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Stories from the grid: how renewable energy changed the electricity business

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I can still remember the days when the first windmills were connected to the grid in Germany. Many of the engineers in energy companies thought it was madness. “What a crazy and expensive idea!” we said. “It won’t be technically possible to integrate more than a few percent of wind power into the grid without facing huge problems in stabilizing the system and securing supply.”

If someone had told me in those days that my company would eventually need to accommodate even 20% solar and wind power, I would have fainted.

Today, more than 40% of the electricity on our grid is generated by weather-dependent variable renewable energy (mostly wind and solar) – the highest amount worldwide. I work for 50Hertz, the electricity grid company (Transmission System Operator or TSO) in a liberalized electricity market for North-Eastern Germany, about one third of Germany. And we’re looking confidently into the future for even higher amounts of variable renewable power.

Today, it is possible – thanks to good planning and the use of modern information technology – but we also need smart politics.

Growing the clean power grid

Like all TSOs, 50Hertz provides the grid infrastructure for integrating and transporting electricity to consumers and is also responsible for the safe integration of renewable energy.

So far, we’ve managed this all cost-effectively and without any power cuts or grid fluctuations. People have been able to enjoy the benefits of reliable and clean electricity.

Providing more than 40% of the power consumed by our customers through renewable energy is already feasible in our environment, while still maintaining a very high level of security of supply. Based on independent reviews, 50Hertz is at the top level of the European TSO´s safety level. We have nearly zero interruption of supply to customers in the connected grids.

After more than ten years of fast-growing renewables in the system, we can look back and see this development growing in three major phases:

Phase 1: the early days

In phase 1, renewables played a niche role in our grids, below 10% of our supply. To some extent we could just ignore the renewables – they integrated themselves. We still had to speed along a fast learning curve, since weather forecast instruments had to be developed and the company had to manage all billing and accounting data from new energy sources.

But overall, it wasn’t very important whether or not some mistakes occurred because the overall amount of renewables in our energy mix was still comparatively small.

Phase 2: growing and learning

Then, in phase 2, renewables became a major component of our transmission business. We moved up to 40% renewables. We had to operationalize and utilize weather forecasts as accurately as possible. And the company did it – while I did not faint.

Major failures can happen though. Last year, during the first days of April, we learnt one morning, two hours before real time, that roughly nine gigawatts less solar photovoltaic electricity was produced than we had forecasted earlier. The problem was that we had sold that amount of power to the market in the evening before. That morning there was a light fog layer all over Germany, which had not been forecasted correctly, so solar did not produce as expected.

Now, nine gigawatts are equal to about nine huge power plants. Luckily we managed the situation successfully without any supply interruptions while activating all generation available short-term in central Europe.

Man with solar panels, Leipzig, Germany

We also learned that grid and infrastructure development is paramount for successfully, safely and sustainably integrating increasing amounts of renewable energy, especially as we progress to a future powered by more and more renewable energy.

Traditionally, conventional power plants were and are built close to consumer centers and the energy is only transported over short distances. The high-voltage grid is mainly responsible for securing and balancing outages of individual power plants and used for short distance transport.

In central Europe (and, with some delays, elsewhere) this is completely changing. With the increase of variable renewables that are created both in decentralised and local but also often remote places such as offshore, wind energy has to be transported over much longer distances.

In addition to that, at the moment the most cost-effective way of guaranteeing a high level of elasticity in the system is to connect the grids of different regions in Europe to create a strong grid infrastructure. That is another fundamental lesson and defies those who insist that even low amounts of renewable power will crash the system unless additional flexibility with power storage is being installed.

Phase 3: a renewable future

Renewable electricity grew to over 40% of our market share and now plays a dominant role in our business. The quantity of renewables now impacts strongly the quality of the system.

The calibration of traditional power plants to store power from renewables now plays a major role to make sure that renewable energy can be integrated in a similar way as conventional power plants. Renewable energy needs to be able to supply consumer demand, when and where it is needed and needs to stabilize the grid. It needs to be switched “on” and “off” or to be transmitted outside the region, so that it can meet the demands at the time.

Following consumer electricity demand is not always possible with weather-dependent renewable power. Therefore, an intelligent, ‘smart’ grid system, excellent management of weather data flows and exchanges, the delivery of new ancillary services through renewables, demand-side management, cross-regional power trading and the intelligence of the overall system become important factors for managing a reliable power supply for society.

In other words, you will still be able to watch the Champions League final on TV without any problems, even though wind and solar production in your region might be fully down that night.

The transition into a renewable energy world triggers not only new investments, jobs and infrastructure, but also completely new business models, innovative technologies and services and a complete new setup of the energy market.

Today, instead of a few hundred “centralized” power plants, almost two million solar panels and windmills are generating power for the German energy system. Most of them are owned and run by ordinary people.

Looking into the future, the Energiewende will keep us busy and surprise us with some un-expected events. During this transition, new players will join the market, companies adhering to existing business models will disappear and new ones will emerge.

What once seemed crazy is now normal. Only those that embrace new and clean technology and innovation will thrive in the future.

Boris Schucht is the CEO of German electricity transmission system operator 50Hertz. This guest post does not necessarily represent the views and policies of WWF International.

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Stories from the grid: how renewable energy changes the electricity business via @climatewwf

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From a crazy idea to the power of the future: How #renewableenergy became the new normal

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