The current virus pandemic reminds some people in the energy sector of the 2006 incident, when a rather routine but postponed switch-off of a single power line led to a Europe-wide chain reaction due to misjudgements and lack of communication between energy suppliers and transmission system operators (TSOs). The resulting failure of further lines and under- and over-frequencies affected large parts of Europe and ten million people were without electricity for up to one and a half hours. The Union for the Coordination of Transmission of Electricity (UCTE), the predecessor organisation of the European Network of Transmission System Operators (ENTSO-E), described the incident as one of the most serious failures ever to occur in Europe.
According to Klaus Lucas, Professor Emeritus at RWTH Aachen University and Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, the 2006 blackout was “the prime example of a systemic risk. Like a virus epidemic, a random harmful event can spread in a complex system and, in unpredictable ways, paralyse structures that were actually believed to be stable”. Mr Lucas expressed this view to Zweitausend50, the magazine of the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (Bundesverband der Energie- und Wasserwirtschaft – BDEW), a business organisation representing over 1800 companies from the energy and water industry. And since the establishment of the Regional Security Coordinators (RSCs) was a reaction of the European Commission to the 2006 incident, it is plausible that Zweitausend50 also made contact with TSCNET Services and had an interview with Uwe Zimmermann, one of the two Managing Directors of the Munich-based RSC, on this issue.
Europe’s highly meshed power transmission system is one of the most complex critical infrastructures in the world and the more intensive the interconnectedness, the more susceptible the network is to unwanted domino or feedback effects. The strain on the system has recently been further increased by the volatile generation capacities of renewable energy sources. The role of RSCs has thus become all the more important. The five European RSCs forecast the capacity utilisation of power lines based on expected electricity generation and consumption for the following day and determine the extent to which individual lines may be overloaded. In this way, the RSCs identify potential risks in the system, evaluate them continuously and counteract possible bottlenecks and power failures. They do this in support of the respective TSOs within their area of responsibility, in the case of TSCNET Services this is central and eastern Europe.
Uwe Zimmermann compares this function with a navigation system: “Basically, we continuously monitor traffic – i.e. the operational status of the grids, current capacities, consumption and market data – and proactively determine at which points a congestion could occur. Whenever we forecast such a congestion, we provide timely recommendations in coordination with the TSOs on how the traffic can be redirected – like an alternative route.” Zimmermann emphasises, however, that the responsibility for implementing these recommendations remains with the TSOs.
In view of the progressing energy transition in the course of which the number and volatility of generators is increasing and the transmission distances for electricity are becoming ever larger, Uwe Zimmermann does not deny the challenges for RSCs: “As a result, our lead times could become increasingly shorter and this would make it more and more challenging to predict the following day and take timely action.” Nevertheless, the TSCNET managing director remains confident about the performance of the RSCs: “Fortunately, however, we can respond to this. We are getting ready to accelerate our process cycles more and more and to process ever larger amounts of data to continue to ensure reliable forecasts.”