German officials have long claimed that completion of the country’s energy transition, or “Energiewende,” will require the construction of a robust cross-country transmission grid to deliver renewable electricity from the north to industrial zones and population centers in the west and south.

However, the fraught process to build such lines has been met by resistance from farmers and other landowners who reside in the path of planned high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines.

Yet recent events, including the enactment of a new grid expansion law and a political agreement announced by Germany’s powerful economy and energy minister, make it more likely that the most important north-south transmission lines will be built by the 2025 target.

Germany is not alone in facing delays in building needed transmission lines. Expansion of the transmission grid vexes politicians and regulators nearly everywhere it is attempted.

In the United States, for instance, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Neil Chatterjee recently suggested the commission might reopen the proceeding for Order 1000, which was intended to promote competition that would unshackle nationwide transmission expansion.

But looming deadlines in Germany have focused minds on the urgency of its own grid expansion efforts.

Expanded transmission capacity is needed to help balance electricity generation and loads across regions as Germany prepares for the retirement of the country’s nuclear power plant fleet by 2022 and a phaseout of coal-fired power by 2038. Germany’s governing coalition agreed in February 2018 that renewables should account for 65% of the power mix by 2030.

“Grid expansion remains the Energiewende’s main challenge,” Jochen Homann, president of the Federal Network Agency, Germany’s grid regulator, said last month when presenting the agency’s 2018 annual report.

According to the Federal Network Agency, 7,700 kilometers (4,784 miles) of new or refurbished power lines are planned in Germany.

Much of Germany's industrial power load comes from its industrialized west and south, while much of its new renewables capacity is being added in less populated northern regions, including offshore wind projects in the Baltic and North Seas.

A political push from Berlin

The new momentum behind the grid expansion comes after Peter Altmaier, Germany’s federal minister for economic affairs and energy, moved to revive what had been a stalled political process.

Altmaier convened a summit of state and federal energy officials in September 2018 to agree on elements of the grid expansion law. The law passed Germany’s parliament in April and took effect last month.

“The power grids are the backbone of the energy transition. Unfortunately, we are still lagging behind on the grid expansion,” Altmaier said in a statement after the grid expansion law was endorsed by Germany’s federal Cabinet in December 2018.

He added, “This is partly due to the lengthy authorization procedures. The revision aims to accelerate the procedures without lowering environmental standards. [...] The public also continues to be involved comprehensively and at an early stage.”

As Altmaier noted, the new grid expansion law aims both to streamline the approval process for new transmission lines and empower citizens to participate earlier in that process. The law also specifies how and how much to compensate landowners when underground cables or overhead power lines cross their property and tweaks “redispatch” rules to give regional distribution grid operators more flexibility to manage congestion on their networks.

“It will not only give the industry much-needed space to adequately design the necessary processes, but also provide the regulatory authority with final assurance of the legal certainty of its implementation,” said Stefan Kapferer, chairman of the German Association of Energy and Water Industries, in a statement [translated from German].

He added that the law also “emphasizes the fundamental importance of network operators' cooperation, thereby contributing to the successful management of common challenges.”

Last week, Altmaier followed the legislative push with an announcement that his ministry and energy ministers in the southern states of Bavaria, Hesse and Thuringia had reached an agreement to ease construction of transmission lines in the region.

“We have achieved a decisive breakthrough for grid expansion in southern Germany,” declared Altmaier. He added that expansion would increasingly rely on “citizen-friendly” solutions such as undergrounding of transmission lines.

The parties also agreed to increase the capacity of the planned SüdOstLink, a key north-south HVDC transmission line, in exchange for the line to be constrained to a narrower footprint on the sections in which it is constructed as an overhead line.