Interview with Thomas Bareiß
“We will deal with the contentious projects in person and on the ground”
new energy: Mr State Secretary, debate over the slow progress of grid expansion in Germany has recently reignited. We’re talking about some 7,700 km of power lines that were decided on years ago, but only a fraction of which have actually been built so far. This in turn is hindering the installation of new wind farms. What is causing the delay?
Thomas Bareiß: Construction of new power lines is indeed taking a long time to get off the ground. On the other hand, the rollout of renewables is progressing faster than planned. This discrepancy is a wake-up call telling us that we really need to get moving – but this is a task for the Federal Government, the individual states, and of course municipalities. With this in mind, the Federal Network Agency has brought in new staff and accumulated a vast amount of know-how over the last two years. A great deal is being done to promote acceptance and transparency. We are holding events and reaching out to people in the affected areas. Moreover, for key power lines, particularly in the high-voltage direct current (HVDC) grid, we are prioritising underground cabling. The associated costs are higher than for overhead power lines, but they increase acceptance, are not as damaging to the landscape, and can help avoid years of legal disputes, which obviously cost money too. Of course, during the planning stages each particular segment has to be checked as to whether or not underground cabling is technically feasible.
ne: Although underground cables help increase popular acceptance for new power lines, there is also the risk that they will slow down the expansion process even further. For the north-south segments, which are to consist largely of underground cables, experts are now saying that work will only be completed in 2025, and not 2022 as originally announced. What can policymakers do to speed things up?
Bareiß: Although we achieved a great deal in the previous grand coalition, we need to work on constantly improving framework conditions. However, it’s not just a matter of legislation: the success or failure of a project is decided on the ground, and not in some shiny office in Berlin. Residents need to be able to trust politicians and decision-makers. That’s why we plan to leave our comfort zone and deal with the contentious projects in person and on the ground, making the case for the best solutions. Our economics minister, Peter Altmaier, is leading the charge in this respect. We are also cooperating closely with the federal states, the state premiers and their environment and economics ministers to work together and find the best courses of action. Party allegiances should be set aside here. We have no choice but to fight for these infrastructure projects: they are essential not just to the Energiewende, but to the future viability of our economic centres as well.
ne: New statutory provisions are also in the works, the Grid Expansion Acceleration Act is being overhauled…
Bareiß: A revision of the Grid Expansion Acceleration Act is promised in the coalition agreement. The process is scheduled to begin this summer – we’re working on it right now. We believe the most promising step is to simplify approval procedures for grid reinforcement and improvement measures, such as replacing transmission cables. We need to leverage the latest technological developments to maximise the transmission capacity of existing and planned segments. This includes, for example, overhead line monitoring and using the best cables available. Furthermore, in the planning stages we naturally have to look at how grid development can best be coordinated with the rollout of renewables with a view to achieving the target of a 65 percent share for renewables by 2030, as specified in the coalition agreement. This will mean a huge amount of additional capacity – a mammoth task, which will probably require yet more transmission lines. However, an important first step will be to survey and leverage the full potential for optimisation in the existing grid, so as to avoid installing more transmission lines than we actually need.
ne: So do we already how much generation and transmission capacity we will need in future, and where it will be needed – in other words, whether we will have more offshore wind power as opposed to distributed onshore wind farms, for example?
Bareiß: At the end of the day, if we want to aim for a renewables share of 80 or 90 percent in the long term, we are going to need both. There is no question that Germany does not have the best geographical conditions for renewables – wind or solar. And this undoubtedly has to be taken into account for reasons of efficiency. On the other hand, we also need expansion to progress in a more uniform manner nationwide. However, with regard to how the rollout of renewables is distributed among the various regions, it will take some time until we have accurate and concrete figures. Another key issue is the precise form that the technological solutions will take.
ne: Years ago, Peter Altmaier tried to introduce financial participation in new power line projects for residents of the affected areas. That didn’t work. Are there any new plans for citizen participation in grid infrastructure development?
Bareiß: I think that citizen participation is an extremely important instrument. We have also achieved a great deal in this regard. In fact, we may even have overshot the mark with the latest revisions to the Renewable Energy Sources Act: the vast majority of the successful bids for onshore wind farms were submitted by citizen-owned projects. However, we want to work with the federal states to ensure that the bids are professional and that the projects are in fact built, so we are currently reviewing the waiver granted to community energy projects exempting them from the requirement to hold a permit under the Act on the Prevention of Harmful Effects on the Environment (BImSchG).
ne: Of course citizen involvement in wind farms can help boost acceptance for transmission infrastructure. But my question is: do you think that citizen participation in power lines is feasible?
