Economics, Energy and the Environment

Wind and solar power: Destabilizing the German grid

USFWS Mountain-Prairie (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

USFWS Mountain-Prairie (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

If you’re into energy policy, there’s a must-read article in Der Spiegel, about how wind-power is destabilizing Germany’s energy grid:

It was 3 a.m. on a Wednesday when the machines suddenly ground to a halt at Hydro Aluminium in Hamburg. The rolling mill’s highly sensitive monitor stopped production so abruptly that the aluminum belts snagged. They hit the machines and destroyed a piece of the mill. The reason: The voltage off the electricity grid weakened for just a millisecond.

Workers had to free half-finished aluminum rolls from the machines, and several hours passed before they could be restarted. The damage to the machines cost some €10,000 ($12,300).

In the following three weeks, the voltage weakened at the Hamburg factory two more times, each time for a fraction of second. Since the machines were on a production break both times, there was no damage. Still, the company invested €150,000 to set up its own emergency power supply, using batteries, to protect itself from future damages.

What was the problem?

Behind this worry stands the transition to renewable energy laid out by Chancellor Angela Merkel last year in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Though the transition has been sluggish so far, Merkel set the ambitious goals of boosting renewable energy to 35 percent of total power consumption by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 while phasing out all of Germany’s nuclear power reactors by 2022.

The problem is that wind and solar farms just don’t deliver the same amount of continuous electricity compared with nuclear and gas-fired power plants. To match traditional energy sources, grid operators must be able to exactly predict how strong the wind will blow or the sun will shine.

But such an exact prediction is difficult. Even when grid operators are off by just a few percentage points, voltage in the grid slackens. That has no affect on normal household appliances, such as vacuum cleaners and coffee machines. But for high-performance computers, for example, outages lasting even just a millisecond can quickly trigger system failures.

This graphic shows just how large the wind and solar fluctuations can be:

Catalina Schröder, the author of the Der Spiegel article, tries making lemons into lemonade by pointing out that backup-power providers are doing a lot more business, but of course, this is “broken windows” thinking: ultimately the cost of power redundancy comes out of the consumer’s pocket.

3 thoughts on “Wind and solar power: Destabilizing the German grid

  1. This is a very limited and uneducated view, presented in a “parrot”-fashion.

    The worst part is the last comment:
    “Catalina Schröder, the author of the Der Spiegel article, tries making lemons into lemonade by pointing out that backup-power providers are doing a lot more business, but of course, this is “broken windows” thinking: ultimately the cost of power redundancy comes out of the consumer’s pocket.”

    This comment by a “Free Enterprise”-Blog author showcases such a distored and brainwashed understanding of how a market works, that it makes one want to vomit. It seems that the AEI believes that electricity has to be generated in a soviet style vertically aligned monopoly market in which only the peoples power company provides services.

    The reality in Germany is far from the American over regulated power-dictatorship, that basicly prohibits competition on a meaningful scale. Go figure what this Blog is about… it certainly isn’t thoughtful and timely analysis.

  2. Well Thomas, perhaps in your unlimited knowledge and education you can tell us why the German power grid voltage is not keeping up? That is the point of this story after all.

    • The point of the article on this site is to denounce the expansion of renewable energy capacity by quoting articles and adding qeustionable comments in order to spin bits of information. The story that is hijacked for that goal is on power grid stability in Germany.

      While I am certainly not blessed with infinite knowledge, but it’s enough to notice that on first sight. But since you asked, I will take a minute to explain the situation:

      Since the US has no significant solar capacity and alot more grid-stability issues than Germany, it would seem rather ill advised to blame changing production patterns for grid problems.

      Just like in the US, the current (rather insignificant) grid problems in Germany are a consequence of insufficent investments in power grid infrastructure over the course of the last decade.

      From 2000-2010 TSOs have not adequatly expanded the transmission grid. This has to do with the fact that the four TSO areas of Germany were under the direct control of the four big energy corporations (E.On, RWE, Vattenfall & EnBW) that controll centralized power stations but almost no renewable energy capacity.

      The resulting weakness of the grid effects mainly energy intensive companies (like the one in the story) that are connected to the high voltage power grid.

      Photovoltaic & windpower aren’t directly connected to the high-voltage power grid.
      In fact 85% of all PV-Capacity is connected to the low voltage power grid. Windpower and solar parks are usually connected to the distribution network operated by DNOs. These power grids have been significantly expanded since the year 2000.

      Can you explain to me how solar power connected to the 220V grid in Bavaria and seperated by several transformer stations effects an alluminium company in northern Germany that is connected to the 380kV grid?

      The truth is:
      It doesn’t and the reason for these mikro-glitches effecting energy intensive companies has all to do with the transmission grid being unprepared to distribute the electricity produced by coal & gas in the west/east or rare windpower surplusses from the north.

      Just like with all blackouts of this century, E.On & RWE are to blame because of mismanagement due to lack of investments in grid upgrades.

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