The Energiewende is running up against its limits

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Prunerov coal power plant North Bohemia Czech Republic (photo Vaclav Vasku)

Prunerov coal power plant North Bohemia Czech Republic (photo Vaclav Vasku)

German transmission system operator Tennet recently announced an 80% increase in its transmission fees because of the high construction costs of new power lines to accommodate renewable energy. A study of the Düsseldorf Institute for Competition Economics found that by 2025 costs of the Energiewende could exceed €25,000 for an average four-person household. Jeffrey Michel concludes that the Energiewende is running up against its limits – but may be saved by imported coal power from Central Europe.

Germany’s decision in 2011 to abandon nuclear power meant replacing 22% of the country’s electricity supplies by the end of 2022. With nine reactors since retired, that figure has dropped to 14%. Five of the remaining eight plants with a combined net capacity of 6.7 GW are located in southern Germany. New centralized gas power stations could replace some of that generation. The remainder must be superseded by local combined heat-and-power (CHP) plants, reduced demand, imported electricity, and renewable energy technologies.

The conditions for non-fossil power generation in Germany’s southern states are far from ideal, however. Solar power potential is limited with only 955 full-load hours of irradiation per year in Bavaria. The scarcity of historic windmills testifies to air currents too weak even to grind grain. Germany’s premier industrial region must therefore be re-energized by other means.

Storage could be a solution, but battery banks for storing solar energy are only gradually being deployed, while hydroelectric pumped storage plants of up to 1,060 MW have become unprofitable due to depressed power trading prices. Cross-country transmission from large-scale photovoltaic and wind farms throughout Germany is therefore essential for filling the nuclear gap. However, the wide-ranging renewable power installations in north and eastern rural regions often generate excessive amounts of electricity simultaneously, necessitating expensive grid intervention measures.

Overhead power lines

Despite the impending need to supersede nuclear generation, transmission corridors from the North Sea to near Munich and Stuttgart are beset by planning delays. Overhead power lines are opposed by many for aesthetic and touristic reasons. Some people fear health detriments from electromagnetic radiation.

As a result, the German cabinet adopted a resolution in October 2015 to lay 1,000 km of long-distance cables underground. This was estimated at the time to cost €3 to €8 billion more than the overland option. TSO Tennet now expects total realization expenses of €4–5 billion for transmission from Saxony-Anhalt to Bavaria and €10 billion for the northern corridor to the southwest. These figures might be exceeded by the middle of the coming decade, however, if electricity usage in the transportation and building heating sectors rises beyond current estimates.

Underground power lines have other disadvantages. Although they carry direct current (DC) with radiation as harmless as the Earth’s magnetic field, and have no weight restrictions, repeated heating from power surges can lead to early failure. The rated service lifespan of 40 years is already only half that of overhead power lines.

Growing costs

The retirement of each southern German nuclear reactor will reduce net generating capacities by an average of 1.3 GW, necessitating precautionary measures against power blackouts. One option would be simply to raise electricity rates for lowering consumer demand. That alternative is favored by the European Commission to stimulate energy-efficient technologies and influence usage.

But costs to the consumer are already increasing of their own accord. Minimum investment returns of 9.05% for new transmission construction and 7.14% for refurbishment are currently guaranteed by the German federal network agency under the Grid Expansion Acceleration Act. Tennet, which operates the north-southeast transmission system, has announced an 80% increase of long-distance power transmission fees beginning next year, raising the annual price of electricity by about €30 for a three-person household. According to CEO Urban Keussen, the added cost is due to ongoing political controversies, tedious licensing, and public protests. In result, he has said, the “construction of power lines has not proceeded as rapidly as renewables deployment. That should alarm us.”

In a recent study of the Düsseldorf Institute for Competition Economics (DICE), overall expenses of €55.3 billion have been calculated for transmission and distribution by 2025. By that time, the average cumulative cost of the Energiewende could exceed €25,000 for an average four-person household, reports DICE.

The green power surcharge for households and small businesses has been raised by Germany’s network agency from 6.35 cents this year to 6.88 cents/kWh in 2017, mainly to compensate for falling wholesale power prices.

Wind power producers are also hurting from the lack of transmission capability. Last year, 4.1 TWh of wind energy could not be delivered because of grid congestion. In consequence, the federal government now intends to restrict annual wind turbine construction from the 2.5 GW earlier anticipated to only 902 MW in the northern German states – Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Bremen and Hamburg, and adjacent regions of Lower Saxony. The regulation will be terminated automatically at the end of 2020.

Filling the power vacuum

As domestic electricity availability is reduced due to nuclear plant retirements and wind power cutbacks, grid operators in neighbouring countries could increase power deliveries to Germany as a means of alleviating their own overcapacities.

