Sudden fluctuations in Germany’s power grid are causing major damage to a
number of industrial companies. While many of them have responded by getting
their own power generators and regulators to help minimize the risks, they warn
that companies might be forced to leave if the government doesn’t deal with the
It was 3 a.m. on a Wednesday when the machines
suddenly ground to a halt at Hydro Aluminium in Hamburg. The rolling mill’s
highly sensitive monitor stopped production so abruptly that the aluminum belts
snagged. They hit the machines and destroyed a piece of the mill. The reason:
The voltage off the electricity grid weakened for just a millisecond.
Workers had to free
half-finished aluminum rolls from the machines, and several hours passed before
they could be restarted. The damage to the machines cost some €10,000
In the following three
weeks, the voltage weakened at the Hamburg factory two more times, each time
for a fraction of second. Since the machines were on a production break both
times, there was no damage. Still, the company invested €150,000 to set up its
own emergency power supply, using batteries, to protect itself from future
“It could have affected us
again in the middle of production and even led to a fire,” said plant manager
Axel Brand. “That would have been really expensive.”
At other industrial
companies, executives at the highest levels are also thinking about freeing
themselves from Germany’s electricity grid to cushion the consequences of the
country’s transition to renewable energy.
Likewise, as more and more
companies with sensitive control systems are securing production through
batteries and generators, the companies that manufacture them are benefiting.
said Joachim Pfeiffer, a parliamentarian and economic policy spokesman for the
governing center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Behind this worry stands
the transition to renewable energy laid out by Chancellor Angela Merkel last
year in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Though the transition has
been sluggish so far, Merkel set the ambitious goals of boosting renewable
energy to 35 percent of total power consumption by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050
while phasing out all of Germany’s nuclear power reactors by 2022.
The problem is that wind
and solar farms just don’t deliver the same amount of continuous electricity
compared with nuclear and gas-fired power plants. To match traditional energy
sources, grid operators must be able to exactly predict how strong the wind
will blow or the sun will shine.
But such an exact
prediction is difficult. Even when grid operators are off by just a few
percentage points, voltage in the grid slackens. That has no affect on normal
household appliances, such as vacuum cleaners and coffee machines. But for
high-performance computers, for example, outages lasting even just a
millisecond can quickly trigger system failures.
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