RWE director: Europe needs ‘electricity highways’

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A conference organised by UCTE, the Union for the Coordination of Transmission of Electricity, will try to fill a communication gap between decision-makers and technicians, Dr. Klaus Kleinekorte, managing director of German energy giant RWE, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Klaus Kleinekorte is managing director of energy giant RWE. He is also head of a UCTE (Union for the Coordination of Transmission of Electricity) working group on operations and security of the electricity grid. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

You are organising a conference on pan-European electricity grid reliability, to be held in the European Parliament on 8 January. What are your aims behind this effort? 

For the first, it is the very first time that a conference has focused solely on the very important part of the grid. There are various conferences concerning the electricity sector as such, and the future of the energy sector as a whole, and here we have the focus on the grids. 

First, we’ll discuss the reliability of the grid. How do we manage it so there is always safe and secure electricity at home?

Secondly, how to plan the appropriate grid for the future? It is a matter of grid-planning and of system adequacy, that fits the needs of the clients and the society. 

And thirdly, the interoperability of TSO (transmission system operators), responsible for the transport layer. We can compare it with driving by car maybe from Denmark to Italy for holidays, and passing through different highways, with different operators, that keep the maintenance. But this must be coordinated, as different highways match each other at the border. We would like to say, hey guys, there is a system that serves you with electricity, and there are various complexities behind [this]. And the challenge is to make that a little bit more understandable. 

You are talking about reliability, but in central France, there were heavy snows a few days ago and 110,000 people were left without electricity for a long time. Is this normal? 

This is a phenomenon due to the snows and the temperature, with snow being beckoned to the lines. This happened from time to time, maybe once every 50-70 years. The question is whether you should rebuild, or establish an infrastructure which would withstand this once-in-a-century extraordinary situation. But are the customers ready to pay for that? 

But let me say that the situation you described is in the distribution sector, while we are focusing mainly on the transport sector, the ultra-high voltages in Europe, the highways for electricity, which are connected from Portugal to Poland on the high voltage level. 

The transport layer is really the backbone of security. All the others are relying on the security and reliability we are bringing to the system via our job. And if you want to expand the electricity market all over Europe, you need the highways for electricity, that’s the transport business, and that is what we are going to talk about. How we interoperate, how we make that happen, and the market really takes place. We would like the technical issues to be a little bit more transparent to those who have less connections to the technical issues. 

And to decision-makers, obviously. You represent RWE, an energy giant from Germany. Isn’t this simply lobbying for your activities? 

I am indeed heading one of these companies all over Europe, RWE, but I’m here and I’m speaking on behalf of the community of the TSOs, of the UCTE association (the Union for the Coordination of Transmission of Electricity, representing European power grid operators), of which I am the convener of the work group ‘operations and security’. So I’m talking on behalf of the association, and not of a single company. 

What do you hope MEPs will retain from your messages? 

First we expect that there to be a little bit broader understanding on the complexity, of lessons learned, of the fact that the electricity sector is an on-line sector, meaning that we are responsible to keep the lines on second by second; and that there is a need for complex interoperability all over Europe, to make this happen, as a service provider for the internal market, which is our common goal, together with the Commission and the governments, and we are the backbone for that. How this really works, from a technical point of view, not a regulatory point of view. 

How would you categorise your technical and regulatory problems? 

There is the big basket of technical problems, or challenges. There are also challenges coming from our regulatory framework at home, and also from the regulatory framework given by the Commission. These are the boundary conditions where we have to squeeze in our technical solutions. Our aim from the conference is more understanding for the complex technical topic behind, and when writing regulatory directives to TSOs, to know a little bit better these complexities. And of course, to have a very vivid dialogue with those decision makers. It’s like having people responsible for setting traffic lights who have never driven a car. 

Is this conference more technical or more political? 

I think it is both. I think it is to transport the technical complexity to those who are setting the framework from the political regulatory aspect. Not all of the regulatory framework which was set so far was really nice and really productive from a technical point of view. 

Can you give a concrete example of what you would like to tell regulators? 

If, for example, we are asked to strengthen the grid, because of a more intensive and growing electricity market, we say ‘yes, that’s a good idea’, but first, who is going to pay for the infrastructure, and second, we have tremendous problems to get the rights to build additional overhead lines. So we have the political goal from one side, but more or less the impossibility to make that happen on the other side. Now let’s bring all this together, and make people aware of that. 

Or to give you another nice example: a lot of people in the Commission are striving for additional infrastructure, for additional lines. We say – we are ready to invest, to build additional lines. But if you erect a line that is longer than 15km, then according to a Commission directive, you have to go for an environmental impact assessment, which takes two years at least. And they tell you: speed up, speed up, come with additional infrastructure! 

Are you also inviting environmentalists to the conference? 

Yes. But the major goal is not to polarise those who are keen to build additional lines and those who oppose this. The aim is, on a quite neutral basis, to say: there are challenges to keeping the light on. 

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