Saying "yes" to the Energy Transition means saying "yes" to the expansion of the grid

For the Energy Transition in Germany to succeed, it needs modern, high-capacity power grids. Because electricity is no longer generated only at a few large power plant sites, but increasingly at distributed locations. More and more photovoltaic installations and windfarms throughout the country are feeding electricity into the grid.

Helicopter assists construction of a power pole© BMWi/ Maria Parussel

A very large proportion of electricity from renewable energy sources is generated by wind power units in northern and eastern Germany – but most of the power demand comes from the industrial locations in the west and south, several hundred kilometres away. To transport the electric power to where it is needed, rapid and significant progress must be made in upgrading and expanding the national grid.

Each individual grid expansion project is a complex process, not only in technical terms. Whether and where new power lines are to run through the country is regularly reviewed in a multi-stage procedure, in which the public is involved at several levels. The aim is to arrive at the decisions required for the expansion of the grid as quickly, transparently and consensually as possible, with broad participation by all stakeholders.

Five stages to the "electricity highway"

In Germany, the expansion of the extra-high voltage grids that transport electricity over long distances – also called electricity highways – is governed by a five-stage procedure: stage one is known as the scenario framework. This answers important questions concerning the future development of the German energy landscape, e.g.: How much electric power will we be using where in ten years time? Or: What role are conventional power plants and renewable energy resources going to play in future? The scenario framework is drawn up by the transmission grid operators, it is approved by the national regulatory authority, the Federal Network Agency (BNetzA).

The transmission grid operators then use the scenario framework as the basis for calculating the need for expansion over the next ten years. The results are then used as inputs for the grid development plan (stage two), which must be confirmed by the BNetzA. Private citizens, associations and public authorities may make constructive contributions in participation rounds.

On the basis of the grid development plan, the Federal Requirement Plan is finally drawn up in stage three. This contains a list of the starting and finishing points of the new power lines needed. At least every three years, the Federal Government submits this plan to Parliament, which decides on which projects for expanding the transmission grid are necessary and urgent.

The transmission grid operators now suggest corridors up to one kilometre wide for each of the projects, through which the new power lines are to run. The Federal Network Agency decides in the context of its federal sectoral planning (stage four) on the rough routing for the large projects that run through several states or cross the borders with the neighbouring countries.

The transmission grid operators have to suggest several alternative routes for each approved corridor. These proposals are submitted for public debate and checked for environmental compatibility. The final decision on the routes that have the lowest impact on local communities and the environment is taken in the plan approval procedure (stage five).

That the expansion of the grid is making good headway is evident from the progress report on the Energy Transition, drawn up in late 2014: investment in the grid by the transmission grid operator almost doubled in 2012 and 2013 compared to previous years. A further significant increase is likewise expected for 2014.

Tomorrow's power grid will be intelligent

Just extending the extra-high voltage lines is not enough to assure the Energy Transition of success. Because the networks that make up the grid also have to cope with new tasks: on the one hand compensating for the fluctuating infeed of electricity from wind and solar energy sources – depending on weather conditions and the time of day or night – and on the other coping with the connection of more and more small power generators such as rooftop photovoltaic installations or small windfarms. Gone are the days when the electricity flowed in a one-way system from the power plants to the consumers. Nowadays many consumers themselves generate electricity – and the power grid has to handle two-way traffic.

These changes call for grid information exchange and communication technology that maintains a balance between generation and consumption – and not just in Germany, but Europe-wide. Optimised transmission and distribution technologies, intelligent power grids, new approaches to grid planning and operations management, and innovative load management can help to achieve a solution here. To provide stronger incentives for investing in the grid, the Federal Government in 2015 is reviewing the underlying statutory instrument (the Incentive Regulation Ordinance).

A number of new grid technologies are still at the development stage and have yet to demonstrate their maturity. This is where the Federal Government's "Power Grids for the Future" funding initiative comes in. This sets an innovation process in motion that covers the whole value-creation chain. This is essential for taking technological leaps, cutting costs and enabling innovative grid technologies to rapidly gain a foothold in the market. The starting signal for this research initiative was given in August 2014. It provides funding for 83 projects with a total volume of about 157 million euros.