25 Nov 2022, 12:45

Blackout or gas shortage – How would Germany deal with an energy emergency?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing energy crisis have brought uncertainty to Germany’s energy supply security. Germany’s electricity system is one of the most reliable in the world, yet the possibility of a blackout – a widespread power outage over a large area – hasn’t been fully ruled out by transmission system operators. Factors such as reduced power supply from France’s nuclear plants (as Germany's grid is highly interconnected with its neighbouring countries), unfavourable weather conditions for renewable power production, or increased electricity demand (for example through electric heaters) all increase the likelihood of (controlled) power cuts in Germany. Additionally, the country also faces reduced gas deliveries. To combat possible shortages, the government has ensured gas storage levels are full ahead of winter and campaigned to businesses and citizens to reduce consumption. This factsheet looks into the likelihood of electricity and gas shortages this winter, and what the government and key player’s plans and responses are, and provides a list of contacts should Germany enter an energy emergency. [UPDATE: Adds BNetzA introduction of indicators to assess German gas supply status.]

Content

  1. How likely is a blackout in Germany?
    • What is a blackout?
    • What is a brownout?
    • What measures has the government taken to secure energy supply?
  2. What could lead to a power shortage this winter?
  3. What could happen in case of a power supply shortage?
  4. How ready are municipalities and institutions for power cuts?
  5. How likely is a severe gas shortage and what would happen?
  6. How would German authorities react to a gas supply emergency?
  7. What protections are in place against sabotage of critical infrastructure?
  8. Who to contact when reporting on an energy emergency?

 

1. How likely is a blackout in Germany?

A large-scale blackout or even brownouts are extremely unlikely this winter, according to the federal network agency (BNetzA). The German power supply is among the most reliable worldwide and the country’s grid is designed with multiple redundancies and numerous safety mechanisms – which are regularly tested and adjusted – to prevent a complete collapse of the network, even during major disruptions, according to BNetzA.

What is a blackout?

A blackout is an uncontrolled and widespread power outage, affecting all electricity users connected to the grid over a large area all at once. Blackouts lead to the abrupt failure of all power-operated systems and devices that are not connected to emergency power systems or are battery-operated. Blackouts are fundamentally different to so-called brownouts, which are triggered by an undersupply of electricity and refer to regionally-contained and controlled short power outages that last for a couple of minutes or hours.

Blackouts are triggered by disturbances in the operation of the grid; for example when important high-voltage power lines are damaged or wrecked in severe storms, thunderstorms, or heavy snowfall. There is a small chance strong or unexpected electricity demand fluctuations – an example being the increased use of electric heaters – coupled with severe faults at key points in the transmission network could cause a blackout, but overlapping security mechanisms in the grid design should prevent this, according to BNetzA.

Given the current energy crisis, the German government tasked the country’s transmission system operators (TSOs) to examine the security of the electricity grid through tougher external conditions. These two so-called stress-tests assessed the grid’s reliability over the coming winter and explored whether Germany would have sufficient electricity production capacity with its nuclear plants going offline at the end of the year, as was the plan in summer.

What is a brownout?

A brownout is a controlled power cut to a specific area for a restricted time period. Brownouts are done to avoid a widespread network collapse and might become necessary if the balance between power supply and power demand can’t be met, or if this power can’t be transported to where it is needed. If demand in an area is too high and a power shortage lasts for a long period of time, it could come to rolling brownouts. Here, a region cut from the network would be resupplied with power, but a second region would be switched off instead. According to the Electricity Security Ordinance, area shutdowns are to be avoided as much as possible and may not exceed four hours.

The results of the second stress-test, which took into account several developments (see Q3 below) on energy markets, showed that “crisis-like situations in the power system for some hours are very unlikely in the winter of 2022/2023 but cannot be ruled out entirely at the moment.” Specifically, TSOs found that, under specific scenarios, Germany could not be certain of receiving enough energy from abroad in case of a shortfall (Germany's grid is highly interconnected with its neighbouring countries), so energy demand might not be met for a couple of hours without additional measures (explained below).

