Before Germany’s big shift to renewable energy, electricity for industry was produced where it was needed; near the manufacturing heartlands of the Ruhr and greater Stuttgart.
But now that nuclear reactors are being switched off, and renewables are taking priority over energy generated from fossil fuels, the country’s energy is being generated a long way from its heavy industry.
From wind farms mainly in the north, more than 4,500km of additional extra-high-voltage lines will snake across the country by the end of this decade, to supply the areas of highest demand.
Germany’s lengthy planning process and lack of co-ordination between the federal states has snarled up the line building programme. Of the 1,900km designated by law as priority projects, less than 300km is built.
Lex Hartman, a member of the management board at Tennet, Germany’s biggest high-voltage grid operator, says that in some cases it has taken up to a decade to secure a licence to build power lines.
“These extremely long approval procedures have to change,” Mr Hartman says. “There are some improvements being made by the government.”
In April, the Bundestag passed legislation to speed up the planning process. The new law identified 36 lines as of “urgent need”, and made the federal administrative court responsible for legal cases. Previously, legal challenges could be brought in local or regional courts.
But public opinion in Germany is frosty towards the extension of the grid. A poll for the environment ministry last August showed that while 87 per cent of those asked were in favour of offshore wind parks, only 42 per cent would accept new power lines.
Plans for the Rheinland to build a giant converter station at Osterath, near Düsseldorf, have provoked an outcry from residents who fear exposure to noise, traffic and electromagnetic radiation. Under Germany’s energy plans, Osterath will be a vital junction in an “electricity autobahn” linking north and south. Tennet is hosting hundreds of meetings to win over the public. “I think that building infrastructural projects such as grids is only possible with the agreement of the people,” Mr Hartman says. “Therefore, we are going, in the regions where power lines will be built, to talk to the locals, include them in the planning.”
Nimbyism is not the only difficulty. There are technical challenges in hooking up wind farms far out in the North Sea into the German grid. Some are as far as 100km from the coast.
Power is transferred over long distances as DC, to minimise losses, then converted to AC to be fed into the onshore grid. The process involves undersea cables and converter stations onshore. Because of the expense, several wind farms are bundled through one DC connection.
Peter Heinrich, managing director of Fichtner Wind Energy, a consultancy, says: “At these distances from the coast, direct current is the only possible technique. But few companies have done this in the North Sea. This is a technical challenge, [which must be met] under pressure of time.”
At Riffgat, north of the island of Borkum, Tennet hit a further obstacle: almost 30 tonnes of wartime munitions on the submarine cable route, which took 18 months to clear.
The offshore wind industry is young; but if Germany is to achieve its goal of at least 35 per cent of energy from renewable sources by 2020, it forms a vital part of the mix.
Out at sea, the wind blows for longer and more consistently than on land, though the risks and associated costs are greater.
Mr Heinrich, of Fichtner, says: “Because of the burden of wind and waves, you need to be securely founded. There are factors relating to the establishment of turbines, the technical equipment [you need], special ships, with proportionate costs. There’s an enormous weather risk.”
Costs will go down as the industry chalks up experience, achieves greater economies of scale, and there is more competition. As the industry learns to manage its risks, cheaper credit will play a part in bringing down costs, Mr Heinrich predicts: “A fifth of the reduction in price [that we foresee] is a reduction in financial costs.
“Today, offshore projects suffer from more expensive credit than onshore. When offshore receives cheaper credit, it will be cheaper.”
In talks to form a governing coalition in Germany, negotiators have agreed to contain the ballooning costs of the country’s shift to renewable energy. The target for offshore wind turbines has been reduced from 10GW to 6.5GW by the end of this decade. The offshore target for 2030 has been reduced from 25GW to 15GW.
The proposals, part of a programme that includes reducing subsidies for offshore wind farms, aim to tackle the costs of Germany’s transition to sustainable energy. The reforms have been welcomed as setting more realistic goals.
Mr Hartman, of Tennet, says: “That is good news. It seems that they are getting more realistic. If that is the case, it would be a good step. The new targets are much more likely to be met.”
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