Bareiß: The Energiewende is a colossal infrastructure project, which many people inevitably hope to profit from – whether we’re talking about new wind farms or grid expansion. In the past we have seen an explosion in lease prices for wind farm sites, for example. I am well aware of the demands made by entities such as the German Farmers’ Association for compensation to be paid to landowners for underground cabling in the same way as overhead lines. As much as I acknowledge anyone’s entitlement to some extra income, the bottom line is that we have a political responsibility to ensure that the energy transition remains affordable.
ne: Couldn’t that be achieved with an integrated approach to taxes and surcharges – in other words, by means of redistribution?
Bareiß: Ultimately, the bill is passed on to whoever is at the bottom of the chain – in this case, energy consumers and taxpayers. Accordingly, we need to keep the overall system in mind. It must be designed in such a way as to be affordable, and to ensure that the Energiewende can be implemented as cost-efficiently as possible. This is crucial. I am therefore wary of launching major new redistribution measures. Nevertheless, the coalition agreement calls for greater financial involvement of municipalities. We now need to look at how that can be achieved.
ne: Proposals have already been made in this regard. Even so, transit regions – in some cases entire federal states – are at risk of coming away empty-handed. How do you intend to deal with the opposition this creates?
Bareiß: As I said, we are going to have to talk to people openly and honestly. Eighty percent of Germans support the energy transition – they have to be prepared to do their part.
Thomas Bareiß interviewed by Astrid Dähn and Jörg-Rainer Zimmermann. (Photo: Roland Horn)
ne: It’s a common phenomenon, that people are fundamentally in favour of the energy transition, as long as it’s not taking place on their own doorstep.
Bareiß: But that isn’t going to work. And this is also the exciting thing about this project: for me, the Energiewende is a litmus test for whether Germany is still a country in which infrastructure investments are possible. Of course we want to aim as high as we can in terms of acceptance, environment and nature conservation. But we can’t always solve acceptance problems by recourse to redistribution mechanisms that allow everyone to profit. I’d like to mention the early days of PV in this regard. The generous remuneration was needed at the time to allow the technology to become established. But we can no longer afford market entry costs like those incurred with solar power for other forms of energy, or for infrastructure projects. We will engage with citizens to discuss this, and to provide information about the transition. We want the best, cleanest, most sustainable and most efficient energy possible. To achieve this we must win over everyone: the population, the economy, the municipalities, the federal states, the government and Europe. That has to be our goal.
ne: An important aspect of this is which story is told about the Energiewende. Many experts and researchers blame politicians for not having talked about the transition in unambiguously positive terms in the past, with many speaking only of the problems, the high cost of renewables, or their impact on the power grid…
Bareiß: The debate used to be primarily about ideological issues, such as nuclear vs. renewable energy. But these disputes are now over. Other countries are investing massively in renewables. And we’re already seeing how, in certain circumstances, new technologies are quite capable of competing in the energy market. In this respect we’re on the right track. Furthermore, worldwide energy needs are set to rise sharply. It is therefore crucial for our economy that we are able to offer the best products in order to meet this demand efficiently and sustainably. The energy revolution is coming – I am convinced of that. And we are going to be a part of it. Today, the mainstays of our economy are the chemical and auto industries, plant construction and mechanical engineering. My ambition is for German energy technology to have a similar role 15 years from now.
ne: But that vision is still a long way off. Our solar sector is in tatters, and we can’t compete with Asia or the US on battery technology…
Bareiß: Yes, we have made mistakes; we’re paying billions for solar energy, but still have fewer than 50,000 jobs in the sector. Things have unfortunately not gone so well in the past. Now we need to do better, and make sure we adopt the right approach towards the technologies of the future. Accordingly, we want to give battery cell technology a boost. Establishing battery cell production capacity in Germany and Europe is a vital industrial policy goal.
ne: But, once again, we also need the accompanying electricity infrastructure. You mentioned earlier that we will need even more grid capacity in the future than that envisioned by the current plans. Transmission grid operators confirm this. However, consultations on the new Grid Development Plan – the roadmap for the coming years – were concluded in February, before the latest findings and coalition deals could be taken into account. What next?
