German Green Power Forces Neighbors to Bolster Blackout Defenses

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Chart: German Wind Power Peaks

Germany’s drive to harness wind and solar power is producing so much electricity that it’s spilling over into neighbors’ grids and increasing the threat of blackouts.

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.”

Last Reactor

German grid companies plan to spend at least 22 billion euros ($24 billion) on high-voltage power lines as they upgrade networks to accommodate more solar and wind energy before the last of the eight remaining reactors closes in 2022. Nine units generating almost 10 gigawatts -- enough to power 20 million European homes -- have been shuttered since 2011, with the latest on June 27. Nuclear power now accounts for 16 percent of Germany’s electricity, compared with 26 percent for renewables.

German power overflows are increasingly forcing Poland to protect its network from overloading and triggering a blackout. The nation’s grid operator had to double the amount of last-minute changes to power-plant output to balance the surges in the first quarter from a year earlier.

On the windiest days, sometimes more than 50 percent of the power sent from northern Germany to its southern states and Austria travels through Poland and the Czech Republic, according to CEPS.

Surge Impact

Polish grid operator PSE SA says the surges take up so much of its import capacity that there’s not enough remaining for it to regularly carry lower-cost German power that could be made available to commercial users. German electricity for delivery next year is about 18 percent cheaper than Polish power, close to the widest gap since at least 2008, broker data show.

“My boss keeps asking why we aren’t buying power from Germany, but this is practically impossible,” said Henryk Kalis, the energy buyer for ZGH Boleslaw, a zinc processor controlled by ArcelorMittal. The Bukowno, Poland-based company pays more than $26 million a year for electricity.

The Poles and Czechs will by the end of next year finish installing transformers on two power lines connecting with Germany to control the unplanned flows and help free up capacity that can be traded or auctioned off to domestic customers.

While that will ease the pressure from overflows, the Polish and Czech grids still face congestion from the demand for cheap German power in Austria, which shares a wholesale electricity market with Germany.

Network Congestion

For more than a decade, Austrian traders have bought German electricity when it’s cheap to sell to other countries at higher prices. This aggravates network congestion as the amount traded has “significantly exceeded” the planned physical capacity between the countries, Jochen Homann, the president of German grid regulator Bundesnetzagentur in Bonn, said Wednesday.

Europe’s Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators, which monitors the region’s energy grids and markets, is preparing its opinion on whether the German-Austrian market needs to be divided, Ernst Tremmel, a senior legal adviser at ACER, said on Wednesday without providing details on timing.

Austria’s network operator is increasingly stopping traders from buying German same-day power, blocking purchases for 766 hourly periods in the first quarter, compared with 807 in all of 2014, grid data show.

Trading stops have “exploded since the fourth quarter, especially on the import side,” Manfred Knabl, head of trading at Verbund Trading GmbH in Vienna, said on July 3.

National Barriers

For more, read this QuickTake: Wind Power

European Union lawmakers are preparing rules for an “energy union” for 2020, which aims to break down national barriers for power and gas flows, bolster energy security and reduce pollution. A draft outline will be unveiled July 15.

“We’re in an absurd situation,” Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s economy minister, said at a utility conference in Berlin on June 24. “We produce cheap power in the north and can’t ship it south.”

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