Towards Sustainable Modernization of Power Grids

The European grid needs to be expanded and upgraded. This is indispensible to transform the power sector and integrate a large share of renewable energy sources in line with European de-carbonization and energy security targets. In 2011, the ‘European Declaration on Electricity Network Development and Nature Conservation in Europe’ was signed by 29 parties, among them 16 environmental organizations and 9 Transmission System Operators (TSOs). With this document, the signing parties underlined the need to find sustainable ways of developing the grid towards an increased integration of renewable energies. An extension to the document, dealing with matters of transparency and participation was then developed and signed in 2012. In 1987, the Brundtland Report “Our common future” stated: “sustainable development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It introduced three main pillars of sustainable development: economic growth, environmental protection and social equity. Looking at the modernization of the energy grid, this translates into two different requests. First, to build the right grids and, second, to build grids the right way.

To “build the right grids” implies that only “no-regret” grids will be built. No-regret refers to those grids that are indispensible in a future energy landscape based largely or wholly on renewables, or for the transition towards it. These grids are needed to slow climate change, which substantially impacts the well-being of present and future generations. However, any grid expansion project is an intervention in local environments and can have significant impact. This impact on ecosystems reduce nature’s ability to provide substantial ecosystem services such as clean air, CO2 absorption, clean water, provision of food and timber. Interventions should therefore be avoided where possible, i.e. power-lines should not be built if not necessary.

Grids identified as “no-regret grids” therefore have to be “built the right way”. Impacts on local natural environments have to be minimized or mitigated where possible to protect eco-systems. The same is true for impact on the socio-economic environment. The following edited INMR article, based on a presentation at the 2015 INMR WORLD CONGRESS by Antina Sander of the Renewables Grid Initiative in Germany explains what is needed to “build the right grids” and to “build them the right – and sustainable – way”.

Towards Sustainable Grid Modernization

Building the Right Grids

There are high hopes set into a future energy system that is almost uniquely based on small-scale de-centralized generation and the use of “smart” solutions – thus automated transmission and consumption of energy. This idea comes along with the assumption that significantly less transmission grids will have to be built under such a de-centralized scenario. De-centralized, small-scale and smart generation will certainly be part of future energy systems and storage, automation as well as demand response will play important roles in this regard. But to build a stable, secure, economically sound and resilient system, depending only on small-scale local solutions is insufficient. To avoid customers overpaying, energy from renewable sources should be harvested where economically reasonable. Wind, where there is wind; sun, where there is sun. However, since electricity from renewable sources has a tendency to be available exactly in those locations that are far away from demand centres, it is unavoidable to transport it over larger distances. Major cities have high electricity demand but not an outstanding amount of wind or sun. The same holds true for many highly industrialized areas. In order to create a resilient system, it is furthermore necessary to build a grid that is fed by more than one energy source and that reaches beyond weather zones, ideally even time zones. The more extensive a long-distance transmission net grows, the more resilient it becomes and the better it can use existing generation capacity, reducing the need for costly back-up capacity.

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It can therefore be said that the future energy system is going to be a mix of energy that comes from small-scale, de-centralized sources as well as from large-scale, centralized renewable energy plants. These different sources and the locations of demand have to be connected by a SuperSmart Grid. ‘Super’ means the grid will reach far enough to connect enough renewable energy sources to create a reliable energy supply right across Europe. ‘Smart’ means the grid will enable generation and use of electricity more intelligently. To move towards building this right grid, it will be necessary to:

a) change European policies so that these point more clearly in the direction of a de-carbonized society, based on renewables;
b) install grid planning procedures that are able to handle the high level of uncertainty regarding the future grid and;
c) ensure that society in general can understand and influence this planning process.

