As European countries aggressively ramp up renewable energy, they face a constraint that is familiar in the Midwest: The need to expand and overhaul the electric grid.
In Germany and Britain, greatly increased reliance on wind power and distributed solar generation are dependent on building new high voltage transmission lines from ideal wind farm sites to population centers, while also making the grid smarter and more responsive.
And while there are significant differences in economics, politics and geography on either side of the Atlantic, many of the obstacles remain the same.
Who owns the grids?
In Germany and Britain, as well as in the U.S., the grid is largely owned by a number of different entities. In Europe, that often includes foreign, state-owned companies.
Major companies own both power generation – gas, nuclear, coal and renewables – and pieces of the grid, but as in many U.S. states, “unbundling” mandates in recent years have meant there must be a firewall between the generation and transmission operations.
Starting in 2010, the British government instituted grid-related reforms which pleased many renewable energy advocates, including new procedures for offshore grid connections, changes in the way generators are charged for connection to the grid, and updated requirements for gaining access to the national grid. But advocates say more planning and modernization is needed.
In Germany, elected officials with the Green Party and other energy reformers have called for a single entity that would unify ownership of the grid and be responsive to centralized planning aimed at making it more efficient and conducive to renewable energy development.
The portions of the grid that deliver electricity to consumers within municipalities were in the past usually also operated big utility companies, under franchise contracts with the municipal government. But as these contracts have expired, municipalities are increasingly deciding to run the grid themselves or sign new contracts with smaller utility companies, “which might include special obligations to integrate renewable energy sources better into the local grid,” as explained by Wibke Brems, a Green Party state legislator in North-Rhine Westphalia. This trend has much in common with the push for municipal aggregation in the U.S.
Brems described the town of Schönau in the Black Forest, where citizens who had become organized around fallout from the Chernobyl disaster turned their attention to clean energy:
“They wanted to find a way to produce all their electricity in an environmentally friendly way, so they started to invest in renewable energies and organized workshops and offered consultation on energy saving and efficiency. In the ‘90s the citizens of Schönau decided in a referendum that they wanted the local grid to be run by themselves rather than a bigger utility company. Today the utility company Schönau provides electricity provided by renewable sources – and a very small percentage by combined heat and power generating gas turbines – throughout Germany and for all of Schönau.”
Making the grid bigger
Taking a plane from Germany to London on a clear day, one sees the striking site of scores of graceful white wind turbines rising in symmetric patterns from the glistening blue sea speckled with foamy whitecaps. Those whitecaps mean that the wind turbines are also likely spinning at a healthy rate, producing power transported to shore through undersea cables.