In the past, surplus electricity has been exported from Germany to Eastern Europe in response to prevailing supply deficits. However, new generating capacities that include lignite power plants in North Bohemia, Poland, and the south-eastern EU are increasing local energy autonomy.


In southern Germany, by contrast, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg must eliminate nuclear generation on a rigid timetable. Whenever the necessary substitute capacity is unavailable regionally, it must be found elsewhere. Tennet has emphasized the uncertainties of future electricity transactions, but persistent supply deficiencies were already predicted in 2014 by a study of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) for the government of Baden-Württemberg.

Czech lignite potential

Certainly the Czech Republic has recently enhanced its power export potential. After an advanced 660 MW coal power plant at Ledvice was proposed without enough lignite available for long-term operation, the mining limits for the Bílina surface mine established in 1991 were lifted by parliamentary resolution. An additional 100 million metric tons of lignite can now be excavated, allowing power generation at Ledvice to at least mid-century.

Extended operation until 2030 is also foreseen at the 820 MW Chvaletice lignite power plant owned by Severní energetická. In addition, the semi-state power producer ČEZ has already dedicated €3.65 billion to reconditioning 11 hard coal and lignite power plants.

An existing transmission line between Vyskov in North Bohemia and Prague was recently enhanced by a parallel corridor purportedly to accommodate wind-generated electricity flowing across the border from Saxony.

By coincidence, the Czech consortium EPH/PPF has also taken over four lignite power stations with adjacent surface mines from Vattenfall in Saxony and Brandenburg to form the Lausitz Energie AG (LEAG). The combined generation capacity after the scheduled retirement of two 500 MW blocks at Jänschwalde by 2019 will be 7.1 GW. Some of the electricity generated may be destined for North Bohemia, where four phase-shifting transformers are currently being installed at Vyskov as a barrier against excess German wind power. Lusatian electricity from lignite might instead be dispatched along the same route during low-wind periods.

Expanded power transfers from the Czech Republic to Bavaria and Austria could prove particularly cost-effective under these circumstances. The new transmission line between Vyskov and Prague has cost only €102 million, less than €1.1 million per kilometer despite the 270 pylons required along the route. Further grid expansions would likely be achievable at lower risk than the construction of gas power plants with uncertain long-term investment returns.

Outdated blueprints

Austria is another potential exporter of electricity to Germany. Statistically around one-quarter of the electricity exported by Austria to Germany results from hydroelectric storage, with domestic and imported power used for pumping. Austria has recently dedicated Europe’s most modern pumped storage hydroelectric plant in Reißeck. The 430 MW cavern plant will help absorb excess power received from Germany for later redistribution.

When nuclear phase-out in Germany is culminated at the end of 2022, annual power generation will have been reduced by an additional 90 TWh. It is hoped that Germany will ultimately have a wide variety of domestic and international options at its disposal. Its grid architecture would likely be aligned toward achieving predictable revenues, and will include a profusion of underground cables. But Germany may also have to be saved by the flexibility and resourcefulness of the Central European electrical power industry, based mainly on coal power. Whatever the final outcome, the obsolescence of many original blueprints for the Energiewende is already apparent.

Editor’s Note

Jeffrey Michel ( is an independent energy expert based in Hamburg. See his author’s archive on Energy Post.


  1. says

    If electricity prices are being driven up so much, is it not likely that an increasing proportion of consumers will switch to solar self-consumption (possibly with battery storage)? And if this happens, will it not lessen the need for energy imports?

  2. S. Herb says

    Thanks for this summary with unpalatable news which deserves greater attention. I am less concerned by the prospect of some additional lignite power generation than by the question of whether we have a viable escape route from it on a 2030s time-scale.

  3. Tilleul says

    Most of the problem here are not technical but linked to a bad market design that assume that the grid is a giant copper plate and botllenecks do not exist… At one point we should ask ourselves if the power sector would not be better with gentlemen agreements like the telecom with a regulator who is only there to check if everything is ok once in a while and don’t bother anyone the rest of the time…

    There are GWs of CCGT who are being shut down and could be used to power the south of Germany instead of coal power coming from the North. The only thing that prevent that is because the power market is designed in such a way that you run the powerplants according to their production cost and not to their global cost (production + burden on the grid).

