Wired for trouble

Germany seeks to avert renewables overload by expanding the power grid

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Wait, do we have a permit for this? Source: DPA

Peter Altmaier doesn’t beat about the bush. Visiting the Federal Network Agency on Tuesday, the watchdog for Germany’s electricity market, the economics minister said that plans to expand the country’s power grid were “catastrophically behind schedule.” At the current pace, Germany’s long-term program to switch to renewable energy is at risk, he said.

Mr. Altmaier, a close confidant of Chancellor Angela Merkel, wants to put grid expansion on the fast track, as he made clear when taking office last March. On Tuesday, he presented an action plan to optimize the network, proposing better project controlling and closer coordination at the federal and state level and involving the network operators. Risks would be identified and minimized, the minister said, by agreeing on common targets.

By year-end, Mr. Altmaier intends to submit a bill to accelerate grid expansion and cut times for planning and approval. The proposals, however, are not really new. The government has made several attempts over the years to speed up network expansion, but the results have been incremental at best.

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Rapid expansion of the power grid is key to Germany’s long-term conversion to renewable energy. In future, the country will rely more on energy from wind farms along the North Sea and Baltic coasts, but the biggest consumers are in Germany’s industrial heartlands in the west and south. This means more electricity lines are needed to feed juice from the north to the rest of the country.

Progress has been achingly slow. The existing network is bumping up against its limits, forcing Germany’s four power grid operators — 50Hertz, Amprion, Tennet and TransnetBW — to intervene in grid operations more frequently to ensure smooth supply. Last year, the costs of these interventions amounted to €1.4 billion ($1.6 billion) and are expected to rise, with consumers picking up the bill in the form of increased network fees.

Mr. Altmaier needs a success, but it’s doubtful his action plan will deliver. The situation has been muddled for years. When the Energy Lines Expansion Act (EnLAG) was passed in 2009, the construction of 1800 kilometers (1,120 miles) of new lines was declared a priority. But nearly a decade after EnLAG came into force, and well behind its 2015 project deadline, only 800 kilometers have been completed.

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Give that grid operator in the back an approval form. Source: DPA

In 2013, two years after the Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan, Ms. Merkel shepherded a law through parliament to accelerate the phase-out of nuclear energy and speed the transition to renewables. The law covered 5,900 kilometers of power lines, including 3,050 kilometers of network reinforcements and 2,900 kilometers of new lines. Again, things have moved at a snail’s pace: So far, a mere 150 kilometers have been completed. In 2015, the blueprint shifted some of the high-voltage lines from masts to underground cables, causing further delays for planning and approval.

The timetable is looking tight. By the end of 2022, when Germany takes its last nuclear power plant off the grid, it will need the networks to be ready for the full switch to renewables. But with grid operators reporting more project delays, Mr. Altmeier’s action plan admits the all-important new north-south power lines (see graphic) won’t be finished until at least 2025.

Ask for the reasons for the delays and you’ll get different answers. Network operators complain that approval procedures are still too time-consuming and laden with bureaucracy. “We drive vans full of files to the Federal Network Agency,” a source at one grid operator said. “In some cases, this still isn’t good enough.”

Klaus Stratmann covers energy policy and politics for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Jeremy Gray, an editor at Handelsblatt Global, adapted this story into English. To contact the author: stratmann@handelsblatt.com

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