Energy: Blackout risk looms

Grid operators say improvements are needed to accommodate increased renewable energy

Europe’s goal of amplifying renewable energy usage across a single market is still frustrated by fragmented regional electric grids of varying quality, and as an important electricity transmission country for Central and Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic could face blackouts if a more cohesive strategy isn’t implemented soon.

Despite fast progress in some countries to get 35 percent of the electricity in the EU’s energy mix from renewable resources by 2020, some policymakers are now saying Europe will have to slow down its integration of renewables or risk outages and system instability because of the slow pace of cross-border grid improvements.

The Czech Republic’s electricity grid is well-connected to its neighbors and is an important corridor for energy flowing into southern Germany, as well as down through the Balkans, but Miroslav Vrba, a member of the board of grid operations control and ICT at ČEPS, the Czech transmission system operator, says the cross-border grid is not equipped to handle the unscheduled in-flows from renewable energy production, which can often be unpredictable.

He explains the growth of wind farms in the Baltic Sea region of Germany over the past few years has led to a huge increase in installed capacity generated there, and unscheduled flows of electricity from Germany into Poland and the Czech Republic have been increasing, creating a danger of blackouts.

“We are a toll-free highway if there is a surplus, and we are close to overloading our internal lines,” Vrba said. “The situation is the same in Poland and sometimes in Austria.”

Aside from reconfiguring energy flows to keep the balance, there is little ČEPS can do to reduce the unscheduled electricity flows that are putting pressure on the grid. He says the operator is in daily communication with its German counterparts, but they are equally powerless to solve the political problem that would arise if renewable investors, most of whom started their wind farms with the help of purchase guarantees from the German government, were asked to reduce their production.

“The fairness of the curtailment is also an issue,” Vrba said.

One solution that ČEPS is considering would involve building special transformers at substations near the German border that Vrba says are used in other regional grids but not locally.

“If our Polish colleagues build these transformers, then we may have to as well, because then the flows through Poland from Germany would be reduced or under better control, and it will all be [diverted] through our system,” Vrba said. “It’s a big challenge, and we would like to avoid this investment.”

Renewable energy advocates argue more can be done to improve grid storage capacity so production doesn’t have to be reduced and energy can flow safely through the grid. Arthouros Zervos, president of the European Renewable Energy Council, has said it’s time to make a major investment in updating the European grid that was built for regional distribution of fossil fuels in an energy era that has passed. He says that, for now, hydroelectric pump storage is the most efficient way of balancing electricity flow, which can fluctuate with renewable energy depending on cloud cover and wind levels.

“We would need much less storage if we improved our [cross-border] interconnections,” Zervos told the European Union information website EurActiv, “because then you could use the storage capacity of your neighboring countries.”

Whatever the technical solution, electricity market experts say something has to be done soon. “The disequilibrium may lead up to a blackout,” confirmed Petr Hlinomaz, an energy analyst with BH Securities. “Different national energy policies – and the market integration viewed from the European level – are in direct contradiction, and the problem with wind energy is one example of this.”

European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger has suggested more should be done on the EU level to supervise the integration of European grids and ensure the stable addition of renewable resources. Oettinger met with the first energy council under the Danish EU presidency Feb. 14 to discuss EU-wide guidelines for trans-European energy infrastructure, guidelines some local energy policymakers view as impractical and yet another imposition from Brussels.

“So as to exclude the national differences [in energy mix and grid operation] Brussels is trying to unify them, but using its force,” Hlinomaz said.

Share of total renewables in %
Solar    Biomass & Waste    Geothermal    Hydropower    Wind

EU 27    1.7    67.7    3.9    19    7.7
Czech Republic    0.5    90.5    0    8.1    1
Germany    3.5    77    1.7    5.8    12
Austria    1.5    54.6    0.4    41.5    2
Poland    0    94.8    0.2    3.4    1.5
Slovakia    0    68.5    0.7    30.7    0.1Source: Eurostat, most recent 2009


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