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ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

Forging a new UK-German electricity link


6 min read

Huge warehouse housing coverter hall for NeuConnect interconnector Photo: Siemens Energy
A vital link in the forthcoming NeuConnect German-UK interconnector, where a Siemens Energy converter hall about the size of a football stadium will convert electricity from AC to DC

Photo: Siemens Energy

The NeuConnect electricity interconnector will be the first energy link between Germany and the UK, and could provide a model for clean energy distribution, reports energy writer Jens Kastner.

In late July, the European Investment Bank (EIB) agreed on the financing structure of NeuConnect, the first ever energy link connecting Germany and the UK, two of the largest electricity markets in Europe.


The investment to build the interconnector will amount to €2.8bn, with the EIB set to contribute up to €400mn of financing for construction of the section within the European Union (EU). Other financiers include the UK Infrastructure Bank, which will focus on the stretch within UK waters and onshore territory, and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC).


The NeuConnect project consists of a high-voltage direct current (HVDC) link interconnecting England and Germany through German, Dutch and British waters. The project will have a rated capacity of 1.4 GW and DC voltage of 525 kV. The predominantly subsea cable will have a route length of 725 km and will connect a converter station near Fedderwarden, northern Germany, near the Dutch border, linking the German grid interface to the electricity network of Netherlands-based grid operator TenneT.


The project will convert alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC) and then feed power to a converter station and grid interface on the Isle of Grain, Kent, reconverting to AC and linking with the UK National Grid’s electricity system operator (ESO) network.


The expected start date of commercial operations is in 2028, with the Fedderwarden site currently an undeveloped brownfield zone. Germany’s Siemens Energy has been appointed as the contractor for the NeuConnect converter stations, and Prysmian, an Italian company, will manufacture and install the cable.


According to Siemens Energy’s Europe Transmission Director Mark Pilling, the converters will convert the electricity to DC to reduce transmission losses and convert it back to AC at the other side of the line. ‘You will have to invest in a converter plant that is about as large as a football stadium, but once your transmission distance exceeds 100 km, it is worth converting to DC because it greatly reduces transmission losses,’ Pilling says.

‘While NeuConnect and existing interconnectors are for point-to-point transmission, in the future we are going to see multiple-point interconnector networks between, for example, offshore wind parks in the North Sea.’ – Mark Pilling, Siemens Energy


NeuConnect’s two converters will be identical. The massive size is largely explained through space being needed for the management of electro-statics.


Siemens Energy has a 30-year service agreement with NeuConnect, a privately financed consortium of investors led by Meridiam (France) and including Allianz Capital Partners (Germany) and Kansai Electric Power (Japan), with its German arm based in Wilhelmshaven and UK NeuConnect in London.


Towards net zero 
Pilling stresses that interconnectors are a key part of the world’s energy transition towards net zero CO2 emissions solutions, because they facilitate electricity trade across vast distances, enabling the capture, transmission and consumption of renewable energy, based on natural forces that may wax and wane at any location.


Interconnectors are a key element of Europe’s future energy system and are envisioned to play a major role in integrating these renewable capacities into the electrified and flexible energy system of the future. 


Today, electricity is only 25% of all the energy consumed in Europe. Most of the rest comes from fossil fuels, often imported from outside Europe. This will change with the European Commission’s Green Deal as the EU is aiming to be climate neutral by 2050.


Electric vehicles, heat pumps and indirect electrification via renewable hydrogen will increase their share of electricity in energy consumption. Brussels-based WindEurope, an association of the wind industry, in mid-2021 projected that by 2050, direct and indirect electrification will make up 75% of all energy consumed in Europe. Electricity will no longer be limited to the power sector but decarbonise mobility, heating and industry. This means much more renewable electricity will be deployed at a faster pace.


In the EU, this was mandated by the REPowerEU initiative, a European Commission proposal to end reliance on Russian fossil fuels before 2030 in response to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Under REPowerEU, the EU wants wind energy in the EU alone to grow from less than 200 GW today to 510 GW by 2030 and 1,300 GW by 2050.


From a technical standpoint, NeuConnect will transmit electricity, though not necessarily renewable electricity. But both Germany and the UK have high shares of renewables in their electricity mixes. In Germany renewables accounted just over 40% of all electricity produced, according to the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems. In the UK it comprised 43% of all electricity produced in 2020, according to National Grid. 