What measures has the government taken to secure energy supply?

As recommended by the TSOs, additional measures in power generation, congestion management and transport capacity have been taken. These include increasing north-south transport capacities to reduce the need for re-dispatch measures (changing the operating schedule of power plants). This is achieved through using the additional potential of overhead powerlines in colder weather; a stronger focus on re-dispatch potential abroad through clear agreements with neighbouring countries; and making power generating reserves for stressful situations more widely available, which includes temporarily bringing retired or soon-to-be retired coal-fired power stations back into the market and granting a runtime extension to its three remaining nuclear power plants.

Oil and coal-fired power plants are to replace gas plants for electricity production to avoid a gas shortage. Up until this summer, Russia was Germany’s biggest supplier of the fuel, which was mostly used to heat homes and for certain industry processes. The government has also bailed out the German company Uniper, Europe’s largest buyer of Russian gas, and nationalised energy company SEFE, as they are of “paramount importance” to the energy supply and economy, said chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Additionally, the government has ensured gas storage levels are full [you can find a current update on Germany’s gas supply status here], has diversified its gas sources, is building liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals and has started energy saving campaigns.

The government also plans to expand renewable energies faster and hopes to strengthen energy efficiency as a key element of an overarching strategy to lessen dependence on imported fossil fuels in the short, medium and long term.

“A large-scale power blackout in Germany is extremely unlikely,” said the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK). Similarly, “the likelihood of forced shutdowns occurring regionally and for a limited period of time is considered low.”

2. What could lead to a power shortage this winter?

Transmission grids transport electricity, and there must be a balance between the volume of electricity generated and the demand. Power cuts could happen when this balance is disrupted, either through a shortage in electricity production or congestion in the powerlines. According to the stress-test, specifically this winter could see the power supply situation “become critical” if power generation and re-dispatch capacity (a change in the operating availability of power plants) nationally and abroad is reduced through:

  • The reduced availability of France's nuclear power fleet, potential export reductions from Poland through a limited availability of coal-fired power plants, or reduced power generation from gas plants in southern Germany and Austria through a shortage of the fossil fuel.
  • Low water levels in the Rhine and Neckar rivers and bottlenecks in the rail network prevent the transport of coal to power plants.
  • Sudden increase in energy demand through the use of electric heaters during cold spells (overall, meteorological services currently project a milder winter).
  • Low gas reserves, as gas power plants play a crucial role in securing grid stability on dark, windless days.

3. What could happen in case of a power supply shortage?

If the measures to reduce the likelihood of power cuts aren’t enough to secure a balance between supply and demand, TSOs have announced the following steps could be taken to avoid a collapse of the entire network:

  1. Increase re-dispatch potential to avoid bottlenecks in the transport of power between north and south Germany. Bottlenecks could happen in all scenarios explored in the stress-test and, to be resolved, would require increased re-dispatch potential. This can be achieved through additional power plants in the reserve nationally, and through securing re-dispatch potential from abroad “on a larger scale than previously planned”. Re-dispatch measures are common but it is unclear whether power plant capacity can actually be made available by Germany’s European partners this winter, according to the economy ministry.
  2. Should prevention measures not be enough to maintain grid stability, TSOs could limit or restrict power exports to neighbouring countries to secure national supply “as a last resort,” said the stress test.
  3. Also as a last resort, and only if a supra-regional supply-demand unbalance remains, TSOs can restrict or control the electricity used by large consumers temporarily, says BNetzA. Large energy-intensive industrial companies are directly connected to the high-voltage distribution grid, which allows them to be disconnected from the grid for a restricted period. As far as possible, “only those companies that can best handle a short-term switch off will be targeted,” said Jochen Jung, principal asset manager at TSO TenneT, in a press conference. He added that TSOs are in close contact with energy-intensive industries.

