26.11.2021 | Expert warns of imminent blackouts

‘Reserves are dwindling all the time’

Switzerland has recently been giving greater thought to the issue of supply security. It’s an issue that has long preoccupied Herbert Saurugg. The international blackout expert from Austria warns of imminent power outages in Europe and their far-reaching consequences. Is his warning alarmist or appropriate? Read for yourself.

Mr Saurugg, as an international blackout expert, you can surely tell us: when will the lights go out in Europe?

(Laughs) Even I don’t have a crystal ball. But the way the supply situation has developed in Europe over the last 10 years and the way it is set to develop in the next few years, I fear that it could become critical this next winter. That doesn’t necessarily mean blackouts. But rolling regional shutdowns are a definite possibility.

What developments are you referring to?

The synchronous grid of Continental Europe has ever-dwindling reserves and room for manoeuvre. By the end of next year, Germany alone will lose around 22 gigawatts of power from nuclear and coal-fired power plants. Until just a few years ago, we had major surplus reserves in Europe. But they will soon be used up. And available capacity is only one of multiple pillars of electricity supply security.

Blackout expert Herbert Saurugg
What else does it take?

Current reserves. They ensure stability in the grid. Turbines and generators in nuclear, hydro and coal power plants are heavy rotating masses that store large amounts of energy and continually compensate for fluctuations, because you can never produce exactly as much electricity as you need at any given time. And you don’t even have to manage it, physics takes care of it all by itself. With every major power plant that is removed from the grid, the system becomes a little more fragile and more susceptible to malfunction. Things might be fine for a long time. But then you have a tipping point where it only takes a minor disruption to throw the whole system off balance. As I see it, there isn’t nearly enough discussion about this.

Has the situation deteriorated in recent years? How do you measure something like this?

Take Austria as an example. In 2011, it only took two interventions in the area of congestion management to ensure system stability. In 2018, there was at least one intervention on 301 days. And the system is getting more complex all the time. More actors are involved and this makes the system more vulnerable.

You often hear the accusation that supply security is suffering from the expansion of renewables. Do you share this view?

Well, the problem doesn’t lie with the renewable production facilities. It is more the way they are integrated into the electricity grid. Wind power and solar power are only available when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. There is very little flexibility. With the expansion of renewables, many countries have failed to mandate or set up corresponding storage facilities.

So it’s only the old world of power supply that works? Large-scale power plants are the solution?

No. But we have to adapt the whole system to the new framework conditions, not just some of the generation. We need storage – from inherent to seasonal. Switzerland and Austria, for example, are well positioned in this area with their pumped power plants and storage power plants. Germany, on the other hand, only has around 40 gigawatt hours of pumped storage capacity. That wouldn’t even cover the country’s needs for one hour. This is something that is completely ignored in the course of the energy transition.

You are a blackout expert. This means you help companies with blackout provision. Doesn’t that make you a professional scaremonger? Blackouts are your business.

(Laughs) I have to make my living somehow. For me, blackouts are an example scenario – unfortunately an extremely realistic one. Our society is completely dependent on international supply chains, which can very soon collapse in the event of a large-scale power failure. While power supply can be restored fairly quickly, it takes much longer for logistics chains. But we barely have any fallback levels to compensate for outage. We saw that very clearly in the delivery bottlenecks after the first lockdowns. Once supply chains are disrupted, it takes time for everything to run smoothly again. Here I would mention Austria once more. Surveys show that one-third of the population would no longer be self-sufficient after just four days. After seven days, it’s two-thirds. And all those people would have no time to restart the electricity or food supply, for example, because would they have to fight for their own survival.

And Switzerland? The administration has recognised the risk here. In the federal government’s risk report, power shortage is the top priority – higher than the pandemic.

Agreed. Switzerland has recognised the problem better than other countries. But has it also addressed it? Could today’s Swiss population be self-sufficient for two weeks? I have my doubts. Even in Switzerland, the implications of this kind of event are still not widely understood. If there is a general lack of electricity and the supply chains collapse, Switzerland would also be unable to ensure supply – and then it affects everyone, even if Switzerland is certainly in a better position than many other countries.

Are there any countries that are well prepared?

Ironically, those that are not used to high levels of supply security. Where they expect the electricity to drop out now and then. For example, many companies in the US have their own power supply, simply because they can’t count on constant electricity. This is the curse of high supply security. Because everything works all the time, we believe that it is a law of nature that electricity comes from the socket.

What is your advice to companies that want to prepare for a blackout?

Many people believe they have to hedge it all with an emergency power supply. It often helps just to run through this kind of scenario. What does it mean for my company to have no electricity over a longer period? To not receive deliveries? What damage can I prevent with organisational measures? How can I help to get the system and basic services up and running again more quickly? Take food producers, for example. They don’t have to offer 100 products again all at once, maybe just one or two to quickly resume basic supply. And particularly important is that the staff have to able to weather the crisis, they have to be motivated to also make provisions for themselves. They’re the most important resource in a company.

Axpo’s view

Overall, Axpo takes a less drastic view of the security supply situation in the synchronous grid of Europe than Herbert Saurugg. Assuming the existing import capacities remain available and the nuclear power plants in Switzerland and France maintain average availability, Axpo believes that supply security in Switzerland is provided until 2035, even taking stress scenarios (such as persistent windless conditions) into account. However, there may be restrictions on import capacities from 2025 resulting from the EU’s Clean Energy Package.

What do you think Switzerland’s electricity supply should look like in the future? Generate your own electricity mix: powerswitcher.axpo.com

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