Jochen Homann, 59, has been President of the Federal Network Agency for Electricity, Gas, Telecommunications, Post, and Railways in Bonn since March 2012. Prior to that, Homann, an economist, was a State Secretary in Germany's Ministry of Economics and Technology, where he was responsible for energy, industrial, technology, and foreign trade policies. The Federal Network Agency oversees competition in the sectors mentioned in its title. In 2011, it was also given responsibility for tasks related to the grid development plan. If, for example, the plan requires an expansion of the high-voltage network, the agency will ensure efficient implementation by streamlining planning and approval procedures.
The transition to renewable energy is broadly accepted throughout German society. It’s not so much the goals that are controversial but rather the speed at which they should be achieved. Are we on the right track, or do we need a master plan for this project of the century?
Homann: The energy transition is a project that will take more than one generation to implement. We don’t require a master plan; instead what we need are well founded decisions that are understood by the public and can be clearly communicated to society. If the target is 2050, you can’t expect to see implementation in a couple of years. You can’t plan technological advances and innovative breakthroughs in advance, so appropriate incentives for all parties involved are more important than central planning.
What needs to happen next?
Homann: It’s important to make a clear distinction between an energy policy vision and short-term requirements. The Federal Network Agency is not only interested in the long-term perspective; for example, a secure supply of energy for next winter is also an issue as far as we’re concerned. The point is to develop power generation capacity, although rapid expansion of the high-voltage network is also a top priority.
Do we have all the necessary technologies for this?
Homann: We need innovations in all areas — from power generation and transmission to energy efficiency and electricity storage. You need to keep a lot of options open, and the government should remain as technologically neutral as possible. In the end, competition will decide which technologies are the most efficient and cost-effective as far as the energy transition is concerned. The ingenuity of German industry will help ensure that the project is a success.
What steps can be taken to ensure that electricity remains affordable in the future?
Homann: I’ve always said that the energy transition won’t come cheap. Still, no one can seriously predict today how electricity prices — whose components include purchasing costs, eco-subsidies, and taxes — will develop in the future. We can assume that the electricity price component of grid operator rates will increase. The cost of the energy transition must be kept as low as possible. In other words, the grid should only be expanded to the extent that the supply is safeguarded. Costs also need to be transparent and distributed fairly among consumer groups
How can renewable energy be made more competitive without subsidies?
Homann: The funding provided in support of renewable energy was always meant to facilitate its market entry. And in that sense it has been very successful. However, renewables are no longer a niche sector; they’re also an important factor in the German electricity market. That’s why they will be exposed to more competition over the short and medium term. The Renewable Energy Act, with its set feed-in tariff and guaranteed feed-in priority, must be carefully refined with the goal of establishing a feed-in policy that meets actual needs.
Are distributed power systems making more and more regions self-sufficient when it comes to energy?
Homann: It’s almost impossible to be self-sufficient in small areas because there’s sharply fluctuating energy consumption on the one hand, and a weather-dependent electricity supply from renewables on the other. It’s also questionable whether energy independence would work at the state level. It’s still not possible to store electricity economically. As a consequence, load compensation must be carried out via the grid. We need to expand the grid in order to deal with this issue and prevent power outages. Distributed power systems actually increase the need to expand the grid because electricity from renewables first has to be collected before it can be sent to consumer centers.
How many new electricity highways do we need in Germany?
Homann: Back in 2009, on the basis of the Energy Line Extension Act, it was determined that approximately 1,800 kilometers of priority high-voltage lines should be built . Altogether, 214 have been built to date and 100 of these are in operation. This low number is not so important. It’s normal for a planning phase to take a relatively long time. The important thing is that more people should understand the necessity of the project and become more willing to make important decisions. The situation is better now in this respect than it was before — in part due to the pressure created by the new legal framework. In December 2011, the Federal Network Agency approved three scenarios that describe the likely development of power generation and consumption between now and 2022 and now and 2032. The grids must be modified in a way that ensures they’ll be able to handle these scenarios. This was the basis on which a draft of a new grid development plan was drawn up by operators. The plan calls for existing lines to be optimized or new ones to be constructed on existing routes. Such an approach would significantly reduce the need for new routes. The transmission system operators (TSOs) report that they have received more than 1,500 responses to the draft proposals from the public. The TSOs will send us a new draft that takes the opinions of these citizens into account. We will examine it and then begin our own deliberations, in which interested parties can participate as well.
How do you plan to achieve public acceptance?
Homann: The energy transition hinges on grid expansion — and that in turn will depend on the level of public acceptance. We have learned a lot from other projects and have decided to get the public involved from the beginning. A key element of the Grid Expansion Acceleration Act is to have extensive public participation at an early stage in order to ensure greater acceptance and therefore faster implementation. The Federal Network Agency also invites the public to attend dialog platforms on technology and the environment. The goal is to attain greater public approval through openness. In the end, transparency leads to acceptance.
It’s now time to make a prediction about the future. Do you think that Germany will be proud of its sustainable energy system in 2030?
Homann: I’m absolutely convinced that everyone will benefit from the energy transition in the long run. It’s an investment in the future that doesn’t come cheap, and most of its advantages will be enjoyed by the generations that come after us.