As more wildly fluctuating solar and wind energy is fed into the German power grid, the question of how to prevent blackouts has been elevated to urgent.
Germany’s weekly Die Zeit recently published an interview with Franz Untersteller, Environment Minister of the state of Baden Wurttemberg. He claims “electrical power supply will be tight“. The reason is because of the federal government’s latest energy reform plan.
Untersteller believes that Germany is headed on the wrong path and is in the process of repeating California’s 1990s blunders, which led to widespread rolling blackouts and a crippling of the Golden State’s power grid.
Currently Germany’s federal Economics Minister, Sigmar Gabriel is planning a reform of Germany’s electricity market. The aim, Zeit writes, is “to allow growth of the share of fluctuating power generation without the occurrence of blackouts whenever green electricity is lacking due to the weather“.
Untersteller thinks the federal government’s plan will lead to power shortages in some areas, in part as a result of the coming shutdown and/or mothballing of non-fluctuating nuclear and conventional power plants – in combination with the lack of power transmission lines to feed power in from north German offshore windparks. There is now an immediate need for a stable baseload power supply in southern Germany.
However Untersteller sees few investors willing to invest in back-up conventional power plants that can be switched on and off as needed according to fluctuating supply because of their complete lack of profitability: “Why would investors want to build such plants? [..] Talk to the managers of the energy business. Many of them are saying that the investment decisions they made a few years ago would not be made today because of the falling price levels on the spot power exchanges.”
Untersteller calls the federal government’s latest plan for installing reserve capacity using old brown-coal plants “nonsense” because they are unable to switch on and off quickly enough in response to wind and solar power supply fluctuations. Untersteller tells Die Zeit: “Old brown coal plants viewed technically are the crass opposite of flexible power plants.”
Moreover Untersteller is puzzled as to why Germany has opted to use solutions that have already failed in other countries, recounting a meeting he had with managers of Cailfornia power company PG&E:
“When I told them what the German federal government was planning, their eyebrows went up. California had a similar system, but only until the year 2000. They had blackout situations.”
As a solution to Germany’s power grid needs, Untersteller proposes a “focused capacity market“, where in a complicated process certain flexible and environmentally friendly capacities would be bid on and auctioned off with the aim of fulfilling the requirements for a reliable power supply in a market-oriented manner. It would be costly, but Untersteller says, “Supply reliability has its price“, i.e. the consumer would get stuck with the tab.
On the government’s current plan to reform the power market, Untersteller says that it is based on “ideal conditions – on conditions that in my opinion have very little to do with the daily reality in the energy business.”