No connection to this park

A commentary by Dr Fabian Faller

No connection to this park


Grid expansion is too slow and the distribution of costs unfair. What needs to change? Capacities must be better measured, grid costs fairly distributed, grids digitised and incentives created to relieve the strain on the grids. This means: those who want to ensure smart electricity consumption on site and have a less thick line laid to their park must be rewarded for this. This reduces grid costs, avoids lengthy grid expansion and helps to integrate renewable energies into the energy system. This is good for consumers and good for the climate.

At the moment, we all-too-often hear the phrase: no connection to this park. That’s because the expansion of the electricity grids is proving to be – shall we say – challenging. Grid operators are responsible for their own construction. The transmission system operators build their large “electricity grid highways” and the 900-or-so German distribution system operators ensure the flow of electricity to the consumers in their area. The distribution grid operators are usually also responsible for the grid connections of the renewable energy systems (RE systems).

The problem: RE expansion is picking up speed – and the grid operators can’t keep up. And it doesn’t even make sense to lay the largest possible power lines everywhere either. Too expensive, too complicated and too lengthy. That's why we have to break new ground now – so that green electricity can be used in its entirety and nothing remains unused due to overloaded grids.

The simultaneous smart expansion and intelligent use of the electricity grids is one of the most important tasks of the energy transition. Because in the energy system of the future, it is essential to make the best possible use of what we have and can do.

We therefore now have to measure grid capacities well, distribute grid costs fairly, digitise the grids and create incentives that relieve the grids.

Does all the electricity from the solar park always have to be fed into the grid? That’s how it has been dealt with so far. However, if we plan the power cable and the transformers to be half as thick from the outset and thus halve the possible grid feed-in capacity, this would only result in 14 percent less grid feedin. The impact on the amount of electricity fed into the grid is therefore surprisingly small! Why? Because a solar park only very rarely reaches its full capacity. Anyone who has a PV roof system knows this. So we keep some of the line capacity for relatively few power peaks.

It would be smart to plan the power lines from the outset with a lower grid feed-in capacity and to plan an alternative use on site for the amount of energy from the solar park that is not fed into the grid. For example, the electricity could be stored in batteries for a short time and then fed back into the grid when it has capacity again, i.e. when less sun shines and less electricity is being produced. Or the electricity that is not fed into the grid could be available for decentralised power-to-X solutions such as hydrogen or heat generation. Good examples of this are large-scale heat pumps with a heat network, battery storage or electrolysers close to the RE plant, for example directly at the transformer station. This is where the electricity is fed into the grid and where otherwise the signal: “no connection, please switch off” comes. The electrolyser could therefore be used precisely for the electricity that would otherwise be switched off. The grid could also be planned more streamlined from the outset – as mentioned above.

The “system service” of batteries and electrolysers described – grid relief and electricity use instead of shutdown – should also come with a reward, an incentive that makes it possible and attractive to build wind and solar farms despite the lack of grid connections and thus further accelerate the energy transition. In this way, much larger amounts of renewable energies could be integrated into the energy market, sectors such as heat and transport could be decarbonised and at the same time the electricity grids could be spared.

So in order to create an incentive for operators to provide such grid-relieving services, they should be rewarded with a “system service bonus”. This would be good for the grid and for consumers, because the costs would certainly be much lower than the expected grid expansion and redispatch costs (these are the costs that arise when RE plants are shut down for grid congestion reasons and their operators have to be compensated).

Don't misunderstand me: of course, we need an efficient electricity grid. However, up to now, the grid has only been paid for by the consumers, through the grid fees. In the fossil system of centralised power supply, there were a few hundred power generators. These resulted in few grid costs (but very high investment costs). Overall, the grid fees were significantly lower than today. Financing by end consumers and also the exemptions, especially for electricity-intensive industry, which is exempt from grid charges, made sense at the time.

But it is already the case today – and will be even more so in the future – that there are several million electricity producers who are also responsible for the need to expand the grid, but do not contribute to financing it. If the grid costs were now aligned more fairly with the actual cause of the grid expansion and if both the additional millions of producers and the large consumers, i.e. truly all users of the neural grid of the energy transition, made a small contribution, then the grid would become cheaper for everyone.

However, this also includes another very important point: the grid load. Wouldn’t it be fairer if those who burden the grid also paid for it as a priority? The proposal: the more grid distance I need for my electricity consumption, i.e. the further away electricity consumption is from generation, the more I pay for it. Such distance- dependent or originator-based grid fees would also provide noticeable incentives for a decentralised expansion of renewables. Because if the electricity produced on site is the cheapest, then that’s what I’ll use. Good for local value creation, good for the wallet and good for the grids.

And this brings us to the topic of digitalisation: generation and consumption of electricity must finally become smart. Production, consumption, storage, connection of electricity from storage facilities and conversion into heat or hydrogen – all this must be intelligently linked. This needs more data and thus more knowledge though: digital distribution grids create a real-time overview of green power production and consumption. Storage requirements can be forecast, drawing on weather data. For example, if there is (too) much electricity in the grid, “switchable loads” such as heat pumps, battery storage or electrolysers can become active on the generation side to use electricity at the point of generation. At the same time, on the consumer side, smart systems can deliberately incentivise consumption because a flexible electricity tariff indicates that right now – when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing – the price of electricity is very low: “Charge your e-car now!” “Do your laundry now!” And so on. Information for the respective house connection or grid connection point is already sufficient to send this signal and, if necessary, to be able to control it in a targeted way. What’s important here is that users must be able to control the amount of electricity themselves, decide for themselves where they use the energy on their property, in their house, in their business. Digital energy management systems support them in this, and thus also the intelligent use of the electricity grid.

So what does it take to ensure that we always have a good network in the park? Smartly measure grid capacities, distribute grid costs fairly, create incentives for grid relief and digitise grids. These are four measures that can really boost the energy transition. Because we need much more electricity – for electromobility, heat supply, industry, the hydrogen economy, the move away from fossil fuels and for a sovereign energy supply based entirely on renewable energies. If we want to achieve this, we have to use electricity efficiently in the system. This is how we decarbonise all sectors – and don’t keep waiting for a connection.

Dr Fabian Faller

joined GP JOULE in March 2022 in the Energy Industry/ Public Affairs department. Prior to that, he was responsible as managing director of the Schleswig- Holstein Renewable Energy Association for its structural development as well as the political representation of the entire renewable energy sector in the north.

He holds a doctorate in economic geography and is an expert on the social and regional economic impacts and change processes of the renewable energy sector.