    Instead of builidng billions of transmission, introducting a price zone could be an option
    (see for example : )

    Another way which would be to shift the grid costs from consumers to producers…

  4. Mike Parr says

    Once upon a time in a MS far away (Germany) DENA (or it could have been DNetz or whatever they call themselves now) commissioned a report looking at network options, come the time that fossil & nuclear were closed. Various options were considered for line upgrades. Reconductoring, dyamic line rating (DLR) and HVDC were thrown into the pot. DLR was by far the cheapest followed by re-conductoring (using carbon-fibre cored conductors). Oddly & interesting the 1st two are – shock horror – not made by German companies, oddly the last is. Fast forward to today & lo & behold German citizens are funding a German sourced solution – bravo & hats off to them – keeping good German citizens employed making good (and very expensive) German kit …….when for 1/10th of the price they could have had an equally functional system …oh hang on a sec…. something seems to be wrong here……………over to you Mrs Merkel to explain why the Energiewende is costing so much – & by the way – I hear that you have successfully reviewed downwards the return on TSOs asset base (8% down to 5% is it?) – bravo to that – just in time for all that new expensive network build out – gosh how very convenient.

    • Bas says

      Sorry Mike, but the cost equation is less clear.
      You are right that thicker lines with fiber cores can transport substantial more AC electricity (avoiding skin effect and having more cooling surface).*) But those thicker lines also catch more wind (and are also somewhat heavier).
      So stronger poles, etc. needed…
      Which imply difficult to get consent of the local communities ….

      And then they have lines that transport only ~2 times more power, while they need far more…

      *) They also transport more DC electricity as the cooling surface of the line become larger due to the fiber core which is relative light and doesn’t transport power so doesn’t need cooling.

      • Bas says

        In addition; look at the lines in this picture.

        They split each cable in 4 lines, kept apart with distance holders. A cheaper and more reliable solution than a thick cable with fiber core. Also because such thick cables are less flexible, while they (need to) swing in the wind, and more difficult to handle.

        It’s possible to use distance holders for 8 lines per cable (I once saw 6 lines per holder). But then again the poles need to be replaced, requiring permits, etc.

        • Helmut Frik says

          This is the cause why it is always a good idea to build the poles with high static reserves when they are replaced somewhere due to age, to allow significant higher diameters later on. The costs of the addittional tons of steel are negible compared to the cost of additional lines or replacements of poles later on. Problem is the use of this (small) investment will not show up in the next quater of year, bot in years or decades.
          Which is why i doubt this reasonable investment will happen.
          Poles which allow e.g. – to pick a randome number –
          instead of 2 3phase AC systems 400kV each with 4x125mm² or 4x512mm² wires to use 3 +/-400kV DC-Systems with 4x5000mm² (45mm diameter) (Or to be correct 6 half DC Systems as far as faulures are concerned) would lower transmission losses so much and increase maximum transission loads enough to allow intercontinental power transfers without havein a significant different looking landscape than today.
          Naturally +/-1100kV or higher work even better where there is sufficient space for them.

          • Bas says

            Are there studies that show a.o. the degradation of lines hanging in the air with diameters of 45mm or bigger?
            Seems to me that as they swing in the wind, the internal friction becomes substantial, limiting the live of the cable.

            Space enough for 1100KV if the poles are high enough (~50% or more higher). But reliable technology?

            • Helmut Frik says

              In china the 1100kV technology is used and looks reliable as the 800kV technology before. My Professor invented 1000kV equipment several decades ago already.
              Internal friction – no the angles are to small for much friction. 400m from tower to tower in relation to a 20 or 40mm cable – calulate the length difference per m of wirle length with a usual angle change of a swinging cable, which is not allowed to move more than a few meters because otherwise it could get connection to another cable.
              And remember there are cables in use for bridges with above 1,000,000mm². There are ropes in similar sizes than 40mm in use in ropeways, too.

      • Mike Parr says

        Dynamic line rating with carbon cored conductors would get you a very good result. DLR on its own can boost line capacity by 150 to 170% (Elia uses it) carbon cored conductors could add to this – even if the same cross-section is retained (200 – 250% – sure a bit larger cross-section could cause greater windage – but most towers have a significant safety factor (& any way the problem is in the winter – & running lines hot is a great way of getting rid of icing problems which in turn sorts out windage problems due to icing). Skin effect? as long as you have AC you have skin effect. Of course one could always do DC on a double CCT line – one side go – other side return – but doing any of the above ain’t as good as (costly) new build – gotta build up that asset base etc.

  5. hfrik says

    The german power exports are constant almost all around the clock and reach 50 TWh neto already. so a closue of nuclear power in germany will primary reduce exports.
    The main North-South power lines are delayed. ths causes higher rates tor tranmission, because the resulting curtailments are payed this way. Ony 5% of the additional money is spent for the grid extensions.

    • says

      And why would you provoke additional transport costs? It is always the rule to try to reduce transport/manipulation/transmission costs in order to make a sustem sustainable. With one dimensional renewable oberproduction on the north the need to invest heavily in stransmission system emerged. Against the logic of sustainable economy. And since it is against the logic it already provoke problems.