Changing European Policies

How much and where additional grids will be needed depends on a variety of factors. Among these are level and location of future energy demand, future mode and location of generation, future technological developments in generation, storage, transmission and demand-side management. A multitude of factors shapes each of these elements. Among these are societal considerations of exactly how the future energy landscape will look and the policies that are adopted to achieve the targets set – policies that impact the willingness to invest in new technologies, finance research and development, subsidize fossil fuels or incentives for energy saving. As of today, many of the indispensible policy adjustments to move towards an energy system based on renewable sources have still to be made. The ‘greenpeace energy [r]evolution’ report names the following most important policy adjustments to move towards a low carbon society and prevent climate change:

1. Phase out all subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear energy;
2. Internalize the external (social and environmental) costs of energy production through emissions trading and regulation;
3. Mandate strict efficiency standards for all energy-consuming appliances, buildings and vehicles;
4. Establish legally-binding targets for renewable energy and combined heat and power generation;
5. Reform electricity markets by guaranteeing priority access to the grid for renewable power generators;
6. Provide defined and stable returns for investors with programs such as feed-in tariffs;
7. Implement better labelling and disclosure mechanisms to provide more environmental product information;
8. Increase research and development budgets for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

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With the exception of #7, each of these has a direct impact on the move towards a new energy sector and how it is going to look. As of today, none of these measures has yet been fully adopted. Fossil fuel based electricity is still kept artificially low since external costs are not internalized. The risk for investors is high because no clear rules are in place that would attract investment into new technologies that are not yet ripe for market. As a consequence, it is difficult for new technologies to mature and become marketable under competitive prices and it is difficult for necessary supply chains to develop. To ensure the right grids are being built, it is therefore important that such policy adjustments are made. New solutions under the Energy Union and the upcoming reform for a new energy market design can and needs to play and important role in this respect.

Installing Grid Planning Procedures Able to Deal with Uncertainty

The combination of an unclear, changing policy framework and the importance of technologies that are currently in the course of being developed makes the exercise of planning a suitable grid highly uncertain. Determination of the need for grids is traditionally the exclusive role of TSOs and they were accustomed to working on a basis of concrete and visible need for transmission capacity. Sites and scope of generation was fairly predictable and new technologies played a minor role. Furthermore, planning used to be done on a national or subnational scale, with no need to consider the interconnection of a European grid.

Today, grid planning is based more on prognosis and assumptions. The quality of these forecasts and assumptions will largely influence whether the right conclusions can be drawn on how the grid of the future has to look. It is therefore necessary that a much larger group of expert stakeholders come together to combine their knowledge on new technologies, on future policy and on societal developments. It is furthermore necessary that this happens in a European context. Otherwise, there is a risk that the combination of national initiatives results in an inconsistent and unreasonable picture from a European viewpoint.

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The European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E) has a mandate to develop a process that analyses the need for grids from a comprehensive European perspective (the ‘super’ part of the grid, not the ‘smart’ element). It will have to find ways to develop robust scenarios of the future and determine a need for grids that reflects those scenarios. Substantial work has been done to establish a recognised procedure in developing the Ten Year Network Development Plan and its underlying methodology. Nonetheless, there is still much to learn how to organize such a complex process of bringing expert stakeholders together and combining their insights. Among the currently discussed points of critique, especially of civil society organizations, are the absence of more visionary future low-carbon scenarios that would integrate more future smart elements into the projections. In addition, results of the TYNDP would be needed in less technical format for wide ‘non-expert’ audiences to be able to fully communicate European grid needs.

Ensuring Society Can Understand & Influence Planning

It will be essential to bring along broader society when planning the future European Grid. Public opposition has been identified as a key hindrance to the grid expansion in a multitude of occasions. This includes that affected citizens ask for a proof that a specific grid project is really needed. Giving this proof in a substantial and understandable way is per se not trivial. It becomes even more challenging, when the need for a grid is determined by a European institution. Citizens that are directly affected by a specific grid project – potentially learning about this quite some time after the actual planning process has begun – will naturally ask for a proof that the grid is really needed. The answer to this question cannot be a simple reference to a bureaucratic process run by a far-away European institution. It is therefore important to implement two different measures to counteract the problem.

Number 1: Grid planning procedures at the EU level have to involve representatives of civil society. It will hardly be possible to include representatives of communities that might at some point be affected by a grid project when high level EU planning takes place. First, because this planning stage is geographically not sufficiently concrete to know which communities will be affected. Second, due to this lack of concreteness, it is unlikely that an average citizen has the interest or is willing to invest the time required to get substantially involved. Nonetheless, in retrospect it will be essential to show that civil society has been represented in EU planning procedures. This implies that non-governmental organizations that protect environmental or other societal interests are actively enabled to participate. In this respect, it is not sufficient to hold open meetings and invite anyone who would like to come. Instead, relevant organizations should be actively identified via a stakeholder mapping and their participation has to be organized in a way that scarce resources (in terms of staff, time and finances) do not hinder their substantial participation.

