The artery of Germany's energy revolution
South Germany needs the power, but wind production is in the north.
Germany’s dilemma: with some energy supply lines the construction is the easy part. Others seem to spend years in the planning phase and never get built at all.
So it is with Sued.Link, the electricity “autobahn” that is supposed to transport huge supplies of electricity from wind farms in north Germany to the industrial south.
Not without reason, Sued.Link has been described as “the main artery of the Energiewende.”
Back in the old days, energy was mainly produced where it was needed.
Coal-fired power stations in North-Rhine Westphalia powered the heavy industry and dense population centres of western Germany. The nuclear power stations of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg brought a reliable supply of energy to the factories of Ingolstadt, Munich and the Mittelstand-dominated region of Swabia.
After the Fukushima meltdown of 2011 though, Germany decided that its nuclear power stations also posed an imminent threat to life and limb. Angela Merkel reacted by announcing the closure of all the countries Atomkraftwerke by the end of 2022.
Coal, which runs in rich seams under Saxony and the Ruhr region, also doesn’t fit with Germany’s self-perception as saviour of the global climate. A phase out of coal production was finally agreed in 2020.
Which all puts a lot of weight on the slim young shoulders of the wind energy sector and its even slighter young brother solar.
And the really awkward thing about wind energy is this: it is produced to an overwhelming degree up on the northern coastlines, which are bekannterweise quite breezy.
So, either Germany has to convince those tüchtige Schwaben to uproot their businesses and resettle on the shores of the Baltic, or it has to find a way of bringing all that wind down to them.
Transporting electricity is probably the easier route. But it’s a closer run thing than you might think. For, it transpires that hanging cables through the middle of Germany isn’t as simple as laying a pipeline from a Russian port along the the floor of the Baltic.
As with all these mega projects (see Berlin airport), there was great optimism when the starting gun for Sued.Link was fired in 2014.
“We’re ready to go,” declared Lex Hartman, CEO of transmission system operator TenneT, which was commissioned with the build of the northern section, as his company published plans in February 2014.
Along an 800-kilometre route starting in Schleswig-Holstein and ending in Bavaria, 70-metre tall masts would carry overground cables.
The company estimated the costs at three billion euros and said they could have the project finished by 2022, just in time to compensate for the switch-off of the last nuclear reactors.
Even then though, there was a suspicion that the project could be derailed. “Indeed, the opposition of residents could cause delays,” a report in Der Spiegel fretted.
It turns out that having 70-metre pylons puncturing your previously pristine landscape isn’t that popular in the countryside.
Faced with hefty protests against the Monstertrassen, Bavarian state leader Horst Seehofer put the brakes on the project. “There is plenty of time to discuss which electricity lines we even need,” he said. According to Seehofer, Bavaria could just as well produce its electricity by building new gas-powered stations.
Of course, that led people further north on the route to ask: why should we put up with huge pylons on our doorstep when the people who will benefit don’t even seem to want the electricity?
The northerners organised their own community resistance movements and demanded that the lines be put underground.
Putting cables underground is more costly and is more time intensive. But the extent of the protests left little option.
By 2017, TenneT and its partners were back where they’d started. They once again published a proposed route for the power cables, but this time they would be underground.
Once again, years of public consultations would have to take place before the exact route could been chosen. The finishing date had now been pushed back to 2025. The estimated cost had soared up to €10 billion…
But there were hidden costs too - massive ones. Every year that the project was not completed meant billions in expenses due to the fact that all the excess electricity in the north was regularly threatening to crash the entire system.
To avoid surges during strong winds, TenneT has to shut down wind farms, but it also has to pay compensation to the companies whose turbines aren’t turning. These costs are passed on to the end user and amount to over a billion euros a year.
At the same time, even the promise to bury the lines underground didn’t seem to appease Sued.Link’s opponents, who were becoming ever more creative.
In the central German state of Thuringia, local governments took to planning industrial districts right in the pathway of Sued.Link in a clear effort to stop it passing through their ’hood.
Farmers, who fear that the cables will warm up their fields and ruin their crops, have been given legal advice on how to block TenneT engineers from entering their property for exploratory surveys.
Activists in Bavaria meanwhile are taking the moral high ground. They claim - horror of horrors - that nuclear energy from France could end up being transported through the cables and that they therefore don’t count as green.
For the Green party and the Green-friendly press, the constant delays were a sign that Merkel’s government was too weak to take the radical action necessary to get the job done. In 2019, der Spiegel complained in a long feature piece (English language) that “politicians have wilted in the face of NIMBY protests.”
Now though the Greens have the power. Co-leader Robert Habeck has taken over as Minister for Economics and the Climate and is directly responsible for getting Sued.Link finished.
The coalition agreement promises to speed up planning by “securing the effectiveness of environmental law” and by “taking responsibility for planning away from local governments.” In other words, ensuring that activists won’t be able to go to court and local governments won’t be able to block planning.
In his first major speech in January, Habeck said that he wanted to halve the time it takes for projects like Sued.Link to be granted planning. He promised to take a tour of the country to listen to people’s concerns. But he also made clear that he would enact new laws by the summer that would make resistance futile.
The irony of the Green party fighting tooth and claw for a block on autobahns being built through green land while using executive power to quash resistance on power lines won’t be lost on Habeck’s critics.
But, a realist by nature, Habeck is unlikely to be put off by such complaints. For him, a swift transition to renewable energy production is an existential issue too important for the niceties of citizen dialogues and so forth.
Last week, the size of the task to hand became even more apparent. A spokesman for TenneT told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that the project wouldn’t realistically be completed before 2028. “And we even consider 2028 to be a big challenge,” he added.
What, I hear you ask, happens to the energy hungry south of German in the years between the shutdown of the last nuclear plants and the eventual completion of Sued.Link at the end of the decade?
South Germany has been increasingly unable to meet its own energy needs in recent years. So it has had to import ever more electricity from abroad. Exporter of choice? France - a country that famously relies on an old fashioned thing called nuclear fission.