Can a new initiative led by one of Germany’s most powerful politicians succeed in pushing forward the expansion of the country’s power grid?

On August 14, Peter Altmaier, the federal minister for economic affairs and energy, presented a new Power Grid Action Plan to Germany’s grid regulator, the Federal Network Agency, in Bonn. The plan is intended to accelerate the build-out of the national power grid, including four high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission corridors connecting the wind power-rich north to population centers and industry in the west and south.

If anyone possesses the political muscle to advance Germany’s grid expansion, it is Altmaier. He is one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s most trusted advisers, having served for more than four years as her chief of staff at the Chancellery. He was appointed economy and energy minister in March of this year.

“For a successful energy transition, we need modern and well-developed networks as well as the expansion of renewable energies,” said Altmaier in a statement announcing the action plan [translated from German].

He added, “The power grids are the cardiovascular system of our power supply. This must work reliably from the wind turbine in the North Sea to the charging station in Bavaria. However, Germany is in arrears when expanding its networks, which causes costs for consumers.”

According to Federal Network Agency data cited by Clean Energy Wire (CLEW), a nonprofit news service focused on Germany’s energy transition, current plans call for the refurbishment or construction of 7,700 kilometers (4,784 miles) of power lines. So far, 1,750 kilometers (1,087 miles) have received planning permission and just 950 kilometers (590 miles) have been built.

Most critical are the four cross-country, north-south HVDC connections (A-Nord, SuedLink and SuedOstLink), which are expected to come online by 2025. The European Commission has threatened to split Germany into two power market bidding zones if grid congestion is not resolved by the same year.

Many stakeholders in and outside government contend that grid expansion is necessary if Germany is to achieve its long-term renewable energy targets and ensure a balance between electricity supply and demand as additional offshore wind farms come online in the Baltic and North seas and the last of the country’s nuclear power plants are retired in 2022. The treaty agreed to in February by Germany’s governing coalition said renewables should make up 65 percent of the power mix by 2030.

“The goal of increasing the share of renewables to 65 percent by 2030 is only possible with a more rapid network expansion, which is why we also need a lot more speed in line construction,” Stefan Kapferer, chairman, German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW), said in a statement last month [translated from German].

According to CLEW’s Kerstine Appunn, congestion resulted in €1.4 billion euros (USD $1.6 billion) in grid-stabilizing costs in 2017 connected to curtailment of capacity at wind farms in the north of Germany.

Altmaier’s two-part grid expans​ion plan

Altmaier’s grid expansion push comprises two linked parts: the new action plan and the release this fall of amendments to Germany’s Grid Expansion Acceleration Act.

The grid action plan proposes measures to both optimize the operation of existing power lines and streamline the planning process for new grid infrastructure.

Amendments to the grid expansion law are expected to limit participation by Germany’s federal states in grid planning and ease approvals for grid projects. For instance, CLEW’s Appunn noted that the amended grid law would permit the first segment of a new power line to be built before the final segment has secured planning approval.

Altmaier will also convene a conference in Berlin, on September 20, with energy ministers from Germany’s states to solicit input on the amendments to the grid expansion law.

“Part of Altmaier’s plan is to align competencies and reduce time needed for coordination,” wrote Stephanie Bätjer, communications manager of the Renewables Grid Initiative, in an email. RGI is a collaboration of European environmental NGOs and transmission system operators based in Berlin.

"This could be a political hot potato when it comes to continued involvement of the federal states, but I believe he wants to prevent this with his grid conference plans for September," she said.

The week before Altmaier unveiled the Power Grid Action Plan, Germany’s TSOs published a tender for thousands of kilometers of underground cables. In 2015, in a bid to staunch protests from local residents who opposed power grid expansion on aesthetic or environmental grounds, the federal government announced it would prioritize underground cables rather than overhead power lines for the HVDC corridors.

The tender, according to Bätjer, was “an aligned strategy to make sure the market does not delay the grid development process in the future.”

“The idea is, basically, if we order this now, there won’t be any supply bottlenecks once planning approval decisions are reached and construction of the north-south HVDC lines start,” she added.

The tender is Europe-wide, with contracts expected to be awarded by the end of 2019.