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Global Economy

A threat to the power grid?

How big is the blackout risk in Germany?

Germany is connected to other European countries in a network, so this question cannot be considered for one country alone. According to the Federal Network Agency, the European system is secured by several protective mechanisms. It is "designed with multiple redundancies" so that "even in the event of major disruption events, a complete collapse of the transmission network can be prevented," says Michael Reifenberg, spokesman for the Federal Network Agency.

In an emergency, a decision would be made "to immediately and safely separate Ukraine from the rest of the European interconnected grid." The Federal Network Agency is certain: "A large-scale blackout is extremely unlikely."

Those responsible in Ukraine would then have to "reboot the grid again in island mode," says energy consultant Rouven Stubbe, an energy expert at Berlin Economics and there in the Low Carbon Ukraine project, which – financed by the German Ministry of the Environment – advises the Ukrainian Ministry of Energy and the Environment. Only when that was successful would the Ukrainian network be reconnected to the European one. But before it even gets to the point where the network in this country is affected, various emergency measures are already taking effect in Ukraine.

How can the Ukrainian network prevent spillover?

There are several protective mechanisms that would take effect. "Some of them work within seconds," explains Rouven Stubbe. "Others within 15 minutes or an hour or two."

If a larger power plant fails unplanned, then energy is first provided by reserve power plants, for example by Ukrainian coal-fired power plants. "And if that's not enough, then the grid frequency in the Ukrainian power grid drops," says Stubbe. Then electricity from neighboring countries would flow into Ukraine to compensate.

The next step could be "controlled local power outages". In principle, the southern part of the country would depend on the Zaporizhia power plant, which is where the biggest and possibly longer-lasting problems would occur.

What role does the amount of electricity from Ukraine play?

At the moment, comparatively small amounts of electricity are exchanged between Ukraine and the EU. According to experts, this also contributes to the fact that the European grid would hardly be endangered by failures in the Ukraine: "In purely technical terms, the lines are designed for 1.5 to two gigawatts," says Stubbe. "A lot less is actually being exported at the moment." According to the state-owned energy company Ukrenerho, it is 500 to 600 megawatts. A significant expansion would require new lines to be built quickly or old Soviet-era lines to be reactivated.

Why are the two networks connected at all?

This had been planned for several years, but was accelerated by the war: On February 24 of this year, when the Russian attack began, Ukraine – organized well in advance and now coincidentally on the first day of the war – tested whether its power grid also worked autonomously, independently from the network of Russia.

The connection to the European power grid should not actually take place until 2023. But everything happened very quickly after the test: the Ukrainian grid has been connected to the continental European grid since mid-March, and Ukraine has been supplying electricity to the EU since the beginning of July.

This is just a "first stage" and it could soon be increased, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy promised. "Both sides benefit," tweeted Ursula von der Leyen. The aim of the German Ministry of the Environment is that, in the long term, it is not primarily nuclear power that flows from Ukraine to the EU, but more and more electricity from renewable sources.

What does the security situation mean for future energy imports from Ukraine?

Ukraine has repeatedly offered to quickly deliver more electricity. This is a kind of "insurance cushion" for Germany if less wind and solar energy is available at certain times, advertises the Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushenko. At the same time, it would secure income for Ukraine – and could help drive the energy transition there.

"Ukraine actually has great potential, especially for solar and wind energy in the south of the country," says Rouven Stubbe. His interlocutors, for example in the Ukrainian Ministry of Energy and the Environment, hoped for a long-term perspective for electricity trading.

"But under war conditions you have to think very carefully about whether you want to go into it more," says Stubbe. The Federal Network Agency also carefully examines every expansion because it has a "direct impact on the security of the electricity supply," says Michael Reifenberg. There is only more trading capacity "if it is possible while maintaining security of supply".

What is the greatest risk of Zaporizhia defaulting?

A nuclear power plant itself needs relatively large amounts of electricity, among other things to cool the reactors. If lines are destroyed, diesel generators have to step in. "That would be a very critical moment," says energy expert Rouven Stubbe. "If the emergency power fails, it can lead to a meltdown."

According to the Ukrainian operator Enerhoatom, Russia is threatening to connect the nuclear power plant to the power grid of the annexed Crimean Peninsula. To do this, the lines to the Ukrainian energy system would have to be damaged. "That this will lead to a nuclear incident is the biggest fear we're hearing from our Ukrainian counterparts," says Stubbe. At the moment, both sides accuse each other of destroying infrastructure.

In addition, cyber attacks could also lead to a failure of Europe's largest nuclear power plant. According to Ukrenerho, there have been massive attacks on the company's IT since the first day of the war.

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