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Everyone having (to have) their say takes time

Why grid expansion in Germany is progressing so slowly

At the minute, 6,700 kilometres of new power lines are being planned, but so far only one-fifth have been approved. Since 2009, transmission grids have been expanded by less than 1,000 kilometres – even though a considerable portion of today’s demand had already been identified by this point. In Part 1 of the series we showed that if network expansion continues at its current rate, it will take another 60 to 70 years to complete. Part 2 dealt with the integration of European electricity grids. In Part 3, we want to know why the expansion of the grid section between Kiel and Constance is not progressing faster.

For Peter Altmaier (CDU) the expansion of the transmission networks is a necessary evil: “We’re dealing with an issue where you can rarely make everyone happy. Power lines only delight certain people,” confesses the German Minister of Economics on the website of his ministry.

In addition, the prospect of entirely stable power supply is no longer alluring. However, it is this stability that is often taken for granted – which precisely constitutes what is at stake should the expansion of the network falter. It is imperative that the large transmission grids become much more efficient if the wind power produced in northern and eastern Germany is to supply the industrial centres of southern and western Germany in the future. And there is no way around this, considering the last nuclear power plants will be taken off the grid in 2023.

This issue has been on the radar for ten years. The German Power Line Expansion Act (EnLAG) came into force in 2009. This put the expansion of the network squarely in the hands of the relevant regional governments. Two years later, the federal government wanted to give the project a further boost. Thus, the German Network Agency (BNetzA) was brought on board as a higher-level authority via the Network Expansion Acceleration Act (NABEG).

Complicated approval process

But instead of accelerating, the expansion of the network began to falter. Initially, this was also due to the fact that the authorities still had to help their staff become accustomed to their new responsibilities. At least that’s how a spokesman for the transmission grid operator Amprion put it in a conversation with en:former: “First, the required number of skilled workers had to be recruited and trained.” However, this explanation doesn’t even begin to account for the extent of the delay: “At the end of the day, it is because of the extremely long approval processes. One single building project can involve 15 or 20 folders of files.” That sounds like a lot of bureaucracy. And it is.

This is exactly where the German Minister of Economics wants to step in. Since October, his draft bill has been available for the ministries to vote on.

Among other things, Altmaier is focusing on simplifying certain administrative acts. In future, for example, there will be a shorter process to approve an existing power line which simply needs to be equipped with more efficient cables. Before now, this required the same approval process as a completely new construction project. However, this will not solve the underlying issue as the core problem is based on an entirely different matter.

Public involvement

The process follows a strict structure. First, the BNetzA determines demand: How much electricity needs to flow from where to where? Then the Bonn authority determines the starting and end points of the required lines. The next step is to sound out possible routes. At the suggestion of the network operators, the Federal Planning Department draws up the routes which can measure up to one kilometre in width. Then things get serious.

Before these plans are finalised, politicians, representatives of interested parties and affected individuals get together at conferences for applications and at hearings where they discuss each individual project with the network operators. The BNetzA mediates, leads these proceedings and ultimately decides on the construction of the lines. “We are involving people in the expansion of the power grid to an unprecedented degree,” says spokeswoman Carolin Bongartz of BNetzA. And that is a good thing: “This will help us to achieve the highest possible level of acceptance and ultimately prevent later lawsuits.” However, the process also takes a very long time.

A difficult balancing act

Resistance to the construction of high-voltage and ultrahigh-voltage power lines often comes from the public: from nature conservationists who fear for a threatened habitat. From residents who fear their quality of life will worsen. And from land owners who care about the value of their property.

However, there are also conflicts between federal and regional politicians: Some want to expedite the expansion of the grid in order to secure the supply of electricity. Others want to protect their communities from becoming affected or preserve a landscape that is attractive to tourists.

All these are legitimate concerns. That is why the transmission system operator Amprion has also expressed their explicit interest in systematically weighing up each party’s needs: “Once a line has been built, it will stay put for several decades. So it makes sense to plan its construction carefully.” But, as already mentioned, this attention to detail takes time – a lot of time. What’s more, the delay is costing power customers dearly – to the tune of 1.4 billion euros in 2017 alone, to be precise.

Lengthy surveys

Before all parties have agreed on a route map for the power lines, it is not uncommon for several years to go by. This is also due to the fact that the different parties rely on surveyors, who look at the feasibility of a construction project and the effects it will have on nature and the surrounding population.

These surveys are not only necessary for the finished power line, but also for the construction process itself. Where will the access routes be? At what time of day is construction allowed to take place? Will roads have to be closed so that parts can be delivered? One must also consider that one single environmental assessment can take well over a year, as the local flora and fauna must be studied for a whole vegetation cycle – i.e. over all four seasons. “What with the current influx of projects, our surveyors can barely keep up”, says Amprion. This causes additional delays, which ultimately can’t be helped.

The relevant regional authority can only compile a planning approval document when all required assessments have been submitted. Only then can the grid expansion begin. At least in theory. For last but not least, affected parties – despite best efforts to accommodate their views during the coordination process – often file an appeal. The resulting worst case scenario for grid expansion itself is that the decision is revoked and the whole process is forced to go back to square one.

In the ‘Grid Expansion’ series, en:former looks at technical, societal and economic challenges as well as the initiatives and innovations to surmount them. In the next part of series we will turn to technical approaches to accelerate grid expansion.

Photo credits: shutterstock.com, icon99; shutterstock.com, ElenVD; shutterstock.com, Slawomir Kruz; RWE AG

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