4. How ready are municipalities and institutions for power cuts?

Industry and facilities where power supply is critical (such as hospitals) are generally prepared for a temporary power cut by having power generators and/or emergency plans. The degree of preparedness varies between institutions depending on their importance as so-called critical infrastructure, according to BNetzA. According to a survey by the German Hospital Institute (DKI) reported by business daily Handelsblatt, 59 percent of hospitals in Germany could cope with a power outage for a handful of days, with 21 percent only able to secure continued power supply for a few hours. Should a power blackout last several days, only 14 percent of hospitals surveyed would be able to provide patient care as usual, but 40 percent could do so with significant restrictions, according to the report.

Individual municipalities are also preparing blackout emergency plans, such as purchasing emergency generators and turning fire stations into “lighthouses” where citizens can (alongside other services) receive information, charge critical technology or warm up. Representatives from politics, the fire brigade, police, rescue service, disaster control, grid operators and energy suppliers have been meeting across German cities to draw up plans, procure power generators, identify critical infrastructure and prepare contact points for citizens, according to Handelsblatt.

However, a report by ARD’s politics magazine Report Mainz found that, by early autumn, numerous municipalities hadn’t taken precautions for possible power outages and were missing emergency plans. The magazine received answers from over 200 municipalities, and just over half had answered that their administration had no blackout plan in place that could be accessed in case of emergency. The head of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities (DStGB) told broadcaster WELT that “we are underprepared for a blackout.”

Speaking about the potential of regional, targeted power cuts with newspaper Welt am Sonntag, BBK chief Ralph Tiesler warned about the varying preparedness for such crisis situations between municipalities in Germany, saying some are in an “exemplary” position but others “are not sufficiently prepared” with precise plans and power supply guarantees.

Find publicly available emergency plans of individual municipalities (in German) here.  

5. How likely is a severe gas shortage and what would happen?

The association of gas storage system operators in Germany INES said in November 2022 that although gas shortages cannot yet be completely ruled out in theory, they are "extremely unlikely to occur in view of current weather forecasts."

Possible gas shortages would affect Germany gradually, with regional differences, and there could be several temporary events during the winter instead of one long national shortage, the grid agency BNetzA has said. Scenario calculations by BNetzA also showed that, due to well-filled storages, a shortage would likely only happen towards the end of the winter – if at all. According to industry association VCI, the South is likely to be affected first because it has fewer storages and the grid is not designed for strong flows from north to south.

A shortage could mean rising prices, supply interruption for certain consumers, permanent damage to industrial installations, and the need to restart heating boilers in hundreds of thousands of households. It could even lead to a domino effect in supply chains, when the production of basic materials is cut, which are necessary for other processes. In the long term, effects could include job cuts and a worsening the recession which is already projected by the government for 2023.

Read the Clean Energy Wire Q&A “What happens if Russia’s gas supplies to Germany are cut?” for more in-depth information.

6. How would German authorities react to a gas supply emergency?

Depending on the severity of gas supply disruption, the expected economic and technical impact and the urgency of resolving the disruption at the national level, the economy can declare the emergency level – the third and last level of a gas crisis (the first two levels have already been declared in 2022: early warning and alert). In that case, the Federal Network Agency (BNetzA) becomes the national supply coordinator (Bundeslastverteiler) and is responsible for allocating gas in close coordination with the network operators. It then oversees the rationing of available supply.

In contrast to the first two crisis levels, there is then a need to additionally resort to state intervention to guarantee gas supply to cover vital needs, with particular attention given to protected customers. Certain groups of consumers are specially protected by law and must receive gas if possible. These protected consumers include households and social institutions such as hospitals, but also essential power and water supply.

BNetzA has said there is no fixed shutdown sequence for gas consumers. It argues that decisions in the event of a shortage will be made on a case-by-case basis because the circumstances depend on so many variables that cannot be foreseen (including levels of gas storage, weather conditions, European requirements, reduced consumption, etc). To help make decisions during a crisis, the BNetzA requested gas grid operators and industrial customers to specify their consumption levels and future gas needs on the “Gas Security Platform.” The agency has also has introduced five indicators to assess the status of gas supply in Germany. These are weather forecast, temperature-adjusted gas consumption, storage levels, situation in neighbouring countries and base load procurability, and measure each status as stable, tense or critical. The indicators are there to provide an overview for policymakers and should help the government to decide if or when to declare the emergency level. BNetzA also publishes a daily update of the status of gas supply in Germany.

