German power outage only once every four years

The German government has announced the (modest) progress being made with grid expansions. Further delays are expected. Nonetheless, German electricity reliability remains at a high level. But what about those reports of grid operators frantically intervening to prevent blackouts? Craig Morris reports.

Grid expansion in Germany

Even without the planned grid expansions, Germany has one of the most reliable grids worldwide. (Photo by Alexrk2, modified, CC BY-SA 3.0)


At the beginning of October, the German government published an overview (PDF in German) of grid projects. Adopted in 2009, the law covers projects to be completed up to 2020. Halfway towards that deadline, only a quarter of the projects have been completed, and the new report speaks of “further clear delays” for additional projects.

Some 1,800 kilometers of new power lines are to be built. By mid-2015, only 487 kilometers had been completed, equivalent to 26 percent. Keep in mind, however, that the first Grid Study published by Germany’s Energy Agency (Dena) in 2005 called for up to 7,400 kilometers of power lines – an estimate that has turned out to be grossly exaggerated.

Bavaria in particular opposes new power lines. Recently, an agreement was reached to have these new lines built as underground cables in the hope of increasing public acceptance. Not everyone is pleased, however, in light of the price tag: as much as an additional 8 billion euros (report in German). These lines are needed to prevent loop flows – unscheduled electricity flows passing from northern Germany to southern Germany through neighboring countries.

Nonetheless, German electricity supply remains at an impressively high level. This year, the Network Agency announced that minutes of power outages have fallen to 12 minutes on average for 2014. That does not mean, however, that the average consumer had a power outage lasting 12 minutes last year. In fact, a German ratepayer only experiences 0.24 power outages per year on average – one every four years (report in German).

GET_en__3A8_grid_liability_and_renewablesThe number of re-dispatches has also been skyrocketing, reaching around 8,000 hours in 2013. (Re-dispatching means that grid operators request that a power plant change its scheduled power production in order to stabilize the grid.) A year has 8,760 hours, so you could be excused for thinking that Germany now re-dispatches practically all the time. In fact, these events only affect a part of the grid. Overall, only 0.7 percent of German electricity was re-dispatched in 2013, and critical grid loads only occurred less than two percent of the time on average (report in German).

In other words, these actions are becoming far more frequent but still remained relatively rare. As I recently explained, so is the use of industry demand management. In other words, Germany has options it does not yet need, and critical situations are rare, not common.

Finally, fluctuating solar and wind power are not solely responsible for any of this. Rather, all electricity sources collectively cause such situations. The power line with the most re-dispatches (10 percent of the time) runs from Thüringen to Bavaria, which is also where one of the major new north-south grid lines is to be built. The line would conspicuously connect an area with a lot of lignite but little wind power to a part of the grid where a nuclear plant has just closed down. Critics charge that conventional energy needs the line more than renewable electricity does (report in German).

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International.

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Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

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