The use of underground cables for power transmission in the extra-high voltage three-phase current range is partly still uncharted technical territory for the four German TSCNET shareholders 50Hertz, Amprion, TenneT, and TransnetBW. As most projects are in the planning, approval, or construction phase, no partial earth cabling project is yet in full system operation, let alone a project with exclusive cabling. However, Tennet has commissioned the Wilhelmshaven-Conneforde line as recently as last week: It is the first 380kV line with underground cable sections in three-phase technology connected to the meshed power grid by the Dutch-German transmission system operator (TSO).
To inform politics and public about the current status of underground cabling in the national transmission system, the four German TSOs have, at the request of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, jointly prepared a field report on the use of underground cables in the extra high-voltage three-phase current range. The 65-page report examines seven different key issues in respective main chapters, covering technical, administrative, economic, environmental, and social aspects: dialogue and acceptance, approval procedures and the environment, design and construction, operation and operational safety, underground cable technology, systems engineering, and finally economic efficiency. Key findings of 50Hertz, Amprion, TenneT, and TransnetBW can be summarised as follows:
- Partial underground cabling does not per se lead to a greater acceptance of line construction projects – compared to the construction of overhead power lines, the concern merely shifts from the residents mainly to landowners and farmers.
- As far as planning, approval, and construction times are concerned, current experience shows that partial underground cabling requires at least one to two years more than overhead lines. More extensive implementation planning, intensive soil investigations, and negotiations with the owners consumed a great deal of time in the pilot projects. The construction itself is also more complex due to the necessary crossing of infrastructures, 40 to 60-metre-wide aisles, and major interventions in the soil ecosystem.
- Regarding operational and system safety, underground cable installations have a lower availability rate than overhead lines, as repair times are significantly longer in case of damage. Moreover, with an increasing share of partial underground cabling, the complexity of grid operation and thus the risk to system stability also rises.
- In terms of economic efficiency, the costs of partial underground cabling are significantly higher than those of overhead lines, and this applies to planning, construction, and operation. Depending on the project-related terrain and soil conditions, the investment costs are usually six times higher.