How digitisation can speed up grid expansion

Author: Annika Hamann

Illustration von Windrädern

In the race towards carbon zero, 14.000 km of new extra-high voltage grid, grid boosters, and transnational power lines are built – this is the task German trans-mission grid operators are facing as part of the energy transition. How can digital services help increase the speed of grid expansion for Germany to achieve the goal of climate neutrality by 2045?

By 2030, Germany aims to skyrocket its renewable energy share to 80%, marking a significant stride towards its 2045 goal to achieve climate neutrality. 95% of renewable energy production is seamlessly interconnected, poised for integration into the national grid without compromising its security and stability. Nevertheless, the current Grid Development Plan still presents immense challenges for transmission system operators.

As of March this year, a comprehensive strategy has emerged to tackle these challenges head-on. This blueprint envisions the construction of a whopping 14,197 km of additional transmission, in tandem with optimization measures and grid fortifications – considering the length of the extra-high voltage grid of 37.000km, it becomes an ambitious endeavor.
The recent rapid integration of new LNG terminals into the national grid has offered a glimpse of how network expansion can indeed happen rapidly. Grid operators, however, are still facing bureaucratic hurdles, citizen protests, a shortage of skilled workers, and volatile material markets.

Can the milestones be met? What role can digital services play in overcoming these hurdles and paving the way for sustainable success?

Why rapid grid development is crucial

The four transmission system operators in Germany – Amprion, Tennet, TransnetBWand 50Hertz – are anticipating a substantial doubling of annual electricity consumption by the year 2045. This surge in demand can be attributed to several key factors: the ongoing transition away from fossil fuels, the burgeoning need for electricity to support the expanding electric vehicle (e-mobility) sector, and the ever-increasing energy requirements for the production of green hydrogen. As per the network development plan, the projection is nothing short of remarkable – power generation from renewable sources is expected to increase fivefold by 2045. Yet, the challenge lies in seamlessly integrating the additional power output into the grid, while preserving balance and stability. Achieving this task not only calls for substantial grid reinforcements and efficiency-optimisations but also the installation of 14,000 km of the extra-high voltage grid infrastructure by the year 2045.

The current status of the major transmission grid projects

  1. Efficient north-south balance via “electricity highways”

    The four major extra-high voltage direct-current (HVDC) transmission lines ­electricity highways – are built to guarantee efficient energy balancing between the windy north, and the south of Germany. The routes A-Nord, Ultranet, SüdLink and SüdOstLink were originally scheduled for completion in 2022. They are currently in the final planning phase before construction, the planning approval process. In this phase, the exact location of the line within the route corridor is defined and approved. It will be a few more years before they are fully operational. 

  2. Optimised network utilisation with “grid boosters”

    Network optimisation is cheaper and faster than grid reinforcement. Grid reinforcement in turn is cheaper and faster than grid expansion. With so-called grid boosters, and giant battery parks, the capacity of the transmission grid is increased. Without these batteries as buffers, the lines cannot be utilised to their limits, because otherwise the grid is not protected against overload. According to the grid development plan, grid boosters will take on precisely this role in the future. Three pilot stations are in planning. The giant battery parks will enable higher utilisation of the existing transmission network while maintaining supply security and reducing costs of congestion management such as preventive low utilisation or expensive redispatch measures. The Kupferzell pilot plant is scheduled to go into operation in 2026. The long-term goal is to use grid boosters throughout Germany.

  3. Simplified cross-border energy trading with “interconnectors”

    Interconnectors – extra-high voltage transmission lines between two countries – will connect the German offshore parks with those of the neighboring countries. With the German “Offshore Interconnection Cluster”, more than 10 GW will be available for international trade with Denmark and the Netherlands between 2032 and 2036. If offshore parks are connected to other countries or other price zones, the energy can be sold to the regions with the highest prices. If there is no wind, the lines can be used for exchange between countries in addition to onshore lines. 

Implementing the above-mentioned measures will generate a massive boost for the energy transition. However, it is an enormous undertaking which is pushed forward by the TSOs despite many challenges.

The biggest obstacles

  1. Shortage of skilled working force

    It is no secret that the energy transition in Germany is being severely hampered by a shortage of skilled working force. Among others, electrical professions, engineering professions, and the skilled trades in general are strongly affected. This is slowing down grid expansion at all levels, as well as the connection of renewable energy systems. Bottlenecks in commissioning service providers, increased prices, delays, or even rejected orders have become the norm. Finding young talents and training them as quickly as possible is just as important as the struggle to store and preserve the knowledge of the retiring generation.

  2. Inconsistent software landscape, data islands and unclear processes

    The ongoing digitisation and smartification have been inconsistent, growing organically and sometimes patchy in many large companies. This is particularly true of companies that are heavily influenced by mergers and acquisitions. Software or digital services that are created in silo-like structures are difficult to expand later and fit poorly into digital ecosystems. Many data sets – e.g., those of assets – exist multiple times in different systems that do not communicate with each other. In some cases, data still needs to be transferred to other systems by hand. In companies with silo structures, processes are also often not standardised. In an age that demands rapid innovation from all departments, this becomes an obstacle.

