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


Part 5: Norway as Europe's Green Battery?

The fourth cost factor, the construction of power storage sites, is even harder to calculate. The storage plants are essential because renewable energies are unsteady. Sometimes there's a powerful wind, and sometimes it's so still that not a single rotor blade is turning. The same applies to sunshine. During storms, when wind power is pumping into the grid, power companies already have difficulties reducing the output of coal-fired and nuclear power stations to avoid overloading the system. Engineers complain that such problems are occurring more often.

Renewable energies can't provide a steady power supply unless storage plants balance out surpluses and shortages. Pumped-storage plants are regarded as the best solution because of their high effectiveness of up to 80 percent. It's a simple principle. When there's a surplus of electricity, water is pumped into reservoirs that are located many hundreds of meters higher. When electricity is needed, the water is allowed to flow back down through tubes, driving turbines in the process.

The German Energy Agency estimates that Germany currently has storage plants with a capacity of 6,400 megawatts and is capable of expanding that by 2,500 megawatts. But 10 times that amount will be needed, around 25,000 megawatts.

"It's still a mystery to me where all the storage plants for the green energy are supposed to come from in such a short time," says Vahrenholt of RWE. At present Germany has a concrete plan to build just one pumped-storage plant, in Atdorf in the southern Black Forest region. The €700 million ($935 million) construction project is due to be completed by 2019. But here, too, the investors face massive protests from the local population.

Apart from that, Germany has limited space for expanding its storage capacity, because of its topography and population density. As a result, high hopes are being pinned on northern Europe, and on Norway in particular. The country's water reservoirs are so huge that its main power company, Statkraft, could store its entire annual electricity output in them. But until now the Norwegians only operate a few of those reservoirs as pumped-storage plants, and worse, there are no power lines running to central Europe yet. So far, the NorGer link is the only project to link Norway to Germany. It has capacity for 1,400 megawatts, which amounts to the output of just one single nuclear plant. Billions upon billions will have to be invested to turn Norway into the green battery of Europe.

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