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Trans­formation everywhere

Germany wants to become largely carbon-neutral by 2050. Amprion supports this transition, is ­restructuring the grid and growing with every new task. How can the company pull all of this off? Dr Hans-Jürgen Brick, Chairman of the Management Board, talks about staying grounded in turbulent times.

Dr Brick, what does Heimat, homeland, mean to you?

Heimat is where I feel at home. Besides my family, this is the Ruhr region. I’m a typical child of the Ruhr: born in 1960 in Essen, to a working-class family, my grandfather worked in the mining industry. I like the people in this region. They stand by what they say, they are down-to-earth and quite direct. Knowing where I come from keeps me grounded – even though the Ruhr has changed like hardly any other region in Germany in recent decades.

In what way?

In the context of the structural transformation, away from coal and steel, the region has reoriented itself economically, and to some extent re­invented itself. Amprion has its headquarters in Dortmund – and the city’s economy now employs as many people as it did in the days of coal and steel. By definition, a structural transformation requires change. And change requires that we learn, that we develop. This is something the Ruhr has directly experienced, that the companies there have experienced at first hand. And these changes are ongoing. We can see this in our industrial clients from the region. Like many other companies, they find themselves at the beginning of the next transformation: the transition to a climate-friendly, decarbonised economy.

“We are working to ensure that our industrial clients will in future be able to reliably and efficiently source green electricity from our grid.”

Dr Hans-Jürgen Brick

“Decarbonisation” means ...

… saying goodbye to fossil fuels, which are responsible for the emissions of carbon dioxide which is so detrimental to our climate. One structural transformation is invariably followed by another. The climate targets for Germany have been formulated. I am convinced that we’re on the right track. We still have to find out what a carbon-neutral economy looks like. It’s becoming apparent, for example, that the chemical and steel industries, which require a huge amount of energy for their production, will make increasing use of renewables. The key enterprises in Germany’s primary industry are connected directly to our grid.

What is Amprion doing for these businesses?

We are working to ensure that they will in future be able to reliably and efficiently source green electricity from our grid. By doing so, we are making an important contribution towards achieving the country’s climate targets. To this end, we are upgrading our transmission grid and, together with our customers, are planning more capable and efficient connections. But it will also be essential to develop storage technologies for renewable energy sources. For instance, Amprion, together with the gas TSO Open Grid Europe (OGE), intends to trial power-to-gas technology for the first time on an industrial scale, that is 100 megawatts. These are all decisive parameters for industrial companies so that they can continue to invest in Germany and jobs in the country can be protected. This is also important to me in my role as Chairman of the Management Board at Amprion. By providing a stable electricity grid, we want to give businesses and households security in a world of dynamic change – while keeping an eye on costs.

“We support the transformation to a climate- friendly, decarbonised economy. We say what we’re doing – and we do what we say.”
Dr Hans-Jürgen Brick

What challenges will Amprion have to face?

By using more and more renewable energy, our life and our economy will become more sustainable. However, this makes the tasks of a transmission system operator all the more complex. Until a few years ago, we transmitted electricity generated in conventional power plants to customers located in our vicinity – business that is usually easy to predict. Today, wind and solar farms generate electricity far away from where the ­consumers are located – and our lines have to transport it over hundreds of kilometres in some cases. Nuclear and coal-fired power plants are being disconnected from the grid as the feed-in of electricity generated by wind farms and photovoltaic installations fluctuates massively depending on the weather conditions. Sometimes there is so much electricity being generated in the north that the grid simply cannot carry it away. Sometimes the weather is different than forecast – and we can only keep the grid stable by cutting in backup power plants or flexibly controlling large-scale consumers. This is sometimes hard work and involves high costs. There is still much to be done before we have a power system that really integrates renewables. That said, I am confident that, by developing and installing innovative solutions, we will succeed in bringing about this transformation without having to sacrifice economic power and prosperity in Germany.

Do you think that in Germany we truly appreciate the value of a ­secure electricity supply?

Let’s put it this way: I would like everyone to recognise the role a secure and reliable power supply network plays in their life. Ok, so electricity comes out of the power sockets, but for it to stay that way, there have to be people at Amprion who ensure the power grid runs stably, day in, day out, every second of the day. That’s something we’re proud of. And it is not only Amprion, but also the other TSOs in Germany who are investing billions in grid expansion, so that Germany can and will master the energy transition. We at Amprion see this as a service to society – well aware of the fact that grid expansion sometimes clashes with the interests of local residents. Our aim is to reconcile their personal concerns with the common good. And we do this by informing residents from a very early stage, involving them in the planning process, taking their objections into account – and ultimately winning them over to amicable solutions. But it’s also quite clear that we cannot always make all sides happy in this way.

New challenges, complex tasks – obviously Amprion itself is also in the ­middle of a transformation.

That’s for sure. The energy transition and new demands being made on us by our customers are changing our work. We are helping to shape the energy system of the future, and will for the first time be connecting wind farms located in the North Sea directly to our power grid in the coming years. We are constantly learning, adapting processes and structures. This applies to all departments, but also to our management team, which we have expanded in April 2020. In the past ten years, Amprion’s workforce has doubled to 1,800. More than 300 new colleagues joined us in 2019 alone – and we continue to grow. In view of this dynamic, it is important that we remain constantly aware of what Amprion is all about and what our company does for society. We want to communicate this more in the future; we aim to raise our profile and make our name more widely known.

If Amprion were a person, what would make them tick?

They’d know where they came from and what they are capable of. ­Amprion stands in the tradition of those engineers who invented the transmission grid in Germany 100 years ago. And through our System Operation and Control Centre in Brauweiler, we ensure like no other transmission system operator that the interconnected power grid in Germany operates safely, reliably and efficiently. This is a great responsibility. Knowledge of this fact should make one humble. If Amprion were a person, they would be down-to-earth, clever and focused on facts. A person who is greatly valued and who is the first person one approaches when problems arise, in other words a likeable guy (laughs).

Despite all the changes underway, what is the key trait of ­Amprion that people in Germany can rely on?

They can rely on us doing everything conceivably possible to ensure that the lights in our grid area and across Germany never go out. We support the transformation to a climate-friendly, decarbonised economy. We say what we’re doing – and we do what we say. And we will continue to work on innovations that upgrade and expand the power system.

Interview  Volker Göttsche
Photos  Hartmut Nägele