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Number 2: The need for a modernized grid has to be communicated to the population independent from specific grid projects. Raising awareness that grids are part of an urgently needed solution should create a general attitude in favour of new grids. On the one side to counteract climate change and minimize its impact on current and future generations; on the other side to continually provide stable and secure energy that is an indispensible prerequisite to maintain the high quality of life of European 21st century citizens. The notion that grids are a nuisance has to be overcome. But to do this, it will be necessary to run a European scale public communication campaign to create a positive fascination for the grid. The campaign should be carried out by governments and a broad civil society community (such as big environmental NGOs). Leaving this task to the TSOs would be unfair and ineffective. Unfair, because it is much to ask from the “builders of a grid” to solely market why it is needed if the policies that influence the need are made by European and national governments. Ineffective, because TSOs in many places currently lack the credibility that the projects they propose are driven by government decision and not by economic considerations.

Building Grids in Sustainable Ways

By identifying the no-regret grids and getting the necessary public buy-in for building them, a first step to modernize the grid in a sustainable way has been made. However, this is not the end to sustainability considerations. Power lines – both overhead-lines and cables – have an impact on the local natural and social environment. To keep this impact as small as possible, they have to be “built in the right way”.

Considerations re Natural Environment

EU directives on Strategic Environmental Assessment, on Environmental Impact Assessments, the Birds and Habitats Directives and the Natura 2000 network provide a thorough legal basis for environmental protection. There are two complementary reasons to provide this level of protection to nature. As described above, the first one is that nature offers public services, so-called ecosystem services. These services (clean air and CO2 sequestration, clean water, pollination in agriculture, timber production, waste decomposition….) are indispensible for human survival. These services are not paid for and are therefore often taken for granted. Destroying ecosystems is not only counter-productive because there is a leisure and life-quality value in intact nature or because one feels that nature has an inherent right to be protected.

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The second one is that often, public opposition that hinders necessary grid expansion projects is linked to a concern for the environment. It is only possible to overcome this opposition, if it can be shown that the impact of a new power line on the local natural environment is the most limited possible and might even enhance the environment.

There is a strong and growing agreement on this point between many TSOs and nature environment protection groups. Both players have understood the necessity to cooperate to achieve the best for the environment. The ‘European Declaration on Electricity Network Development and Nature Conservation in Europe’ that was signed in 2011 by 29 different parties underlines this. On-going projects and co-operation show that intentions spelled out in this Declaration are put into practice. Nonetheless, voices are being raised that environmental legislation has to be loosened to allow for a faster expansion of the energy grid. Such statements can be considered as highly counterproductive. They undermine the trust that is currently being built in the environmental community that nature will receive its due consideration. Actually loosening legislation would create open opposition from these groups where it can be easily avoided. Therefore, the way forward has to be an enhanced cooperation to assure that nature conservation is considered from the very beginning of planning and building grids. Thorough environmental assessments have to be made and local knowledge has to be systematically collected from an early point in time. This will allow avoiding or at least lowering opposition for local environmental considerations at a later stage. Late stakeholder involvement and reactive consideration of input does not make any sense from a procedural perspective. Reversing plans after much time has already been invested in developing them can lead to unnecessary costs and delays.

