January 9, 2023
The power grid plays a crucial role as the worlds shifts towards renewable energy, but what are the obstacles in this transition?
At the heart of the energy transition sits the power grid. The grid is the largest industrial investment in human history and its importance continues to grow as we embark on a mission to electrify the world. Slow interconnection approvals is a near universal issue facing renewable energy developers and threatens our mission to decarbonise and deploy renewable capacity. In the US, the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) has introduced reforms to improve the transparency and accountability to the process of interconnection. European markets differ in terms of level of transparency for permitting and achieving grid connectivity.
As we work to support our customers across Europe, it is crucial that we at Glint Solar have a deep understanding of the challenges, opportunities, and market shifts in the region. This piece will focus on one of our key markets, France. We provide an insight into the process of connecting a new power asset to the grid and some of the key challenges. At Glint Solar, we are always looking for ways to improve visibility into grid matters for our customers and helping them plan around potential adversities and guide the decision making process.
After the summer of droughts, heat waves and fires, Emmanuel Macron made a pledge to halve the time it takes to get a renewable energy project off the ground in France. Allowing for more capacity, faster. However, the staggering amount of renewable energy (wind & solar) that is expected to come online means that interconnectivity will be a major impediment to scaling the sector, as the pace of renewable development tends to exceed the pace of improvements of transmission. Policymakers need to judge whether grid development plans are in line with ambitious renewable energy targets to ensure transmission capacity does not constrain the energy transition.
The grid remains poorly understood, at the very time when it needs to change significantly to keep pace with climate change, new energy policies and consumer behaviour. What is the transmission grid? An interconnected electrical system that transports electricity from generating sources to distribution systems, or in other words it is a linear infrastructure system that transports high-voltage electricity over great distances. It interconnects European countries and connects power assets such as nuclear stations, solar PV, hydropower to industrial consumers and some local consumers via distribution networks. Transmission networks are then divided into categories of voltage, with higher voltage transmission networks (400 kV, 225 kV) and subtransmission networks (63 kV, 90 kV). In France, the Transmission System Operator (TSO) is RTE, and Commission de regulation de l’energie (CRE) regulates the six Distribution System Operators (DSO), of which Enedis (DSO) serves 95% of France.
In France, all grid operators (DSOs and TSOs) must provide access to the network to all users and producers in a non-discriminatory manner (Code de l’ ́energie, 2022a). The French law states there is no priority for the connection of renewable energy capacity, unlike its neighboring country Germany, which endorses the priority connection of renewables. At Glint Solar, we believe endorsing priority connections for renewables is key to align the growth of the renewable energy pipeline with transmission capacity.
The lack of a French priority for renewable energy to connect to the grid, versus its neighboring countries, can be argued from the perspective of supply side security. France has pushed back its aims to scale down nuclear energy by 50% until 2035, postponing the urgency to connect renewable energy supply.
Developers installing new power plants must submit a connection request to grid operators. Then, you are placed in a capacity reservation system known as "File d’attente” (the interconnection queue). RTE classifies connection requests according to a "first come, first served" priority of processing. The grid operator thereafter conducts a technical connection study (RTE has three months to do this). This document is known as the PEFA, and once signed, the project is added to the queue. Thereafter, the first mandatory step of the process begins, to request a technical and financial proposal (named PTF). The PTF lays out the scope of the work to be carried out, the costs and timelines for the connection. This quote for the connection solution commits RTE. Generally, RTE has three months time to return this application after the submission of a developer. Thereafter, a connection agreement will be signed, which specifies the technical, legal and financial terms for the connection and the conditions the facility must meet in order to be connected to the system. During the duration of the work, RTE will keep the developer updated on the progress of the connection availability and notify once made available.
To connect new power plants to the distribution grid, producers pay for the installation of meters, circuit breakers, cables, etc. As well as costs of the network extension, addition of transformers and any modification of the network if necessary. For the connection to the transmission grid, the producers pay a share of the costs calculated per region and in Euros per MW. The uncertainty of costs and the opacity of the process is cited as one of the largest challenges for developers.
To obtain a cost estimation, developers must send a connection request to the DSO. Requests must be completed with several technical and administrative documents, such as certificates of compliance with local urban planning regulations. Often, if costs outweigh the expected return of a project, developers will abandon the project despite prolonged preparatory work, which often exceeds one year. Time cost is stressed as a major impediment to developing new power projects. Enedis, the quasi-monopolistic DSO, acknowledges that connection requests can sometimes extend beyond one year and has committed to cutting this time in half.
There are EU level schemes (REPowerEU) that stress the need for member states to ease and accelerate the permitting process for renewable energy projects through spatial planning and greater and more efficient contact points.
For utility scale projects, Enedis provides a contact person for the grid connection process and follow on relations thereafter. Many developers often cite friction with Enedis as a major challenge in developing PV assets in France, given its centralized and quasi monopolistic nature. Often, Enedis’ choice of the technical solutions entail additional costs and their calculations are often opaque with no alternatives provided most of the time.
Another challenge for developers is the concept of first come first served principle for the connection. Which entails changing prices depending on the state of the grid, capacity and the project’s place in the queue. Understanding the landscape of projects in the pipeline and mutualising the costs among project developers could be a solution for this - Enedis recognises this, yet have an obligation of non-discrimination and data/project privacy hindering them from revealing competing project sites and details. DSOs are not allowed to perform competitive activities, hence any consulting on evaluating different connection possibilities and cost optimization studies, might be seen as a violation by the regulators.
RTE has a 15-year plan to modernize the French grid, adapt it for greater renewable capacity and expand the reach of the network, both with cross border interconnection and with offshore lines. The plan outlined is valued at EUR 33bn over the 15-year horizon, with EUR 13bn earmarked for transmission grid adaptations, EUR 8bn to replace old infrastructure, EUR 7bn for marine initiatives, EUR 3bn for digital and EUR 3bn for cross border interconnection. The programme is funded through TURPE (the tariff system) and through the share paid by the generators under the regional connection programmes for renewable energies.
Developing interconnections across the European continent have been one of the mainstay energy policies - enhanced security, greater electrification and better consumer prices. Currently, France’s ambition is to have 30 GW of interconnection capacity by 2035.
France and Spain have only three high voltage interconnection lines planned, to be delivered by 2027. One of the projects is a 400-kilometer link that will run between the Cubnezais substation (near Bordeaux, France) and the Gatika substation (near Bilbao, Spain) and it will be the first submarine interconnector between Spain and France. The project has a total transmission capacity of 2 GW and will lift the total interconnection capacity between the two countries to 5 GW. 5 GW of transmission capacity will be able to interchange roughly 40 TWh per year if used at very high utilization factors. This seems like a substantial amount, however it is a small number compared to the total power demand in both countries, hence begs the question: With lead times of 10 years for such projects, are we being ambitious enough? We can’t afford to misjudge the scale of the grid developments required and thus create bottlenecks for the energy transition.
At Glint Solar, we see France as one of the key markets for developers in Europe with strong ambitions to grow and a lot of potential for accelerated PV development. Glint Solar helps solar developers more accurately assess the potential impact of their projects on the grid and take steps to ensure that necessary infrastructure is in place to support them. This could potentially help avoid bottlenecks and facilitate a smoother transition to renewable energy sources. Glint Solar brings value to the market in France by enabling more efficient and effective planning for renewable energy projects. We are constantly adding new features to make the process ever more seamless and we are excited for what is in store for 2023 and how we can support you.