BERLIN/BONN (dpa-AFX) - It's a mammoth task: thousands of kilometers of new overland power lines need to be laid for the energy transition. The "electricity highways" are primarily intended to transport wind power from the north to the south. A significant proportion of these are to be underground cables - but these are considerably more expensive than overhead lines. The costs are passed on to all electricity customers via the grid fees. This is why a debate has now gained momentum. Some states are in favor of a change of course, according to a survey conducted by the German Press Agency.

The CDU/CSU in the Bundestag had announced that it would table a motion to ensure that overhead lines are generally used instead of underground cables in future. The underground cable priority for large electricity highways has been in place since the beginning of 2016 and was introduced by the grand coalition of the CDU and SPD in order to increase public acceptance of grid expansion. The background to this was concerns about "monster routes".

High savings potential if underground cables are dispensed with

The Network Agency estimates the total investment volume for the expansion of the transmission grids from now until 2045 at around 320 billion euros - including the wind-at-sea connections, the so-called offshore projects. If underground cables are dispensed with, the agency estimates the savings potential for onshore projects at 16.5 billion euros.

"In addition, further savings of 18.8 billion euros could be possible for offshore connection lines, some of which are to be extended far inland as underground cables," says the authority. Based on current forecasts, an investment volume without underground cables of 284.7 billion euros can therefore be estimated, reports the Federal Network Agency. This is 35.3 billion euros less than with underground cables.

Habeck: "Further delays would be harmful"

Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) recognizes the cost aspect, but is nevertheless against changing the regulations. "If we wanted to switch to overhead lines, that would only be possible if the federal states, including Bavaria, were to call on the federal government to do so quickly and with great unity. And everyone would then have to campaign for this in the regions. I think that is very unlikely," Habeck said in an interview with Die Zeit in March. Long debates about this would make it even more expensive. "We have now accelerated the grid expansion so much that further delays would be detrimental."

According to the ministry, around 18,000 kilometers of grid will need to be reinforced or expanded by 2045 for the energy transition. The number of kilometers of lines under construction in 2023 has doubled compared to 2021. A record expansion of around 1500 kilometers is expected this year.

Several federal states want a change of course

Almost all federal states are directly affected by the expansion plans. Some, such as Baden-Württemberg, Hesse, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt and Rhineland-Palatinate, are in favor of abandoning the underground cable priority. They emphasize that overhead lines are quicker and cheaper to construct. Others, such as Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia, are against switching from underground cables to overhead lines, citing public acceptance as the reason.


Overhead lines offer several advantages over underground cables, emphasizes the Ministry of the Environment in Stuttgart. "They can be erected more quickly and cause significantly less intervention in the ground." They are also cheaper. According to the information, transmission system operators and a broad alliance from industry are in favor of switching from underground cables to overhead lines.


"As an economically strong federal state, Hesse has a strong interest in affordable electricity prices and grid fees," explains Hesse's Minister of Economics Kaweh Mansoori (SPD). At the time, the priority of underground cabling was enshrined in law in order to increase acceptance for the expansion of the necessary lines. "Today we see that even wide aisles for underground cables are perceived as an imposition in many places," he explains. "Particularly in view of the costs, there needs to be an honest debate about where underground cables make sense in the future and where overhead lines are significantly cheaper."


According to the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Brandenburg is in favor of abolishing underground cable priority. In addition to the high costs of underground cabling, the greater technical effort involved in underground cabling also means more time is needed to expand the grid. "The presumed higher acceptance of underground cabling compared to overhead lines has not materialized, the conflicts have merely shifted," it says. The abolition of the underground cabling priority could be implemented with an amendment to the Federal Requirements Plan Act. This could still be implemented in 2024.


Saxony-Anhalt's Energy Minister Armin Willingmann (SPD) is in favor of abandoning the priority for underground cables for large direct current transmission lines and dispensing with priority regulations in the future - so that the most practicable route option can be chosen. "With the increased construction of overhead lines, grid expansion in Germany could be implemented much faster and more cost-effectively," said Willingmann. By abolishing the priority regulation for underground cables, the federal government was able to significantly reduce grid fees.

Saxony-Anhalt's Minister President Reiner Haseloff (CDU) can also imagine a change of course. "If this makes the procedures cheaper and faster, it makes sense to review underground installations - especially where there is the possibility of running power lines above ground along major traffic routes such as freeways and railroad lines," said the CDU politician. However, he qualified: "In natural and tourist areas as well as in the protection of residential areas, the priority must remain on underground installation."


Thuringia's Minister President Bodo Ramelow (Left Party) is open to relying more on overhead lines than underground cables when expanding the electricity grids. "Overground lines can be a way to speed things up and optimize costs. It makes sense to examine every new measure with this in mind. Above all, it's about better coordinating the systems," explained Ramelow when asked in Erfurt.


The Rhineland-Palatinate Ministry for Climate Protection and Energy is in favor of above-ground power lines where they will speed up the process. "In addition, above-ground power lines are cheaper, so the levy on grid fees would be reduced and electricity prices would rise less sharply," emphasizes the ministry. However, the planning processes already underway should be completed as planned.


Lower Saxony's red-green state government is in favor of underground cabling. Environment Minister Christian Meyer (Greens) said: "Grid expansion is progressing more and more rapidly, partly because underground cabling has gained public acceptance. We must therefore not compromise this consensus across society under any circumstances, otherwise we will once again put the brakes on the energy transition and climate protection - instead of speeding up significantly, which is absolutely necessary."


According to the Energy Transition Ministry, Schleswig-Holstein is also continuing to advocate the use of underground cables for so-called high-voltage direct current transmission lines. "There are better ways to reduce electricity prices than to play with the acceptance of the energy transition," the ministry said. "Residents living near the planned electricity highways are entitled to reliability. The legal promise to lay these new direct current lines as underground cables has strengthened the acceptance of line projects in rural areas," it says. Rural areas are the key players in the energy transition anyway. Untying the political compromise that has been reached would trigger new waves of protest along new overhead lines. It is also questionable whether the new lines could really be implemented more quickly as overhead lines, as the planning would probably take longer.


North Rhine-Westphalia's Ministry of Economic Affairs also rejects a renewed rescheduling of underground cable projects to overhead lines. It is following the current discussion "with great concern", it said. Especially in a densely populated industrial state like North Rhine-Westphalia, underground cables contribute massively to acceptance. "If planning is rescheduled again, there is a risk that a great deal of local acceptance will be lost and the approval procedures, which have just been accelerated, will be delayed again due to a much higher number of objectors." However, the expansion of the electricity grid urgently needs to move forward. The search for new routes for overhead lines would also lead to considerable delays of at least around a year.


The Ministry of Economic Affairs of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania wants to look at each individual case: "A differentiated solution is preferable, which is not only dependent on the cost factors, but also on the acceptance factors on site," it said in a statement.