The Expensive Dream of Clean Energy Will High Costs Kill Merkel's Green Revolution?


Part 4: Autobahns of Electricity Across the Continent

Building wind farms alone isn't enough. Power lines are needed to transport wind power south from the North Sea. The expansion of the grid, the third cost factor, will play a key role in the future energy system. The European Commission expects that investments in the power network will exceed €500 billion ($668 billion). Some 6,000 kilometers of submarine power cables have to be laid in a project called Seatec which is estimated to cost €30 billion ($40 billion). An additional €50 billion needs to be invested south of Europe to hook Europe up to the Desertec solar power project. The plan is for Europe to be covered by a smart grid capable of distributing electricity intelligently.

Germany has a special role because of its central location between the North Sea and the Alps. That will make it the most important transit country for electricity. But none of the new projects is running according to schedule. Of the 850 kilometers of new power lines the German Energy Agency (Dena) said was urgently needed in its first grid study five years ago, only 90 kilometers have been completed. And the required expansion is now deemed to be four times greater.

"We don't just need new autobahns, they also need to have eight lanes in both directions," says Gerald Kaendler, a strategist at network operator Amprion. He is referring to a technology using so-called high voltage direct current, a super line that allows electricity to be transported over thousands of kilometers with very little loss of power. The disadvantage is that the system is hugely expensive. The Swiss-Norwegian consortium NorGer plans to invest €1.4 billion ($1.87 billion) just to hook up Germany with Norway.

This is the plan: A sea cable 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) thick is laid along the North Sea bed with a special ship. The line stretches from the southern tip of Norway to the coast of northern Germany. Its purpose is to carry hydroelectric power to Germany and German wind power to Norway.

The planning procedures are still being carried out and NorGer expects the line to become operational in five years, provided that authorities give the green light and that local citizens don't file lawsuits. People often protest against new lines being dug.

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