Bareiß: Our goal, enshrined in the coalition agreement, is to increase the share of renewables in the energy mix to 65 percent by 2030. This will involve answering a number of questions: how should this increase be synchronised with grid expansion? What are the implications for coal power and grid reserves? We also need to involve our European neighbours – at least, that is my recommendation. In this light, I hope it is understandable that we do not yet have a catalogue of concrete measures – not least as we were unable to perform any executive activities for around half a year. Now we have some catching up to do. But one thing is clear: we have to be flexible. Fortunately, the current Grid Development Plan is at a stage where the Federal Network Agency can still factor in changes to framework conditions. The plan will then go through an extensive consultation process in 2019.
ne: There has been talk of special auctions for wind and solar to accelerate the expansion of renewables, for a total of 4,000 MW in both 2019 and 2020. There are now fears that this additional volume will be slashed due to the sluggish pace of grid expansion…
Bareiß: We are in close talks with all of the parties involved, including experts and plant manufacturers. We need to deal with this now, but there are also concerns that large additional capacity allocations could have a negative impact on the market.
ne: How so? Are you worried that the auctions could lead to higher prices? There are already rumours that onshore wind may be in a position to offer zero-cent bids, like those seen in the offshore segment…
Bareiß: And that’s a good thing.
ne: So there should be no need to reduce the capacity allocated in the special auctions…
Bareiß: To avoid any misunderstandings: this is not about curbing wind power. We are talking to the turbine manufacturers and grid operators – including at the distribution level – about where onshore turbines should be connected. There are still a number of open questions in this regard.
ne: So you fear the negative impact of additional auctions more than you fear grid congestion?
Bareiß: We need to consider both. The coalition agreement clearly states that the rollout of renewables must proceed in step with grid expansion. People are no longer prepared to accept that a wind turbine, or perhaps even an entire wind farm, has to be switched off because the electricity has nowhere to go. This is bad for local acceptance. At the same time, we obviously need to think about other solutions to the problem of excess electricity, and integrate storage capacity into the system by means of new technological approaches, such as combining wind farms with electrolysers to generate hydrogen.
ne: According to experts, electricity from German coal-fired power plants also places a burden on the grid. It is well known that this diminishes acceptance for new transmission lines, as they are seen to serve not just the Energiewende, but continued operation of older plants as well. Peter Altmaier recently outlined preliminary plans for the coal phase-out, under which coal capacity will be reduced by little more than half by 2030. Is that enough?
Bareiß: We will abide by our internationally binding commitments pursuant to the 2030 climate targets, specifically a 55 percent reduction in carbon emissions compared to 1990 levels. Of course, if we don’t start making the necessary changes now, we will run out of time later on. This is why the coalition agreement stipulates that a committee on “growth, structural change and employment” will be created to deal with the issue of target achievement, and the precise form that the structural changes will take. But to return to your question: if we are honest, 40 years from now we will still have nuclear and coal power coming into our grid from our European neighbours, even if Germany’s energy transition is 100 percent complete.
ne: With a view to the creation of a European energy union, Brussels is calling on Germany to speed up its grid expansion efforts…
Bareiß: Yes, we are both exporters and importers of electricity at the same time. This will remain the case in the future. And it’s true that we need the common market and a synchronous grid in order to ensure security of supply throughout Europe. But we will also need conventional power plants as well, integrated in a smart overall system equipped with storage solutions.
ne: So coal-fired power plants are likely to be part of the system for some time to come. Vast numbers of jobs are currently being lost in the renewables sector, and this problem will only get worse if new installations are capped because power lines are congested with electricity generated partly by fossil power plants…
Bareiß: I dispute that conclusion. The profitability of a wind or solar power company does not depend on whether or not a coal plant is shut down in Lusatia. The crucial issue is actually a very different one: in future, we need to make sure that the expansion of wind power does not rely solely on Chinese manufacturers. We have to work on the technology and develop export strategies. Of course auctions put pressure on the market. But that is important if we are to remain competitive. Our goal should be to export not just our cars and machines, but a competitive, powerful energy system too – one that is sustainable and efficient, and therefore of benefit to everyone.