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Gridlock
Germany’s Green Dreams Causing Energy Nightmares Across Europe

Germany’s rapid renewable energy expansion is threatening the stability of the European power grid. The growth of wind and solar energy, backed by substantial government subsidies called feed-in tariffs, has surprised many; last year renewables supplied nearly 26 percent of Germany’s power, more than any other single power source. But while greens are lauding this growth as an environmental policy triumph (conveniently skipping over the costs those feed-in tariffs are imposing on German customers), the rest of Europe is struggling to beef up power grids to handle the increased intermittent load. Bloomberg reports:

Poland and the Czech Republic are spending $180 million on equipment to protect their systems from German power surges, while Austria is curbing some trading to prevent regional networks from collapsing. On a windy day, the overflow east can exceed the output from four atomic reactors.

Germany’s fivefold increase in green energy in the past decade has outpaced investment in power lines to move it across the country. Electricity is looping through Poland and the Czech Republic to reach southern Germany, where supply is constrained as Chancellor Angela Merkel shuts nuclear plants after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan. The disruptions show the limits to the European Commission’s vision of a single power market.

“A huge accumulation of overflow increases the threat of a blackout,” Zbynek Boldis, the head of trade and international relations at Czech grid CEPS AS, said in an interview in Budapest. “The root of the situation is allowing a huge amount of electricity to be generated regardless of the capacity of the grid.”

Germany’s own power network is woefully underprepared to deal with the cyclical surging of more distributed supplies, so Berlin is relying on its neighbors’ infrastructure to power parts of the country. Within Germany, NIMBY-ism is preventing the necessary build-out of power lines to help connect supply to demand as communities resist the incursion of high-tension wires.

Policymakers need to take the costs of upgrading grids into account when they start planning to expand renewables’ market share. The intermittency of wind and solar energy requires lines that can send power in two directions: from wind and solar producers when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining or to those same sources during those cloudy, windless days.

Power sold internationally, but those porous boundaries mean nations like Poland and the Czech Republic are now having to share in some of the problems Germany’s energiewende has kicked off.

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  • CaliforniaStark

    The article’s statement that “last year renewables supplied nearly 26 percent of Germany’s power, more than any other single power source” is incorrect. A total of about 44% of Germany’s electricity was provided by coal; the amount of coal use has actually gone up over the last decade. Recently, the German government has indicated it will continue to rely on coal as its primary non-renewable energy source.

    It also should be noted that the term “power” in the above quote refers only to electricity. Last year about 16% of electricity in Germany was generated from wind and solar. The term “energy” includes transportation fuels and non-electrical power sources such as oil and gas. As percentage of total energy produced in Germany, wind and solar may still be in the single digit range.

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