Wind power 
Christoph Zipf, Communications Manager of WindEurope, projects that NeuConnect will transmit significant shares of renewable electricity, as both Germany and the UK have highly ambitious plans to increase their respective offshore wind capacities in the North Sea.


‘NeuConnect will also help reduce renewable energy curtailment in both countries, as currently there are regions in Europe where renewable electricity generation exceeds electricity demand, which can lead to grid congestion and curtailment,’ Zipf explains.


‘Germany has been slow in expanding onshore grid connections from its wind-rich north to the industrial centres in the south of the country, which leads to relatively high curtailment of wind energy in the north of Germany, where most of its wind turbines are located. As a result, Germany is not utilising its full wind energy potential. In 2020, Germany curtailed 6.1 TWh of electricity, with curtailment costs amounting to €761mn. In the UK, the curtailment in 2021 was 2.3TWh, resulting in curtailment costs of £507mn,’ he adds.


Zipf notes that better EU grid connectivity, within and between countries via interconnectors, can also benefit electricity consumers, as they allow for a more efficient use of renewable electricity supplies.


‘When the wind blows, the price to generate wind energy goes down. This competition can lead to lower electricity prices for households and consumers, which is essential to countering the current electricity price crisis,’ Zipf says.


wind turbine at sea, with others in distance

Northern Germany’s wind turbines may have excess power to transmit to Britain via the NeuConnect Interconnector
Photo: Siemens Energy


Looking ahead 
For NeuConnect to play a more important role in achieving EU and UK policy goals in improving energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions, the project’s current development plan of about 10 years will have to be streamlined significantly, says Pilling. He considers this is doable technically, given that the construction time currently amounts to only 2–3 years, with government liaison, bureaucratic processes, technical assessments and site research accounting for much of the rest of the time.


Moreover, there already are links connecting the UK to the energy systems of Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Norway and Ireland, providing experience upon which to draw. For example, the North Sea Link, a 1.4 GW link between Norway and the UK under a joint venture between Britain’s National Grid and Norway’s Statnett, became operational in October 2021.


There are also major international transmission projects elsewhere. In North America, for example, the Champlain Hudson Power Express (CHPE) by US-based Transmission Developers (TDI) is planned to see construction start this year, to become operational in 2025. The CHPE would carry hydropower and wind power from eastern Canada and feed it directly in the New York City electricity market.


Zipf adds that there have been other drivers to speed up construction, citing an announcement by Norway in August that would curb electricity exports to the UK and the rest of Europe if water levels for its hydropower plants remain low. This ‘adds to the need for additional interconnectors’, he maintains.


Policy issues 
One unknown is the impact of this interconnector and future such systems on UK energy policy and its current slant towards nuclear energy. The British Energy Security Strategy published in April 2022 signalled a significant expansion of nuclear power, with an ambition of increasing output to 24 GW by 2050. This would represent up to 25% of the UK’s projected electricity demand, with small modular reactors forming a key element of this expansion.


But what will happen if large amounts of cheap German renewable electricity are made available to the UK, asks Volker Quaschning, an engineer and Professor of Renewable Energy Systems at the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin (HTW Berlin University of Applied Sciences). Would this put UK nuclear investments under review?


‘Germany plans to expand solar and wind power to 200 GW and 100 GW respectively by 2030. Europe’s energy market will be swamped with enormous amounts of solar power mid-day, because Germany will have to sell any electricity that is generated in excess of Germany’s own consumption,’ says Quaschning.


‘When you are looking at NeuConnect, its 1.4 GW capacity seems minuscule against Germany’s coming 300 GW output. But with the interconnectors getting cheaper and Europe’s power rates increasingly diverging, we will be seeing more interconnectors soon, boding ill for the future price competitiveness of Britain’s nuclear plants,’ he posits.


Quaschning argues that interconnectors would also compete with battery storage and hydrogen, becoming a more attractive way of transporting wind power from North Sea wind parks to consumers. ‘Battery storage will remain comparatively expensive, while the production of hydrogen from electricity involves major energy loss,’ he says.


If Quaschning is right, transmission and renewables may become an unbeatable combination for solving current energy shortages and carbon emission concerns.