      • Bas says

        why would you provoke additional transport costs?
        Because the total costs (buying the power there + transport costs to where you need it) are lower.

        Don’t see how electricity transport cables can be against “sustainable economy”.

      • Helmut Frik says

        Yes, transporting electricity in high volumes on long distances is cheap, just the entry investments are high, but can be used for many many decades. The oldest 400kV towers in use in germany are 90 years old now. Ant they were build to export and import power towards the hydro and pumped hydro power stations in Austria for balancing the grid. Exactly the same puropse as they are still needed today with rising amounts of renewables.

  6. Jan Veselý says

    Two details:
    1) That DICE study is just a pure nonsense. An economy-based research institute cannot distinguish between cash flow and cost.
    2) That new transmission line in my home CZ will not help with Saxony-to-Bavaria flow at all because it is designed to transfer power from NW Bohemian lignite plants to central region to substitute soon-to-be-closed 500MW of lignite Melnik plant. A real help would be link upgrade through western Bohemia a.k.a. Hradec-Plzen-Etzenricht.

    • says

      1) The DICE figure quoted of €55.3 billion pertains to transmission and distribution alone. Based on the German experience with other infrastructure projects, the final expense might double over initial conservative estimates made for achieving political approval. That figure pales in comparison, however, with the €520 billion cited as the overall cost of the Energiewende by 2025. The DICE study appeared only on October 10th, so that its ultimate contribution to durable cost/benefit analyses remains to be seen.

      2) When preparations began in 2007 for the second transmission link from North Bohemia to near Prague, the current levels of wind power peneration from Saxony could not be anticipated. Germany’s 2011 decision to phase out nuclear generation was also not forseeable. Enhancing transmission capacities to eastern Bavaria, as you have suggested, would now be a logical response to the altered conditions of supply and demand. Just today, an article appeared in the local press confirming that the discussion on alternative cable routes in that region will endure at least until 2019:

  7. says

    What would happen to the explained problem with one only “minor” change in the equasion: to restitute nucler energy. For those that are not operated by ideology but by reason, such solution is almost self evident.

  8. Karel Beckman says

    A lot of people seem to be in denial when it comes to the costs of the Energiewende. To be critical of the Energiewende is not the same as to be critical of renewable energy. As Andrej Drapal points out, the Energiewende is the German way of going about the energy transition, which was based on an abrupt phaseout of nuclear power. For what reason? Germany would have been better off leaving its nuclear power intact for a couple of decades longer.

    • Joris van Dorp says

      Good call.

      But I think the chance of Germany altering it’s nuclear phaseout is less likely than the UK altering it’s Brexit.

      It should be noted that the German civilian nuclear industry has already been gutted to bare bones and sold to China (literally, high-tech nuclear equipment and cutting edge prototype technology were shipped in containers yo China). German nuclear industry is dead. All that remains is maintenance and decommissioning capability.

      So there is no turning back for Germany now. They’ve crossed the Green Rubicon. The Energiewende will succeed, or Germany will be the laughing stock of the 21st century.

    • Bas says

      German way of going about the energy transition, which was based on an abrupt phaseout of nuclear power.
      I wouldn’t call it abrupt. The Energiewende started in 2000. In 2003 and 2007 the first NPP’s were closed.

      The picture became blurred when Merkel (driven by her coalition partner FDP) decided in autumn 2010 to postpone the closure of nuclear with 10years, on which her popularity fell.
      She used Fukushima in spring 2011 to return to the original Energiewende with a large gesture (closing the 8 oldest NPP’s), declaring that she would guard the Energiewende.
      The FDP didn’t do such thing and lost >70% of its voters at next elections (no longer in parliament).

  9. Bas says

    No shortage of supply if all nuclear is closed*)
    So no reason to assume that the costs of German electricity will increase more than a cent/KWh (if at all).

    The new Energiewende rules arrange the wind production will be more evenly distributed over the country, which will reduce transport costs.
    *) No increased electricity imports as the expansion of renewable goes much faster than the decrease of nuclear.

    In 2015:
    – renewable production increased with 33TWh.
    – nuclear produced 92TWh*)
    – net export was 52TWh
    So even if they close all nuclear in 2017 they will have enough electricity thanks to renewable increase (nuclear is gradually closed with the last plants closed in 2022).

    *) as they closed a NPP halfway 2015, this year nuclear will produce ~86 TWh.

    • says

      There is a “subtle” difference between installed energy potential and effective energy potential. I could have 1.000.000MW of installed coal plant but without coal effective energy potential of such plant is 0.

      • Bas says

        Agree. Potential is in MW, GW, TW etc.
        But I didn’t state any such potential in my comment.
        Only energy produced and delivered (MWh, etc.)

        So I don’t understand the intention of your comment?

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