“Making the Distribution Grid Future-Proof”

Expert Interview – March 13, 2023

Andreas Neuhauser is Head of Communications at illwerke vkw

When it comes to the energy transition, Germany’s neighboring country Austria is also facing big challenges. Illwerke vkw, a company based in Begrenz, started planning for the transformation towards electromobility and a decentralized energy supply early on. Vorarlberg is set to become the federal state with the largest fleet of electric buses in all of Austria, their spokesperson Andreas Neuhauser says. An additional €100 million are to be invested in grid expansion and digitalization up until 2030.

Interview with Andreas Neuhauser, Head of Communications at illwerke vkw, on electromobility and grid expansion

Mr. Neuhauser, what challenges are Austrian utility companies faced with? Is the large proportion of hydropower making the Austrian energy transition easier than it is for Germany?

When it comes to achieving the energy transition towards 100% renewable sources, the high share of hydropower certainly gives Austria a certain advantage. That being said, the energy transition is still a huge challenge for utility companies in Austria. The conditions for hydropower, photovoltaics (PV) and wind power vary greatly between regions.

What’s more, the shortage of skilled professionals and global supply chain issues impede their rapid expansion, especially that of photovoltaics. On a positive note, though, our population and our industry have a great interest in the transition towards renewable sources of energy.

How are you dealing with these challenges?

Illwerke vkw is putting in a large effort to spur on the energy transition. Our pumped-storage power plants provide the flexibility that is desperately needed to integrate renewable sources of energy such as wind power and PV systems into the European low-voltage grid. Generation and consumption constantly need to be balanced in the grid to ensure a frequency of 50 Hertz which is necessary for grid stability. We offset frequency fluctuations by flexibly and quickly feeding energy into the power grid or extracting it, depending on what’s required.

What other projects are you involved in?

Our project Lünerseewerk II is intended to make a substantial contribution to our energy transition. It’s going to be the largest pumped-storage power plant in Austria – embedded into existing infrastructure. It will have a capacity of around 1,000 megawatts and cost about two billion euros. The range of projects is as large as the challenges they bring. We provide services for everything related to photovoltaics, local heating from biomass and heating in general.

For years, the state of Vorarlberg has had the largest share in registrations of e-vehicles of all Austrian states. This is partly due to the involvement of illwerke in setting up a charging infrastructure.

You’ve been working in the area of e-mobility for ten years and are operating a dense charging network. Why did you get into the business at such an early point?

With Vlotte, illwerke vkw already established the first pilot region for e-mobility in Austria back in 2008. This gave us a leading edge in terms of experience and know-how, and we’ve actually been able to build on this over the past few years. The goal was to find out whether we could also make electromobility work in rural areas in our climate. Expanding the charging infrastructure as well as raising awareness for this topic were some of our main concerns. The opportunity to rent an electric vehicle in particular dispelled fears and answered questions.

How has the business changed since then?

Today, Vlotte can be considered nothing if not a success story. Vorarlberg has had the largest share in registrations of electric vehicles out of all Austrian states. Our services for charging infrastructure and backend systems for billing and operation are being used across the country. We offer customized charging solutions from wallboxes in the B2C segment to complete package solutions in the B2B segment. Obviously, we intend to expand our market position.

You’re also expanding the public charging network in Vorarlberg.

Yes, that’s true. The transportation association Verkehrsverbund Vorarlberg is planning to acquire at least 108 electric buses by 2025. This is should enable a transition towards emission-free public transportation. Vorarlberg is set to become the state with the largest fleet of electric buses in all of Austria. The transition is also supported by the incentive program “Emission-free Buses and Infrastructure”, EBIN for short, of the Ministry of Climate Action and Energy.

Integrating electric buses into the existing energy system can be tricky – why?

That question can be answered with a short example: With a charging power of over 100 kilowatts per bus, the additional load on the power grid is quite substantial.

Don’t forget: Intelligent, grid-serving planning of the charging process for electric buses facilitates the integration of the required charging infrastructure, while also providing the state of Vorarlberg with economic benefits. A research consortium lead by the university of applied sciences Fachhochschule Vorarlberg (FHV) supports this process as part of the sponsored accompanying project EbusCharge. The experts want to work together to develop solutions for intelligent charging strategies and test them in the field.

Another business area of yours is power grids. You also started early with transforming the grid into a smart grid. Has it been worth-while?

Our subsidiary Vorarlberger Energienetze GmbH, or vorarlberg netz for short, dealt with the topic of smart grids early on: The DG DemoNetz project, initiated back in 2006, constitutes pioneer work. The results, which were based on grid simulations using data from three real-life medium-voltage grids, showed that innovative voltage regulation for integration in decentralized green power plants is technically feasible, and it is competitive with conventional power amplification.

Your project Grid development – mission 2030 is intended to prepare power grids for the energy transition. What investments need to be made until 2023?

We’re currently putting our grid strategy into practice with the intention of making the distribution grid future-proof. These projects are backed by scientific studies. In order to prepare the distribution grids for the extensive expansion of electrification – due to heat pumps and electric cars – while also deploying renewable energies efficiently, digital solutions offer a tangible added value. As a recommended action, around a fifth of all transformer stations in the network area should be upgraded to intelligent secondary substations by 2030.

Thanks to the results of this project, the grid service provider is going to make further investments in addition to the annual investments to renew and maintain the power grid – with a total amount of about 100 million euros for grid expansion and digitalization.

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