian Samweber, who specializes in electricity demand and grid stability at FFE, says.

Almost half the necessary power is already being generated. Last year, Germany sold 48 TWh of electricity to other countries. The country also has reserve gas power plants, which are rarely used because green energy has grid priority, but can be activated at any time. The question is, can the power be delivered when and where it’s needed?

It would be convenient for consumers to charge their electric cars at home. In contrast to public charging stations, it wouldn’t cost thousands of euros to install a home connection. Home charging would also be the easiest solution for suppliers, because it enables consumers to slowly charge their batteries overnight putting relatively little strain on the grid. But there’s a problem. “It won’t work if everyone gets home at 7 p.m. and immediately starts charging their cars,” Mr. Samweber says.

Mr. Reiter is convinced there will be bottlenecks unless many power lines and local grid transformers are replaced, particularly in residential areas with scattered development and just a small transformer and thin underground cables.

And grid development has often gone in the wrong direction. Half of Düsseldorf’s 5,000 local grid transformers have been removed in the last 25 years because residential households were consuming less and less electricity. In the 1970s, many households used storage and water heaters that required about as much power as a charging station does today. But household appliances became more and more economical, and electric heating is largely a thing of the past.

Germany still has time to upgrade the grid. But those responsible are wasting it. Take Freiburg, in southwestern Germany, a city famed for its green credentials. Planners working on the new residential neighborhood of Dietenbach have considered parking spaces, connections for buses and trains, and car-sharing. But they haven’t taken into account that many of the cars driven by Dietenbach’s 13,000 residents will be electric — and will need to be charged somewhere.

And it’s not just local politicians and planners who are asleep at the wheel. Instead of promoting expansion of the necessary power connections for charging stations, the German government is actually impeding it at a European level. According to a report in the newsmagazine Spiegel, the German government is trying to block moves in Brussels to improve pre-cabling for residential buildings.

Mr. Reiter is doing what he can. “I can’t just replace or upgrade the more than 1,000 transformers in my city; it would be an eight-figure investment,” he says. So he’s taking a more methodical approach. His staff will map of the city’s power grid, including data from all local grid transformers. Mr. Reiter wants to target permanently overloaded areas with new local grid transformers, voltage regulators and thicker cables. To create the map, the city’s 1,000 transformers will have to be fitted with sensors to transmit the necessary data.

But federal policy is torpedoing the plan. Smart grids could give Mr. Reiter the information he needs. But even in its latest revision from August 2016, a law digitalization of the energy transition made no allowances for electro mobility.

The law only requires intelligent electricity meters in new housing with annual consumption of at least 6,000 kWh. Even with an electric car, most households consume far less than that. So it remains impossible to record how much electricity homes use at different times — precisely the data Mr. Reiter needs for his map, and for intelligent grid expansion.

A project near Augsburg in southern Germany shows just how effective digitalization could be. Innogy subsidiary Lechwerke operates a smart grid in the town of Wertachau, where every household is equipped with an intelligent electricity meter, allowing the utility to determine how much power each consumes at any given time.

The Smart Operator, a letter-sized box, measures electricity use at various times. On the basis of recurring patterns, it calculates supply and demand forecasts for the coming days. The algorithm notes that Ms. Meier likes to charge her BMW i3 around 9 a.m., whereas Mr. Müller only charges his Tesla every other day, but always after 9 p.m. It can tell the Meier family’s meter when there’s plenty of power available to charge the car, or warn it to wait a couple hours if demand is high.

Customers aren’t aware of the control operations taking place in the background, and their service isn’t impaired, says Andreas Breuer, director of new technologies at Innogy. If the town as a whole consumes too much electricity, extra is brought in through the medium-voltage grid. Conversely, if residents produce an excess of power from rooftop solar arrays, it’s fed back into the grid.

Wertachau has shown that relatively minor IT investment can save much larger spending on new transformers, cables and excavation, Mr. Breuer says. In a similar project in the Eifel Mountains in western Germany, €1 million spent on IT saved Innogy 10 times that building a new power line.

“The success of the transformation of transportation will depend on the digitalization of power grids,” Mr. Breuer says.


This article first appeared on the website of German business weekly WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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