On 8 January 2021, the European electricity grid only just missed a large-scale collapse. Around 13:04 p.m. there was a sharp drop in frequency that could have paralysed Europe.
The cause was apparently a power failure in Romania. According to the Austrian blackout expert Herbert Saurugg, it was the second most serious major incident in the European network to date. According to the ENTSO-E classification, the third of four warning levels was achieved (Emergency – Deteriorated situation, including a network split at a large scale. Higher risk for neighboring systems. Security principles are not fulfilled. Global security is endangered).
The Lower Austrian electricity supplier EVN spoke of an “almost blackout”. Some major customers had contacted them, “because sensitive machines have already felt the frequency drop,” said EVN spokesman Stefan Zach to the Austrian broadcasting company ORF. “If the fluctuations are too high, machines switch themselves off to protect themselves.” According to Zach, this can also happen at power plants, “and then it becomes critical”.
The event is discussed intensively in the Austrian media. Numerous power plants had to immediately supply additional energy to stabilise the grid.
Pumped storage power plants and the gas-fired power plants still available had to be mobilised. “The latter, however, are massively fought against by environmentalists,” noted the Kronen Zeitung pointedly. In France, despite the rescue operation from Austria, large electricity customers had to be disconnected from the grid.
The safety net worked, “but such fire-fighting operations are not a viable long-term business model,” warned Wien Energie managing director Michael Strebl. “Thank God it went well again,” said Werner Hengst, Managing Director of Netz Niederösterreich GmbH. “We estimate that the situation will get worse in the next few years.”
The reason is the strong expansion of volatile renewable electricity generation and the elimination of large backup power plants in Europe. The output of 50 gigawatts going offline in Europe corresponds to “more than two hundred Danube power plants”. According to Wien Energie, the electricity grids are exposed to ever greater fluctuations. The number of emergency operations has increased from around 15 to up to 240 per year in recent years.
There are now calls for a “round table” in the Austrian electricity sector. At the meeting of all stakeholders, pragmatic solutions for a blackout precaution should be found, said NÖ-Netz managing director Werner Hengst at an online background discussion of the security of supply forum. “We need stable networks in order to be able to guarantee security of supply.”
In Germany, the Association of Industrial Energy and Power Industries (VIK) reacted with concern to the near-European blackout. “The incident on Friday is unfortunately not the first of its kind, but it must be a warning to all of us not to lose sight of the issues of network stability and security of supply. Germany cannot assume that we are somehow being supplied from other European countries if we do not have enough electricity, ”says VIK managing director Christian Seyfert.
As a result of the “phasing out of nuclear energy and coal power”, a considerable amount of secured output will be shut down “without replacement” in Germany in the coming years, according to Seyfert. Regionally and throughout Germany, this leads to considerable challenges in terms of security of supply, to which political answers must also be found.
The “principle of hope” is not enough. An inexpensive, climate-friendly, but also safe power supply is a decisive location factor, especially for industrial companies that are in international competition. If it is doubtful, it will harm Germany as an industrial location, says Seyfert.
The VIK points out that there was an electricity bottleneck “at the same time” as the near blackout in France because 13 nuclear power plant units are not connected to the grid. “There are no power interruptions”, the French transmission network operator RTE assured days ago, but at the same time appealed to the French population to save electricity: the lights should stay off between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m., washing machines should not run and unused internet access should be cut off. Whoever leaves the house should turn the heating down to 17 degrees.
Many French media raise the question of whether the country is threatened with a blackout if the cold spell continues. “We’re not in the Soviet Union, are we?”, a journalist from the BFM television station asked Environment Minister Barbara Pompili. Her answer only reassured the audience to a limited extent: “If we stay at average temperatures, it should work. Otherwise we have to regulate. “
As a last resort, the French electricity company EDF provides for local power interruptions of “two hours maximum”. This would have the same effect for those affected at the moment as a general network collapse, but according to the Frankfurter Rundschau, Pompili asserts: “We mustn’t scare the French, there will be no blackout.” The danger has not yet been averted: Forward RTE had already predicted a “difficult February” for weeks.
The events show that the issue of security of supply is now entering the European political agenda with force. A power shortage economy threatens not only Germany, but all of Europe , in which power cuts are becoming more and more the norm and large-scale power outages can occur at any time.