The key to a successful energy transition, a discussion with Olivier Feix (50Hertz)
This interview was published in The Beam #5 — Subscribe now
Olivier Feix is Head of Environmental Protection and Permitting at the German transmission system operator (TSO) 50Hertz, which operates in a region with very high shares of variable Renewable Energy Systems (RES). He is also Co-Chairman of the Board of the “Renewables Grid Initiative”, of the ‘DialogGesellschaft’ and in the Presidential Committee of the ‘World Energy Council Germany’. Theresa Schneider, Senior Project Manager at Renewables Grid Initiative, had a technical discussion with Olivier about the evolution of TSOs and asked about the importance of working together with local authorities, NGOs and citizens in the implementation of a successful energy transition.
How did the role of a TSO evolve in recent years against the backdrop of the energy transition?
Our main task is to provide a stable and reliable electricity transmission system and to integrate securely the fast-growing renewables into this system. Today, we are proud to be a worldwide frontrunner, having covered 50% of the yearly consumption in our area by variable renewables.
We experienced three major development phases:
In phase 1, renewables played a niche role in our grids, below 10% of total consumption. To some extent we could just ignore the renewables — they integrated themselves. We still had to speed along a fast learning curve, since weather forecast instruments had to be developed and the company had to manage all billing and accounting data from new energy sources. But overall, it wasn’t very important whether or not some mistakes occurred because the overall amount of renewables in our electricity system was still comparatively small.
In phase 2, renewables became a major component of our electricity system. We moved up to 40% of the yearly consumption covered by renewables. We had in this second stage to review all our system control processes, to develop tailor-made and more accurate weather forecasts. We were faced with changing regulations, process changes to act closer to real-time and to start steering renewables infeed. We intensified the real-time cooperation with distribution grids and neighbouring grids. With the increase of decentralised production that is also often far away from consumer centres, in our case especially wind energy, electricity has to be transported over much longer distances. That’s why we had to start important grid reinforcement projects — inside our area and to interconnect us better with our neighbouring regions. Grid reinforcement provides more capacity to exchange electricity and unleashes additional flexibility potential. That is another fundamental lesson.
In the third phase, above 40%, renewables become the dominant players. They now set the scene, new market products closer to real-time are needed, ancillary services have more and more to be provided by renewables, and finally a new market design is progressively needed. The demand side, the customers, become more important and can offer flexibility. In our control area, new types of large-scale storage become an issue when we are around 60–70% renewables. And we expect then also electricity, heat and gas sectors to converge progressively.
You are the Head of Environmental Protection and Permitting at 50Hertz. Why does a TSO care about the environment and how does this concern influence your work?
We are convinced that ecologically sound grid development paired with an intensive stakeholder dialogue is essential to avoid delays in the grid projects that we desperately need to make the energy transition a success. Therefore, we plan our projects with high attention on their impact on nature and landscape and engage stakeholders in a very early planning phase. We develop tailor-made grid solutions to reduce the impact of new infrastructure. On top of that, environmental compensation measures have become an integrated part of our planning process. Doing this together with local authorities, NGOs and citizens not only leads to better and more sustainable projects, it also helps to develop a better understanding of the needs and benefits of projects. 50Hertz helps, for example, to install nests, species protection towers, bird hospitals, and biodiversity corridors, and we unseal and decontaminate the ground. Thanks to a closer collaboration with local nature protection authorities and NGOs, we design and implement more sustainable ecological projects than in the past.
You have been engaged in the Renewables Grid Initiative for years, serving as Co-Chairman of the Board. RGI is a platform for TSOs and environmental NGOs. What has been your experience in collaborating with NGOs?
Many stakeholders and perspectives are needed to make the energy transition a success. As a TSO, we have to define the necessary grid needs, to respect environmental standards, to develop solutions reducing our impact on nature and landscape and to develop local compensation projects. We do this together with many stakeholders. Working now regularly with NGOs in the frame of RGI has enlarged our horizon; it makes us understand better their issues at stake and their perspectives. This understanding is essential if we want to work out well balanced solutions in the interest of society.
We benefit from this intensive dialogue within RGI and learn every single day. I would even say that we created trust amongst each other, not only mutual understanding. RGI motivated us to go beyond our classical approaches. European NGOs and TSOs advocate now for the necessary grid development for more renewables while respecting nature protection. And we show that it can practically work in projects on the ground. We are thankful that environmental NGOs help us to better design and implement our grid projects.
What have you learned from this kind of collaboration? What was most surprising?
Issues that are inherently relevant for NGOs due to their expertise and objectives, such as bird protection, biodiversity, effective public and stakeholder participation, the relation of grid infrastructure development and climate protection, have enriched the DNA of us TSOs. And concrete projects emerge from our joint RGI work, such as the establishment of a hotline to systematically collect and jointly analyse information about bird strike in order to develop appropriate countermeasures. We also developed new approaches for a constructive debate about grid needs for the energy transition at national and local level. Most surprisingly, TSO and NGO views are in many cases not so far away from each other.
What are the current challenges for the implementation of a successful energy transition and how can we tackle them?
The transition into a “renewable energy world” triggers not only new infrastructure investments and new jobs, it also calls for completely new business models, innovative technologies and a new setup of the energy market. But I do not believe in a fully fetched masterplan to define precisely its path. The global direction seems quite clear; especially the Paris Agreement gives guidance and was a strong and clear signal. But the real implementation that will lead to good local and regional solutions needs a passionate debate with committed stakeholders. And we, TSOs, are convinced we have an active role to play to pave the way towards that future. The energy transition will keep us busy and sometimes surprised with unexpected turns.
What are the main trends you see in the energy sector for the next 10–15 years and how optimistic are you regarding the success of the energy transition?
I am very optimistic we will make it happen, even if I can’t tell you precisely how. So, why are we optimistic? Because we at 50Hertz thought 10 years ago, we would never be able to integrate more than 7000 MW of wind due to “technical and organisational limits”. And what do we successfully integrate today 24/7 in our control room? 17.000 MW! How come? Because we simply had to find solutions, we had to learn and become better. We reviewed all our processes, the market has evolved a lot since then, new technical solutions have become mature — it’s amazing what people are able to master, if they simply have to. Against this experience, I became a bit cautious in telling what is not feasible or what will need decades and decades in this energy transition. In any case, one major challenge for us is to think in long-term scenarios and — at the same time — to make quick progress in grid development, system operations, market development and integration of renewables to get closer to this desired future. And last but not least, especially TSOs must master this dynamic change process without major incident — I do not want to imagine the reactions if we experience a couple of major blackouts on our way to decarbonise the system. Let’s at the same time intensively debate about tomorrow and be ambitious in moving ahead every day!