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Topic - Grids and Grid Expansion

An electricity grid for the energy transition


The electricity grid is the backbone of a successful energy transition. The new generation situation with electricity from renewable sources is creating fresh challenges for the grid: in some cases, electricity needs to travel long distances from the generators to the consumers.

For example, electricity from wind energy is mostly generated in the north and the east of Germany, where the wind is particularly strong. But the main electricity consumers – particularly the large industrial operations – are still to be found in the south and west of the country. So the wind power generated in the north needs to get to the south.

Making the grids fit for the energy transition

By the end of 2022, Germany’s nuclear power plants will have been decommissioned, and other conventional power stations will also have closed down. These changes are affecting the grid: in total, more than 7,500 kilometres of transmission grid will need to be upgraded or newly constructed in the next few years. A major role here is played by the ultra-high-voltage direct-current transmission lines, the "electricity highways" like SuedLink and SuedOstLink. The upgrading of the interconnectors to our European neighbours is also becoming more and more important, because the energy transition needs a European approach.

It used to be the case that electricity travelled in one direction, from the power station via the transmission and distribution grids to the consumer, but today’s grids have to cope with "oncoming traffic", since electricity travels not only in the "top-down" direction, but also "bottom-up". In order to coordinate generation and consumption in a demand-based and consumption-based manner, the electricity grid needs to become smarter.

Rules for the electricity grid of the future

The distribution grid, which transports the electricity to the consumer, and now also from some generators, needs to become fit for the energy transition. The Act to change provisions of law on energy cable construction, the Act on the Digitisation of the Energy Transition, and the revision of the Incentive Regulation Ordinance have put important policies in place to drive the expansion at transmission and distribution grid level, to make it citizen-friendly, and to make the grids fit to cope with their new tasks.

Facts and figures on the electricity grid in Germany

Symbolicon für Unternehmen in Deutschland

transmission system operators
operate the ultra-high voltage transmission grid

Symbolicon für Stromtrasse

is the total length of the main transmission grids in Germany

< 44
Symbolicon für Geld

billion euros
is the amount of investment in the transmission grid (onshore and offshore) forecast by the grid operators up to 2025.

Symbolicon für Haus

million kilometres
is the length of the low-voltage grid in Germany via which the electricity is distributed to the end-users.

The German Electricity Grid

Travelling long distances to reach every socket

Germany has a well developed and intricately meshed electricity grid. This consists of the transmission grid – in which the power is transported at very high voltages – and distribution grids, which are used to supply the regions and final consumers with electricity.

The four transmission system operators in Germany (TenneT, 50Hertz Transmission, Amprion and TransnetBW) look after the secure operation of the infrastructure of the transmission grids, maintain them, build new powerlines, and grant electricity traders/suppliers with non-discriminatory access to these grids. They also have the task of minimising grid fluctuations which arise from deviations between the volume of electricity generated and the demand.

Over long distances: the transmission grids

Transmission grids facilitate the transport of electricity over large distances throughout Germany and even across borders – with a minimum of loss, and directly to the areas where a lot of power is consumed. The German high voltage grid is linked to the wider European grid by interconnectors. The total length of the German transmission grids is about 35,000 kilometres. In the case of alternating current (AC), electricity is transmitted with a maximum voltage of 220 kilovolts (kV) or 380 kV; the voltage of the planned new high voltage direct current (DC) transmission lines will be up to 525 kV.

Directly to the consumer: the distribution grids

At the level of the distribution grids the electricity is transmitted at high, medium and low voltage. Lower voltage grids distribute the power to end users. There are a large number of regional and municipal grid operators in this sector.

  • High voltage: 60 kV to 220 kV (grid length approx. 77,000 km)
    The high-voltage grid is the link to the ultra-high voltage grid (transformers). High-voltage grids distribute the electricity to urban areas or directly to major industrial concerns.
  • Medium voltage: 6 kV to 60 kV (grid length approx. 479,000 km)
    The medium voltage grid distributes the electricity to regional transformer substations, or directly to large facilities such as hospitals or factories.
  • Low voltage: 230 V or 400 V (grid length approx. 1,123,000 km)
    The low voltage grid is used for fine distribution of the electricity. The low voltage grid serves private households, small industrial companies, commercial enterprises and office premises.