  3. Bureaucratic hurdles

    Lengthy approval procedures also pose a significant problem. The current government has been tackling the reduction of bureaucratic hurdles for the energy transition, e.g. by shortening procedures or avoiding duplicate approvals. Public participation is also to be simplified. However, when applications are processed in understaffed authorities with the help of only partially digitised processes, it is clear that many different parts of the system need to be tuned in order to move faster.

  4. Resistance from the population

    Protests and legal proceedings initiated by citizens, municipalities, or federal states have been slowing down the process. Hundreds of communities and thousands of land parcels are affected along the planned routes. Public information events and hearings have been perceived by some citizens as a PR campaign rather than an invitation to collaborate. In both Bavaria and Thuringia, several municipalities and citizens’ initiatives continue to protest. Farmers’ associations had fought for new compensation rules due to restrictions caused by the underground cables.

  5. Increasingly challenging material procurement

    Throughout the pandemic, the energy industry grappled with a pervasive scarcity of crucial materials, ranging from computer chips to construction supplies. This shortage not only led to substantial disruptions but also contributed to the volatility in market prices. Furthermore, over the past few years, prices have steadily climbed while exhibiting significant fluctuations. As the industry experiences rapid grid expansion and the ongoing smartification of grids, the demand for raw materials, intermediate products and power grid components is increasing. To address this growing demand, advanced planning is essential. The demand for components must be defined in the project planning to avoid delays caused by potential bottlenecks. However, the lack of planning capability in the face of material shortages poses a major challenge. For instance, according to BMWK, certain grid components like power transformers already have delivery times of up to 12 months.

Enhancing Resilience: Leveraging Intelligent Data-Driven Workflows and Service Ecosystems for Optimal Solutions

Initially, the challenges outlined may appear to be beyond the control of network operators. However, the power of digital systems to address these challenges should not be underestimated. These digital solutions have the potential to elevate skilled worker satisfaction and productivity, establish a robust data foundation for AI support, facilitate proactive civic engagement, and streamline domestic bureaucracy.

Increase skilled labour satisfaction and productivity, create a data basis for AI support, proactively guide civic dialogue and reduce internal bureaucracy.

The foundation of a successful energy transition are employees and contractors

The primary objective, besides employing successful marketing to attract new talent, is to cultivate the lasting satisfaction of the existing workforce to maximise their efficiency.

To achieve this, we need to address the expectations and requirement of the new target group: recent graduates and young professionals. Gen Z is tech-savvy and used to user-friendly digital applications. Processes that involve multiple tools, files, and data sources, along with disjointed media, can lead to frustration and are unlikely to be met with acceptance and understanding. Internal software tools are often out-of-the-box applications that may adhere to outdated usability standards and do not always fully represent real-life processes.

Our goal should be to provide the next generation with digital service ecosystems that are unified, encompass clear workflow support and boast a high level of automation.

Mobile field service apps for technicians can guide and support all field service processes from start to finish and are ideally embedded in the overall service ecosystem. They help field technicians execute specialist tasks as well as route finding, and focus on safety while automating tedious documentation work as much as possible to increase employee productivity. Helper functionalities such as peer support, image recognition and intelligent assistants provide colleagues in the field with additional expertise and optimize the first-time fix rate in times of a shortage of skilled workers and knowledge drain due to retiring generations.

An excellent data foundation enables AI support for predictive material procurement and asset maintenance

Dashboards for data insights combined with workflow systems can support material procurement processes with pricing forecasts and lead times, generating timely order recommendations. Procurement is kept up to date on lead time changes and delivery bottlenecks. Notifications about upcoming price increases of certain materials or assets can help to replenish stock in an anticipatory manner. Predictions of changes in supplier reliability enable short-term change of vendor. The growing power grid will benefit from all voltage levels from a modern asset management system that is virtually mapped by a digital twin, has high data quality, and enables real-time monitoring. Features such as asset health status, anomaly detection, and fault prediction will complement or replace activities based on maintenance schedules and asset lifecycles in the future. This will avoid unnecessary maintenance and renewals in times of supply bottlenecks and a pressing shortage of skilled labor.

Consistently control citizen dialogue, reduce bureaucracy within your organization

A partially automated, transparent and anticipatory dialogue builds trust and saves time by anticipating blockers before they arise. Understanding the pain points and managing upset citizens and communities is the key to success.

Although bureaucratic obstacles must be reduced on the part of policymakers, the application processes can be partially automated with the help of high data quality and topicality in the system, so that the time and resources required for processing official communications are minimized.

Thus, intelligent, data-driven and predictive service ecosystems are becoming an important tool for the energy transition. With their help, challenges can be overcome that at first glance seemed to lie outside the company. However, merely optimising at a single point is not enough. A holistic approach is needed that puts humans at the centre, empowers them and meets their needs.

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