German energy policy – a template for disaster?

Merkel puts her nation’s infrastructure to the test


If earthquake/tsunami prone Japan has more incentive than most to consign her nuclear power industry to the dustbin of history local lawmakers there last week resisted the temptation to set a target date for such an eventuality – presumably because the government’s plan for replacing the ensuing power generation shortfall remains a ‘work in progress’.

Earthquake/tsunami-free Germany on the other hand does have a ‘Plan A’ in place. But it could yet prove a disaster of man-made proportions – especially if Berlin’s mad dash to ramp up the nation’s power generating capacity from renewable sources, such as wave/wind (offshore and onshore), biomass, and photovoltaic (solar) isn’t implemented correctly.

Barely two months after the March 2011 earthquake/tsunami damaged Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant Berlin confirmed its intention to shut all of its nuclear reactors by 2022 – the final three (of 17) staying open to that date to ensure no disruption to the national power supply. Prior to Chancellor Merkel ordering the temporary shut down of eight plants Germany was generating 23 percent of her electricity needs from nuclear power plants.

The zeal with which Berlin has sanctioned eco-friendly electricity production via the use of attractive feed-in tariffs (subsidies) in recent years has come at the expense of sufficient investment in a national power grid that is now showing signs of creaking.

In short, the nation’s Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG), which offers operators of wind farms, solar arrays and biogas plants a guaranteed, fixed feed-in price for all  electricity they generate over a period of many years, has been too successful.

In addition, power companies are required to purchase this energy, but at a price much higher than what they get for it on the market. Which means – you guessed it – hapless consumers end up with higher electricity bills.

Of course, depending on one’s point of view renewable energy can be viewed as a warm fluffy way of helping to save the planet or, an economic monstrosity foisted upon consumers by governments that customarily use power companies to conduct their dirty work for them.

In Germany’s case the core issue of transmission capacity within the nation’s borders is likely to become an increasingly important one.

It isn’t difficult to see why, given Berlin’s aggressive target of 40 percent of the country’s electricity generating capacity having to come from renewable sources by 2020.

But herein lies the problem; an increase in the use of renewable sources to generate electricity, coupled with developments resulting from the liberalisation of the energy markets, has resulted in alterations in the way electricity generation is structured, which in turn has impacted the stability of the electricity grid itself.

Germany’s grid is designed to connect conventional coal-fired power stations and nuclear power plants with high demand areas. Yet given the geographic concentration of wind energy development in northern Germany this has meant huge variations in the power flow.

As a result of the priority regulation set out in the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG), wind energy supplants a proportion of the electricity produced by conventional power stations. What this means in reality is a regional shortage during periods of high winds of reactive power, which in contrast to active power, can’t be carried over long distances.

The inevitable consequence of further wind energy development is the requirement for further investment to bolster the grid by upgrading the overhead network and installing additional grid equipment, including the use of voltage smoothing technologies to manage potentially disruptive power flows.

Until Berlin is prepared to commit the necessary investment to comprehensively upgrade the grid or remove the priority of wind generated power for inclusion in the network, the underlying problem of a strained network and increasing likelihood of power cuts won’t go away. In fact, it will probably get worse.