Underground Cables

Policies in place for future grid expansion

The policies for future grid expansion were put in place at the end of 2015. Since the beginning of 2016, priority has been given to underground cables in new DC projects.

In the past, the transportation of electricity over large distances at ultra-high voltage has used alternating current. The major new north-south powerlines, such as SuedLink, will now be planned and built as ultra-high voltage DC lines. In the past, both DC and AC projects have mainly used overhead powerlines.

The Act to change provisions of law on energy cable construction has not only updated the list of the particularly urgent projects, but also placed the rules on the use of underground cables on a new basis.

Several pilot projects are to test the use of underground cables in certain sections.

This means that the ultra-high voltage projects are now to be planned in a way that they mainly run underground. There are only a few exceptional cases in which overhead powerlines may be used. This priority for underground cables does require new route planning, but the greater public acceptance of underground cables means that the projects can now be realised more quickly than would previously have been the case.

The five stages of grid expansion: From planning the requirements to the finished route


Energy supply scenarios


Network Development Plan, Offshore Network Development Plan and environmental report


Federal Requirements Plan


Decision on powerline routes


Defining the exact powerline routes in the statutory planning approval procedure

How much electricity will we consume in the next few years, and where? A “scenario framework” answers these questions and thus provides the basis for the necessary grid expansion planning. This scenario framework is prepared by the transmission system operators.

How it works: Grid expansion in five steps

The transmission system operators use the scenario framework to determine how much grid expansion is needed. They summarise the results in a joint Network Development Plan and Offshore Network Development Plan. Environmental impacts are also considered, and summarised in an environmental report. The Federal Network Agency confirms the results.

How it works: Grid expansion in five steps

The Federal Network Agency transmits the confirmed Network Development Plans (onshore and offshore) and the environmental report to the Federal Government. These now serve as the draft of a Federal Requirements Plan. The Federal Government must present a draft of this plan to the legislature at least every four years for its approval.

How it works: Grid expansion in five steps

Once the Federal Requirements Plan Act has been adopted, the starting and finishing points of the future ultra-high voltage powerlines have been decided. Now, the precise routing is stipulated – strips up to a kilometre wide in which the lines will run in future. The Federal Network Agency does this for those powerlines which cross Länder and international borders; the routes of other powerlines are stipulated by the Länder.

How it works: Grid expansion in five steps

The corridors identified in the fourth stage form the basis for the statutory planning approval procedure. The planning approval stipulates all the key details for the future ultra-high voltage line: the precise route and the transmission technology.

How it works: Grid expansion in five steps

Public Dialogue

Engaging in dialogue, promoting local acceptance

The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy supports the initiative for a public dialogue on grids. The goal: to boost public acceptance of the grid expansion via dialogue and transparency.

The German energy transition is very much a joint effort that requires transparency and dialogue.  Whilst a large majority is in favour of the energy reforms per se, the necessary infrastructure projects like the construction of powerlines often need greater local acceptance.

This is why the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy supports the initiative for a public dialogue on grids, which was launched with an opening event in Berlin in May 2015. The public dialogue on the electricity grid is available to everyone affected and the general public as a neutral information and dialogue platform on all questions relating to grid expansion; in this way, it shapes the broad societal dialogue involving all the relevant stakeholders. With ten offices around Germany and one mobile office, various local event formats and an online information and participation portal, people are able to find out what is happening locally and to discuss their interests in a dialogue. Also, conflict resolution procedures and mediation can be offered to project managers, citizens’ initiatives and interested parties.

Smart Grids and Smart Meters

Smart grids and the digitisation of the energy transition

Electricity generation from renewable energy sources is subject to some considerable fluctuations. For this reason, generation, grids and consumption need to be smartly linked up. Energy generation and consumption need to be coordinated in a needs-based and consumption-based manner.

The concept of the "smart grid" describes the communicative connection of the actors in the energy supply system to the power supply grid, from power generation, transmission, storage and distribution through to the consumption of the electricity. The basic idea is that each device which is connected to the electricity grid should be integrated on a "plug & play" basis. This creates an integrated data and energy grid with completely new structures and functions. Smart grids aim to safeguard the power supply of tomorrow on the basis of an efficient and reliable operation of the system. Precise information on the behaviour of millions of distributed generating installations is therefore indispensable if the grid is to operate in a way that meets the needs of the energy transition. The same goes on the consumer side for the grid integration of electric mobility.

