Lacking electricity grid puts a block on solar panels

In many places in Denmark, solar parks and wind farms have to wait several years to be connected to the electricity grid. Illustration: Tom Ingvardsen

The war in Ukraine has brought attention to the Danish energy supply, especially due to the phasing out of Russian gas. The lack of gas can in many cases be replaced by increased electricity consumption, so politicians, researchers, and energy analysts all point out that more solar and wind power capacity must be established.

One of them is Anders Kofoed-Wiuff from Ea Energy Analyses. They estimate that the solar power capacity could be increased by up to 3 GW and the onshore wind capacity by between 1 and 2 GW already before the summer of 2023.

But Anders Kofoed-Wiuff also points to two main barriers to achieving that goal: local opposition to energy installations and access to electricity grid capacity.

“We expect that it will become easier to get installations approved by the municipalities because the Ukraine crisis is a burning platform that will give rise to more goodwill in municipal and city councils. On top of that, the rising prices of electricity, fuels and CO2 will improve the business case for new solar and wind capacity. There should therefore be room in the budgets to compensate the neighbours of the wind and solar cell projects,” he says and adds that rounded up, the energy from electricity generation can replace gas in a 1:1 ratio.

At the same time, Ea proposes that the state should act as a catalyst for the development by setting targets for the municipalities’ building of renewable energy capacity.

The other major challenge is the capacity of the electricity grid. In collaboration with Dansk Energi, Energinet continuously updates the so-called capacity map, which makes it possible to see where there is spare capacity for new installations in the electricity grid.

Energinet’s capacity map shows that there is largely only spare capacity in the transmission network around the large cities, where it is typically difficult to find space for large photovoltaic systems and onshore wind turbines. As it can take a long time to establish new transmission capacity, Ea Energy Analyses instead points to ensuring better utilization of the existing network.

“Capacity problems in the electricity grid are one of the main barriers to having more solar and wind energy in the electricity grid right now. The solution is to provide the opportunity to connect energy installations with limited grid access,” Anders Kofoed-Wiuff says.

The green areas on the map show places with available capacity for connections to the distribution network. Illustration: Energinet

Ea Energy Analyses says that photovoltaic systems and wind turbines can easily be connected in a way which enables them to be shut down in situations of low local consumption in combination with full production of solar and wind power. This ensures a better utilization of the existing electricity grid. Although the installations might not be able to supply 10–20% of their production due to restrictions in the electricity grid, the economic loss will be limited.

“At those times, electricity prices are still low, so the owners don’t lose out on much income. But we avoid expanding the electricity grid to full capacity,” he explains.

Therefore, Anders Kofoed-Wiuff also believes that the capacity map does not provide a complete picture of opportunities in the slightly longer term:

“It may well be that at present, there is no ‘room’ for a solar park according to the capacity map, but what about in a few years when consumption is increased, for example due to PtX systems or data centres? We believe that this should be taken into account in the planning,” he says.

Energinet has neglected to invest

At the industry organization Dansk Solkraft, one can detect a certain annoyance with the fact that there is now a real need for more renewable energy in the electricity system but that the rules and slow planning are impeding the process.

Thomas Aarestrup Jepsen, director of Dansk Solkraft, believes that investments in the grid have been neglected for years, which now causes major problems:

“It has been known for years that it’s not possible to fully utilise the power from Lolland,” he says.

Thomas Aarestrup also points out that the approval process in Danish municipalities is extremely heterogeneous:

“Some municipalities are competent and ambitious. But there are also many that haven’t got the hang of the process and don’t know where to start. We need to have a more flexible process and a discussion of how we should use the available land in the future,” he says and mentions as an example that one is welcome to plant a field with an extreme monoculture such as rapeseed or maize, but it is not possible to install solar panels there.

Solar park ready—but the network will not be before 2026

One of the energy companies that are aware of the problem is Better Energy, which has a large number of projects that are stuck because they cannot be connected to the electricity grid:

“We have several solar parks with local support and municipalities that have approved the projects. They could be connected to the grid quite quickly. Unfortunately, the electricity grid is insufficient in many places and it’s not always possible to be connected to the grid at a lower capacity until the grid is expanded. It would otherwise be an obvious choice in a situation where the electricity grid is very undersized, for example south of Ringsted and all the way down to Lolland-Falster,” says Rasmus Lildholdt Kjær, CEO of Better Energy.

One of those places is a solar park at Ringe on Funen, where a grid connection was requested in 2020, but the reply was that it can only happen in 2026. As an alternative, Better Energy has proposed various solutions, including laying a cable to an existing substation:

“The opportunity to put the task out to tender would mean that we could be connected more quickly and thus accelerate the green transition. But it’s still unclear whether the network operator will agree to that solution,” he says.

Energinet, for example, says that the maximum flow from Lolland-Falster will be between 600–700 MW in 2040. But Rasmus Lildholdt Kjær estimates that there are already projects for about 2 GW underway.

Energinet does not want to expand too much

Energinet, which is responsible for the expansion of the transmission network, and thus for a stronger connection between Zealand and Lolland/Falster, has maintained that it is not possible to expand faster. Deputy director Stine Grenaa Jensen recently stated To Dr.dk that it could be “dangerous to expand the electricity grid too quickly, as there could be a risk of building too much for the electricity consumers’ money and to the inconvenience of both citizens and landowners”.

But a political majority may be starting to emerge to accelerate the expansion. In the Danish Parliament, Venstre (Denmark's Liberal Party), Radikale Venstre (Danish Social Liberal Party), and SF (Socialist People’s Party) have all said that the expansion must be accelerated—even though it may cost the consumers more to expand the network for a certain period of time.