Gas power needed

4 July 2023

With the closure of Germany’s last remaining nuclear power plants and the near term phase out of coal, gas power looks like having an important role to play in ensuring electricity supply and maintaining grid stability.

Germany plans to use auctions to ensure new gas power plants are built, which the government sees as necessary to secure supply at times when renewable energy does not deliver enough electricity, said economy minister Robert Habeck in March. “We will build the power plants we need for the times when wind and sun do not provide enough electricity”, said the minister at the presentation of a report on the progress of the country’s transition to climate neutrality. In recent years, Germany has used auctions to incentivise and control the expansion of wind and solar energy. Companies compete in these tenders to receive financial support for renewable electricity. “There are already instruments that we can use – and we will create more – so that by 2030 we will have created about 25 GW of additional alternative capacity to coal-fired power plants.” These would be powered by natural gas, and later hydrogen “as soon as possible,” he said. His government would present a “power plant strategy” by the summer.

The government parties had said in their coalition agreement that several new gas power units are necessary to complement renewable electricity production. These would be built at existing power plant sites in a hydrogen-ready way, so that they could be used also in a climate-neutral energy future. But Germany’s energy industry has long warned that companies have little incentive to build them. The plants would only be used when renewables do not supply enough electricity at peak demand periods, or at times when wind and solar are not sufficient. Keeping gas plants ready would have to be paid for, not just the kilowatt hours produced, the industry has said.

Overall, things are looking up for Germany’s transformation towards a climate neutral energy system by 2045, as the country has “passed through the valley” regarding the expansion of wind and solar energy, said Habeck. “Solar energy is clearly picking up and I am sure that we can achieve the goals we have set ourselves,” he added. “With onshore wind, we can see a clear trend that it’s not yet at a sufficient level.” The ministry’s report, titled Renewing prosperity in a climate-neutral way, says that the government had managed to act quickly in response to the energy crisis fuelled by Russia’s war against Ukraine and succeeded in securing supply, stabilising the economy and reassuring the population. The next step is discussing ways to renew Germany’s economic prosperity and protect the climate at the same time. Aside from renewable energy expansion, grid development, ramping up the hydrogen economy and the transition in heating, the government has a clear focus on decarbonising industry. As part of an upcoming industrial strategy, it aims to introduce “climate contract” subsidies to help companies switch to less climate-damaging ways of production, and to help industry get better direct access to cheap renewable electricity.

30 GW gap

A recent report by consultancy McKinsey concluded that Germany will have to build new gas-fired power plants and introduce additional measures to avoid electricity supply shortages during peak demand periods as the country weans itself off nuclear power and coal. Without new gas plants, Germany faces an electricity capacity gap of 30 GW by 2030, which the expansion of renewables alone cannot meet, according to McKinsey’s bi-annual Energiewende Index. “The combination of decreasing secured capacity and increasing peak load due to electrification can lead to supply gaps,” said Thomas Vahlenkamp, Senior Partner at McKinsey. “Even with a nationwide switch to renewables, further levers of action are needed to stabilise the system” he argued. The country should also consider extending the life of its coal plants, building more battery storage, importing more electricity, and intervening more strongly in demand, the consultancy said. The overall picture painted by the report, which tracks the progress of the German energy transition, is ‘disappointing’, the consultancy added. Three indicators worsened since the last analysis was carried out: household electricity prices; overall energy costs for households; and the costs of stabilising the power grid.

Germany’s energy regulator, the Federal Network Agency (BNetzA), said in a report in January that departing from coal entirely before 2030 does not pose a threat to the stability of the country’s electricity system, if renewables expansion is implemented as intended, new gas power plants are built and the hydrogen production infrastructure is enforced.

Source: Clean Energy Wire, Julian Wettengel (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)

Biblis brings stability

RWE’s 300 MWe gas fuelled Biblis grid stability power plant was officially inaugurated on 9 May, having started operation in early March.

The plant uses 11 GE LM2500XPRESS aeroderivative gas turbines, plus GE GIS (gas insulated switchgear). The plant will only operate when needed – aiming to deliver power within 30 minutes upon request from transmission system operators – to help maintain grid stability.

Above: Biblis grid stability plant (source: GE Vernova)

Grid flexibility is a key issue for the German government, which is committed to achieving 80% renewables in the country’s electricity mix before the end of the decade after exiting nuclear and ideally fully phasing out coal power generation. Dispatchable gas power – gradually decarbonised via hydrogen or carbon capture – would cover the remaining 20% of power generation.

The turbines are connected to the grid via a 380 kV high-voltage substation at the Biblis site. The T168 gas-insulated-substation, employing the first outdoor GIS in Germany, “can help address the challenges of networks up to 550 kV for all applications including power generation, transmission, and heavy industry”, says GE. The compact LM2500XPRESS units for this project were manufactured at GE Gas Power’s Manufacturing Excellence Center in Veresegyhaz, Hungary.

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