Here, an important role is played by smart meters. As remotely communicating digital electricity meters, they permit the direct transmission of meter readings to consumers, grid operators, energy suppliers and energy service companies. The consumer gains a precise visualisation of his consumption patterns and can thus see every "wasted" kilowatt-hour. This can motivate him to behave in a way that saves energy. At the same time, smart meters permit the use of variable tariffs, in which the consumer gains economic incentives to use electricity when it’s cheapest. Smart meters also give the grid operators a precise insight into their electricity grid, enabling them to control generation and consumption facilities.

The Act on the Digitisation of the Energy Transition

The Act on the Digitisation of the Energy Transition heralds the launch of the smart grid, smart meter and smart home in Germany. We are using it to enable the development of a digital infrastructure that is capable of connecting more than 1.5 million electricity producers and large-scale consumers. The new legislation centres on the introduction of smart meters. They will provide a secure communication platform which will make the electricity supply system fit for the energy transition. Particular importance is attached to data protection and data security – the Act contains the highest minimum technical requirements. The decision by the Bundestag with provisos regarding the Act on the Digitisation of the Energy Transition can be found here (in German).

You can find out more here.

SINTEG: secure grids despite high shares of intermittent power generation

The funding programme "Smart Energy Showcases - Digital Agenda for the Energy Transition" (SINTEG) aims to develop and demonstrate in model regions new approaches to safeguarding secure grid operation with high shares of intermittent power generation on the basis of wind and solar energy. The funding programme thus addresses key challenges of the energy transition including the integration of renewables into the system, flexibility, security of supply, system stability, energy efficiency and the establishment of smart energy systems and market structures.

Five large "showcase regions" are being established in order to pool knowledge, experience and activities of different systems. The showcase regions are to address the technical, economic and regulatory challenges posed by the energy transition over the coming decades and deliver model solutions which have been tried out in practice. These are to serve as a blueprint for broad use and implementation. Learn more

Competition and Regulation

Improved rules for cost-efficient investments

It would not be efficient to have several electricity grids side by side. As a result, there is no competition on this market. But the markets upstream and downstream of the electricity grid, such as energy generation, energy trading and selling to final consumers are subject to market-based competition.

The amendment of the Incentive Regulation Ordinance adopted by the cabinet on 3 August 2016 adapts the rules to the new challenges posed by the energy transition. The intention is to permit rapid and low-cost grid expansion.

As "natural monopolies", electricity grids are subject to regulation. In Germany, this includes "incentive regulation". Incentives are created for grid operators to act economically and reduce their costs. The new Incentive Regulation Ordinance modernises the framework for investment by distribution grid operators. It means that better account can be taken of individual investment costs rather than lump-sum budgets, and it rewards particularly efficient grid operators with an extra bonus. You can find more information here.

Distribution system symbolizes the eletrcity market of the future; Quelle: Getty Images/Hans-Peter Merten/The Image Bank

© Getty Images/Hans-Peter Merten/The Image Bank

Energy Grids Platform

Working together to develop joint solutions for grid expansion

Public acceptance of powerline construction, good planning and approval procedures for powerlines, the development of smart grids and meters, and the maintenance of secure grid operations: these are just a few of the key issues covered by the Energy Grids Platform. Since 2011, leading players in grid expansion – grid operators, administration and associations – have been working on joint solutions in the Platform.

The expansion of the grids is of paramount importance to the German government. Powerline construction is a key prerequisite for expanding electricity generation from renewable energies, and paves the way for European competition on the electricity market.

For this reason, the Energy Grids Platform aims to foster the modernisation and expansion of the electricity grid. The Energy Grids Platform carries out its work at regular plenary meetings and in four thematic working groups. You can find out more about the modus operandi, issues and results of the Platform here.

Further information

  • 31/10/2016 - Press release - Grids and Grid Expansion

    Press release: Assessment of current approach to compensation for land owners and users due to grid expansion

    Open detail view
  • 08/07/2016 - Press release - The Energy Transition

    Press release: Gabriel: The next phase of the energy transition can now begin

    Open detail view
Arbeiter auf Strommast symbolisiert Netze und Netzausbau; Quelle: mauritius images / imageBROKER / Rolf Schulten