Why Germany has no need for north-to-south power lines

Germany’s grid expansion between north and south has caused a lot of controversy. Instead of building new power lines, the Energiewende should embrace smart solutions in form of demand-side management and by building renewables close to the largest power consumers in the south, argues Andreas Kraemer.

Power Lines

Power lines are a controversial and expensive matter – better planning of the Energiewende can reduce the need for further grid expansion. (Photo by Daniel Ullrich, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Melissa Eddy, writing in the New York Times on Christmas Eve 2014, fails to explain why “Germans Balk at Plan for Wind Power Lines” to bring wind power from the North to the power-hungry South: The North-to-South transmission lines are not needed; they are a waste of money, designed to increase the cost of the Energiewende and thus do discredit it, and to split the environmental community in various ways. Here is why:

The promoters of these North-to-South “Electricity Autobahns” have you believe that Germany has good wind only offshore in the North, and faces the risk of black-out in the South, when the last nuclear power plants go cold at the end of 2022. (If they go cold; these folks also float the idea of “extending the running time of nuclear power plants beyond 2022” whenever they have a chance.) Their map shows Germany as an island. Look at a map of the European power grid and you understand what nonsense has been planted in the general public‘s and many a politician‘s mind. (On the side: One of the proposed transmission lines was designed to bring lignite power from the East into the South. It was sold as “necessary for the Energiewende” but was in fact the exact opposite.)

The capacity of the existing North-to-South transmission lines is fully sufficient in the (daily) average. More demand management and storage in the South would improve capacity utilisation. Many large industrial power users have ways to become “swing consumers” and reduce their demand when power prices are high. The innovative businesses in Germany‘s South could benefit from even lower average power prices if they put their mind to it. Increasingly inexpensive storage, built up incrementally and flexibly in the South close to demand centers, is way more economical than large-scale and indivisible, capital-intensive, medium-term investment in high-voltage transmission lines, which create strong economic and technical path-dependencies. The German auto industry, which is strong in the South, could take a lead here.

There is wind also in Germany‘s South. Instead of putting turbines into the corrosive marine environment of the North and Baltic Seas, on muddy ground in 40m of water‘s depth in large off-shore parks that need to be connected to the grid in what are in effect vulnerable choke points, the turbines could rise above the forest canopies on the high plains and ridges of Southern Germany. The project sizes and risks, costs of grid connection and system integration would be way lower than with off-shore wind power.

Germany still has a massive problem with atomic power from France, which all too often clogs up the German grid in the West and South-West, including the North-to-South lines, on its way to Switzerland and Italy. It would be way quicker and cheaper to build an underwater cable from Marseille to Rome than to expand grid capacity in Germany just so that it can accommodate that atomic power.

The solution is Tunur, a company that wants to bring 24h solar power from Tunesia via an underwater cable to Italy (near Rome) and thus into the integrated European power market. Tunur power could replace the power currently imported into Italy from the North and reverse the flow across the Alps. Tunur‘s power is already sold in the UK, so the project is fully financed; it would not cost Germany a cent, just a vote for accelerating this private project as part of the 315bn Euro investment stimulus package.

Freeing up the German grid would also help reduce stress with Eastern neighbours Poland and the Czech Republic as “loop flows” would be reduced. A direct transmission line from Germany to the UK, again as part of the 315bn package, would facilitate regional grid integration and reduce France‘s ability to way-lay Tunur‘s power on the way to its customers. (Excuse me for the simplistic description of power flows across Europe and the Mediterranean.)

As a whole, the concept of building all these (8300km of) new power lines in Germany is part of a framing of the Energiewende that focuses on supply-sided expansion of large-scale and distant-from-demand renewable energy, denigrates the potential of more distributed generation and storage in a smart grid that would also enable demand flexibility to help reduce total system cost. Tennet, the transmission grid operator in question here, operates a regulated “cost-plus-margin” business and has an interest in making expensive investments for a regulated rate of return way higher than the current cost of capital.

Melissa Eddy is normally relatively knowledgeable and scrupulous in her reporting, but a number of blatant falsehoods give away some presumably heavy-handed editorial guidance. Just to examples to prove this point: 1) The nuclear phase-out was agreed in 2000; it didn‘t need Fukushima. 2) Germany has record low power prices for businesses, the larger the user, the lower the price. No-one in German industry worries about any “growing cost” of the Energiewende, because a) the Energiewende costs only a little more than the business-as-usual maintenance of the risky and dirty power supply system that is now being replaced, and b) industry does not pay for the policy but gets all the benefit (in the form of very cheap power in a very reliable grid).

R. Andreas Kraemer is the Founding Director & former CEO of Ecologic Institute. This post was first published on his private blog and refers back to an article by Melissa Eddy published in The New York Times in December 2014.


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