Considerations re Socio-economic Environment

In addition to concerns about the natural environment, concerns regarding the socio-economic environment can be reason for opposition. Value of real estate decreases if a power-line is built in close proximity to homes or businesses. This is a serious issue, e.g. when an owned house is part of financial plans for retirement. Visual impact is also a concern in areas where landscape has economic value, e.g. where a beautiful landscape attracts tourists and where ‘visual pollution’ might lead to a loss of attraction value for the region. In addition, there is widespread fear of the impact of electromagnetic fields. Current scientific studies and emission thresholds put up by the different national states have not succeeded to mitigate this fear. To overcome open opposition against grid-lines, these socio-economic concerns have to be taken into account. While the often referred to NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) of course exists, it would be highly inappropriate to classify anyone who raises such type of concerns as a NIMBY and regard this as legitimizing not considering such objections. Of course, sustainability also means that impact on quality of life of affected communities is kept as small as possible and that the right balance is found between protecting the local social and economic well-being and the well-being of society as a whole. Switching primarily to underground cables instead of overhead lines is a common request and is proposed as the solution to most concerns. Indeed, cables can be a better solution depending on circumstances, but it must be recognized that there are also valid arguments against cables, including that the interventions needed to build and repair them are much higher, that for some people concerns regarding electromagnetic field increase as cables are closer (few meters below them) compared to an overhead line or that farmers fear for the quality of soil. Depending on topography, building cables can be significantly more expensive, a consideration which should also not be ignored, as this extra cost is spread out across all users via grid tariffs. Moreover, cables should not be built in certain fragile environments such as dunes or pits where impact can be severe.

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Establishing Right Processes

It is often a challenging task to find the right solution between aiming to protect the local natural environment (by geographically avoiding it) and protecting socio-economic interests (by moving away from residential areas). Clearly, in many circumstances it is not possible to find a solution that fully responds to the needs of all parties. TSOs as well as local authorities and groups should co-operate to determine the details of how a line is being built and to sort out which compromises can be made between the interests of the different parties. In an ideal world, in the end everyone would accept the final solution. However, in reality, there will always be those who will not support the final details of how a line is being built. In this case, it is important that at least the process of determining these details will be accepted. Public opposition to major infrastructure projects is often the result of poor procedures to inform and involve those most affected. Anyone interested must have an option to find information and to participate, to contribute ideas and arguments. How these arguments are taken into account needs to be made transparent or – if they are not being considered – why other arguments have stronger weight. If acceptance for a final decision is not given and if people mistrust the procedure of how this decision was taken as well as the institution that took it, opposition is a natural and legitimate response.

One has to look back in history to understand that the request for an acceptable process is by no means trivial or intuitive. Responding to government mandates to provide low-cost and secure electrical networks, the grid planning and building process has traditionally been driven by technical experts and engineers. These people focus on implementing established and easy-to-maintain technologies such as overhead lines that are built as straight as possible across the landscape. However, such technically sound solutions are often in conflict with local concerns and needs. In addition, the purely ‘engineer driven’ approach used to pay little attention to explaining decisions to an affected public. Today, many European TSOs make substantial efforts to better involve all external stakeholders. They work to:

• increase transparency of processes and decisions;
• allow for more substantial participation via early and continuous involvement;
• provide better access to relevant information; and
• use new dialogue formats as a means to enhance relationships and build trust.

In addition, TSOs have started to engage in exchange of experience. By sharing which new approaches have been taken and which insights have been gathered, they seek an opportunity to learn from each other, help each other to understand what works and what doesn’t and promote a faster roll-out of good practice. A first collection of good practice cases and lessons learned has been published in the European Grid Report – Beyond Public Opposition – Lessons Learned Across Europe. Between 2013 and 2015, the EU-funded BESTGRID consortium, consisting of 5 TSOs and 2 NGOs, accompanied by a research institute and coordinated by the Renewables Grid Initiative has engaged via 5 pilot projects to test better practices. These activities deserve highly positive recognition, while it is clear that in many occasions there is still a long way to go.


The need to expand and upgrade the European grid to transform the power sector and integrate a large share of renewable energy sources has shed light on how to ensure that the right grids are being designed and that these are being built in a sustainable manner. Solutions are discussed and new approaches are being taken at multiple levels. Representatives from society, industry, politics and academia are aware of the challenges and eager to find solutions. The exchange of thoughts between these different disciplines that is now taking place was unthinkable only a few years ago.

Nonetheless, this change is still in its initial stages. This refers not only to activities of TSOs. Some necessary measures that should be taken by TSOs require legal adjustments and a different recognition by regulators. Furthermore, cooperation only works, if all parties, including NGOs or citizen action groups are willing and able to cooperate. Resource constraints are an important continued challenge with respect to this. Finally, public authorities have to take their active role and support new approaches. An intensive dialogue among the different parties on what has to be achieved and how this can be done has only started. Continuing it will be essential to move jointly towards a sustainable modernization of the grid. The goal of developing a European electricity market provides and will continue to provide new insight into how best to deal with the challenges introduced above.