A crisis room has been specially set up on the premises of the BNetzA as a situation centre where the crisis teams can find all the necessary information and communication facilities in 24-hour operation. The situation centre has its own power generation and water supply and is available even in the event of a dramatic expansion of the supply crisis.

During a gas crisis, a crisis team advises the economy ministry. The ministry chairs the team. It is composed of representatives from the interior ministry, the transmission grid operators (TSOs), Trading Hub Europe (THE) and the BNetzA. State energy ministries could be part of the team, depending on which region is affected, and there might be local crisis teams. Other market participants like distribution grid operators, or associations such as BDEW and VKU might be asked to support the team as non-permanent members.

7. What protections are in place against sabotage of critical infrastructure?

The likelihood of attacks to critical infrastructure – whether in the form of a physical or cyberattack – is being viewed with renewed attention in Germany following this summer’s explosions in the Nord Stream pipelines and infrastructure attacks against the railway group Deutsche Bahn. Further attacks on telecommunication networks and energy supply, both in quantity and quality, should be taken into consideration, an internal threat assessment by the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) found, newspaper Morgenpost reported.

While the federal government sees the risk of an increase in cyber threats due to the gas shortage as “rather negligible”, the interior ministry has called for tighter security regulations for all sectors considered critical infrastructure. “The federal and state security authorities, as well as the operators of critical infrastructures in particular, must continue to ramp up their protective measures and prepare for all crisis scenarios,” said interior minister Nancy Faeser. Critical infrastructure in the energy sector are those companies that supply power, gas, fuel or heating oil, or district heating. This includes generation, production, extraction, distribution and trade.

What is critical infrastructure and what safety obligations are in place?

The energy sector is one of nine recognised as critical infrastructure (KRITIS). Under this umbrella fall businesses and services without whose supply society could experience significant supply shortages and threats to public safety. Because of their importance, critical infrastructure operators are required to identify and register as such, and have strict security mechanisms and emergency plans in place. Additionally, they are required to report to the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) whenever an attack, incident or IT disruption is carried out against them (from 1 May 2023, critical infrastructure will be required to use attack detention systems as well). Every company considered critical infrastructure is responsible for drawing out its safety plans – many of which are secret. Around 80 percent of Germany’s critical infrastructure is privately owned, according to the federal agency for civic education (bpb).

Sabotage of critical infrastructure “is, sadly, not a new question for us,” Jochen Jung, principal asset manager at TSO TenneT, told Clean Energy Wire. TSOs have prepared and continuously assess multiple security plans and responses for decades and have a whole department for protection of property, he said, adding that crucial digital communications are completely independent from the internet and can therefore not be accessed from outside.

Gas storage facilities are also well protected, with their security being stepped up following climate activists actions in 2021, Frank Dietzsch, head of regulatory frameworks of gas technologies at the German technical association for gas and water (DVGW), told broadcaster NRD. Relevant infrastructure is secured with fences, alarms, video surveillance, access barriers, and detections systems amongst others.

The EU has also boosted action against cyber threats and aims to “enhance cooperation and investments in cyber defence to better protect, detect, deter, and defend against a growing number of cyber-attacks.”

 

8. Who to contact when reporting on an energy emergency

When reporting on an energy emergency situation in Germany, these are key contacts for your research:

Federal Network Agency (BNetzA)

The BNetzA is the federal energy regulator in Germany and oversees efficient and reliable power and gas supply through the relevant infrastructure in the country. It will also play the decisive role in rationing gas and electricity in case of a severe crisis, when it becomes the national supply coordinator (Bundeslastverteiler).

Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK)

Germany’s economy ministry is responsible for energy policy, making it the key government body to contact in case of a German energy emergency. It chairs crisis groups and is in contact with all relevant stakeholders.

Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community (BMI)

While dealing with catastrophes and crisis management not related to war is largely the responsibility of federal states, the national government supports them. The BMI is in charge of crisis management, and civil protection (in times of war) and (major) disaster control. It develops and coordinates measures to deal with extraordinary situations of danger and damage such as natural disasters or major accidents, and could step in in case of disasters affecting several federal states. It could provide federal police forces, support through the THW technical assistance organisation, or through the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK).

Federal Office of Civil Protection (BBK)

The BBK is responsible for civil protection and has been dealing intensively with the challenge of a large-scale blackout since it was founded in 2004. In case of a severe gas shortage, the BBK coordinates support measures and provides information through the joint federal and state situation centre. It also provides the population with information on how to prepare for disasters. The BBK is also the first contact for any disaster-related international inquiries, such as the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

Other government

Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport (BMDV) – for questions on electric transport

Federal Press Office– spokespeople of the chancellery

Federal Ministry of Health– for questions about effects on population’s health

 

 German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW)

The BDEW is the association of energy industry players such as power plant operators, large and small gas companies, grid operators, and utilities. It regularly comments on energy issues and provides data on electricity or gas production. Through its direct contact to member companies, it has in-depth knowledge of how companies are affected in an energy crisis.

Power grid operators

Germany’s 35,000-kilometre-long power transmission grid is operated by four companies. 50Hertz operates the extra-high voltage grid in the north and east of Germany. Amprion's grid area is mainly located in the west and southwest. TransnetBW is responsible for the majority of the extra-high voltage grid in Baden-Württemberg. TenneT's area covers the whole of Germany and stretches from the Danish border in the north to the Alps in the south.

50 Hertz

Amprion

TenneT

TransnetBW

Gas grid operators and market area manager

Trading Hub Europe (THE)

The gas transmission grid operators jointly established THE to manage Germany’s sole gas market area. Trading Hub Europe manages trader portfolios, operates gas trade systems and maintains network stability, also by buying and selling additional gas. THE is also the central hub for data from the country’s gas market. As a response to the energy crisis, the government has also tasked THE with buying liquefied natural gas (LNG) on world markets and put it in the country’s storages.

FNB Gas

FNB Gas is the association of Germany’s 16 gas transmission grid operators, which are responsible for 40,000 km of pipelines.

ENTSOG

ENTSOG is the association of Europe's more than 40 gas transmission system operators. Its mission is to facilitate and enhance cooperation between national gas transmission system operators across Europe, to ensure the development of a pan-European transmission system in line with European Union energy and climate goals.

 

German Association of Local Utilities (VKU)

VKU is the association for local public utilities and has about 1,500 member companies which are often at least partially owned by towns or communities, and are in charge of water and sewage, energy supply and waste management. VKU can provide important information, for example on companies affected by regional gas shortages or brownouts.

 

German Association of Towns and Municipalities (DStGB)

The DStGB represents the interests of German cities and municipalities. The responsibility of protecting citizens in times of peace falls on municipalities, districts and independent cities, and it is often the mayors who decide to what extent the individual municipalities protect their population against disasters.

 

More useful contacts

Voluntary rescue services: Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund, the DLRG, German Red Cross, Johanniter-Unfall-Hilfe and Malteser Hilfsdienst

German Technical and Scientific Association for Gas and Water (DVGW) – Standardisation body and centre for technical and scientific know-how for the gas and water industry

Federation of German Industries (BDI)

EID - Energy-intensive industry association

Lion Hirth, professor of energy policy at the Centre for Sustainability at Hertie School (hirth[at]hertie-school[dot]org)

Gas experts from EU think tank Bruegel: Simone Tagliapietra (simone.tagliapietra@bruegel.org), Georg Zachmann (georg.zachmann@bruegel.org)

Gas expert from German think tank Agora Energiewende: Matthias Deutsch (matthias.deutsch@agora-energiewende.de)

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.

Ask CLEW

Researching a story? Drop CLEW a line or give us a call for background material and contacts.

info@cleanenergywire.org

+49 30 62858 497

Journalism for the energy transition

Get our Newsletter
Join our Network
Find an interviewee