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Policy Review

Germany's Underground Cable Law: New rules aims to accelerate grid expansion [free access]

April 6, 2016

In December 2015, the Bundesrat (the second chamber of Germany’s federal legislative) passed a Bill approving amendments to various laws concerning power line extension in the country. Commonly known as the Erdkabelgesetz or the underground cable law, the Bill allows major power grid projects to be built as underground cables instead of overhead lines. The new provisions are expected to put the country’s grid expansion plan back on track, which so far has met with significant hurdles, mainly due to resistance from residents towards building overhead lines. Undergrounding of cables is expected to ease the grid expansion process as buried cables are associated with less intrusion in residential areas.


The country has plans to build 2,750 km of new transmission lines and refurbish 3,050 km of lines by 2024 to help achieve its transition into a clean and green energy economy. Germany needs to urgently expand its grid to integrate renewables and push back fossil fuel power in the grid. New power lines in Germany will help bring wind power from the north to the economic centres in the south. The transmission system operators (TSOs) have warned that delays in the construction of these lines will compel southern Germany to increase imports of fossil fuel-based electricity from neighbouring countries such as Austria in the coming years. This will also split northern and southern Germany into two different electricity pricing zones, with consumers in the south paying more.


Under the new law, underground cables have been made the standard for new high voltage direct current (HVDC) projects while overhead lines will now become an exception. Further, overhead lines close to residential areas in general have been disallowed. These changes will primarily impact three major north-south HVDC connections, namely, A-Nord, SuedLink and Süd-Ost-Passage or South-East HVDC project. The SuedLink and South-East HVDC projects are expected to immensely benefit from the new law as both these lines—originally planned as overhead lines—have faced substantial public protest, especially in the Federal State of Bavaria. With the amendments, public acceptance of the projects is expected to significantly increase. The law recommends that the DC underground cable connections should run as straight as possible, so as to reduce environmental costs as well as make planning and approval for possible route corridors manageable.


The forth HVDC project, Ultranet, which runs from Osterath to Philippsburg, will not be affected by the new rules as the approval process for the project is already at an advanced stage. Also, the project will largely utilise existing corridors and very little construction work is therefore required.


However, as opposed to HVDC lines, overhead lines continue to remain the standard for alternating current (AC) projects. Further, AC cable projects retain their character as pilot projects. A key reason for this is that the risks (technical risks and costs risks) associated with underground AC transmission are much higher than those for underground DC transmission. Also, currently, there is little experience in the field of high voltage underground AC cables.


Nevertheless, the draft bill lists several projects (the 380 kV Conneforde–Cloppenburg Ost–Merzen, the 380 kV Stade–Sottrum–Wechold–Landesbergen, the Wilhelmshaven–Conneford, the Emden Ost–Conneforde, and the Kreis Segeberg–Lübeck–Siems–Göhl lines) in the Bundesbedarfsplangesetz (BBPIG) or the Federal Requirement Plan Law where the installation of underground cables is admissible, if certain criteria (such as a short distance to residential buildings—less than 400 metres in the case of a zoning plan, less than 200 metres in outside areas; in areas where the construction of overhead lines is prohibited under the Federal Nature Conservation Act; or in areas where the construction of overhead lines is illegal under the Federal Nature Conservation Act) are fulfilled.  The draft BBPlG stipulates that the installation of underground cables is also possible if the criteria for installation are only fulfilled for a section of the entire power line.


In March 2016, Germany’s Federal Network Agency Bundesnetzagentur (BNetzA) commenced consultations on a position paper designed to provide guidelines to TSOs for planning underground DC lines, as a follow up to the recently passed underground cable law.


In the position paper, BNetzA has put down all essential legal and methodological requirements for planning underground cable projects. The paper provides guidelines to identify the shortest route for the underground cable in order to minimise the impact on landscape and reduce costs. It also explains the basic requirements for the determination of alignment corridors and other possible alternatives.


Following the publication of the final guidelines for laying underground DC lines, the TSOs will begin developing plans for underground cable corridors and initiate civil dialogue for implementing the projects.


However, the underground DC projects are expected to cost EUR3 to EUR8 billion more than the construction of overhead lines. Despite the extra cost, undergrounding is by far a more feasible solution as it will made the grid projects more acceptable to local communities (who have cited losses in scenic values and perceived health risks associated with above-ground cables), thus accelerating the much needed and delayed grid expansion.