Too expensive, too inaccurate, too uncertain: network operators criticize the strategy with which Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) wants to close production gaps in renewable energies. Their counterproposals are intended to reduce costs for consumers and make electricity supply more reliable.

Electricity is currently expensive in Germany for one reason in particular: the Federal Republic produces a lot of electricity in wind farms in the north, uses large parts of it for industry in the south and cannot transport it from the North Sea to the edge of the Alps due to a lack of sufficient power lines.

This creates two problems:

Improvements to the power grid or larger storage systems solve both problems, but come too late due to long planning and technical difficulties. The country needs answers within a few years, says Werner Götz, head of the Baden-Württemberg network operator TransnetBW.

The Federal Republic can only bridge the interim by building new, weather-independent power plants. Since it has phased out nuclear power and is phasing out coal by 2030, the technically feasible solution currently remains hydrogen-capable gas power plants. According to expert estimates, the costs for their construction probably exceed 20 billion euros.

Economics Minister Habeck presented a power plant strategy in February. Four hydrogen-capable gas power plants, each with an output of 2.5 gigawatts, are to be used “to benefit the system” and provide a total power supply of ten gigawatts. Faster planning, no fixed date for the hydrogen switch, permission for blue hydrogen, in which CO2 produced during production is stored: a step “in the right direction,” said the energy company RWE in a statement at the time. The government has been planning power lines for a long time.

Nevertheless, network operators, energy companies and associations see opportunities for improvement that should reduce electricity costs for consumers and provide cheaper electricity more quickly.

The federal government currently wants to close the network gaps between north and south with underground power lines. These are less noticeable in the landscape and thus increase the approval of local residents, but they cost significantly more. Above all, Bavaria’s resistance to supposed “monster routes” forced this solution.

TransnetBW is currently building the underground Suedlink route from Schleswig-Holstein to Heilbronn. The company has to drill through rivers, railway lines and other obstacles, which eats up time and money. Instead of 2023 as planned, TransnetBW is now targeting 2028 as the completion date. Consumers pay for the delay twice: through higher construction costs and more expensive electricity.

TransnetBW boss Götz is calling for power lines to be laid above ground in the future. This will reduce costs by 20 to 23 billion euros and speed up the implementation of the entire project by a year, he writes on LinkedIn: “In new major projects, the issue of costs must again be in the foreground.”

An alliance of the Federal Association of German Industries (BDI), the German Farmers’ Association (DBV), the German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB) and the Federal Association of Consumer Organizations (VZBV) supports the demand in a letter to Habeck: “This would result in significant potential for cost containment in electricity prices for consumers and industry in Germany,” Handelsblatt quotes from the letter.

Politicians are partly signaling their approval. In view of tight public coffers, Baden-Württemberg’s Energy Minister Thekla Walker (Greens) said: “If overhead lines can save money and time, then I support this proposal.”

Criticism comes from the Association of the Electrical and Digital Industry (ZVEI): The savings are set too high. In addition, companies have already built up production capacities. However, the planning of the routes is still in the early stages. Completion is scheduled for 2037.

Energy producers are reluctant to invest billions in building new power plants when Germany simultaneously wants to make these power plants obsolete by expanding renewables and the power grid. Because the power plants only fill gaps, companies cannot plan for secure income, criticizes TransnetBW. They risked a massive loss-making business: “Investments in new building projects have not yet been cost-effective.”

This would also affect the customers. Companies have to cover their costs. They pass on additional expenditure to consumers via kilowatt-hour prices.

Götz is calling for a “new construction advance”: Studies have already predicted quite accurately how often a replacement gas power plant will have to be connected to the grid in the coming years. The state could calculate how much it would pay the energy companies anyway and guarantee this amount in advance.

In this way, the federal government creates planning security for companies without additional costs. If it ties the guarantees to the location of the power plants, it ensures that they are built primarily in the south and west, where the grid needs them. This stabilizes prices and supply for end customers.

Habeck’s power plant strategy relies on gas power plants that can also use hydrogen. Ideally, electrolysis plants produce this hydrogen from excess electricity and send it via pipelines to power plants, which convert it into electricity again when needed. However, there is still a lack of capacity to produce sufficient hydrogen and the networks to transport it.

The Federal Association for Renewable Energy (BEE) therefore criticized in a report that Habeck was concentrating too much on a technology that was not yet ready for use.

In addition to the planned ten gigawatts of gas output, other renewable energies could provide electricity in the short term, writes the EEG: six gigawatts by 20230 through biogas plants, by storing the biomass during power peaks and converting it into electricity when necessary. One to two gigawatts through more flexible use of hydropower.

To implement this, the federal government must extend the planning and approval acceleration planned for hydrogen to other energy sources. The resulting more decentralized storage structure helps to balance out the greater fluctuations of an electricity system that is increasingly geared towards renewable energies.