At the beginning of this year, a young family came to the conclusion that their baby and the new, sustainable hob are due at the same time. To their surprise, it takes another seven months before the kitchen can be renovated, just when the little one has to show up. The ordered induction hob requires the power network to be upgraded and there is a very long waiting time for that.
“We understand that it is annoying that you have to wait so long,” writes network operator Liander to the young parents in North Holland. “Unfortunately, we can’t help you sooner.” Due to a lack of meters that match the weighted (3-phase) cable, the waiting time is in a large part of the Netherlands increased considerably. If the meters are received in August, an appointment can be made within six weeks, Liander reports.
Aftermath of corona and also the war in Ukraine have ensured that stocks of meters have dried up completely, explains a spokesperson. “We now have a new supplier, but stocks are not yet up to scratch. We now hope that we can make up for those seven months quickly and that it will go faster in practice, but we don’t want to give anyone false hope.”
You quickly need such a pipe with 3-phase wires (instead of one), for example with the combination of solar panels and electric cooking. Not only companies are seriously delayed if they want to use or produce more electricity, this also applies to many households.
Given the growing number of private requests for increased funding, this is not surprising. Stedin, for example, which is active as a network operator in Utrecht, Zeeland and a large part of South Holland a growth of 64 percent last year, up to 31,500 reinforcements. That equates to six hundred requests per week. “In 80 percent of the cases it is a fuse change,” says team leader Cris Martinez Viana. All requests come in at her department. “Such a change is normally an hour and a half of work. The waiting time for this is a maximum of eight weeks.”
More needs to be done for one in five jobs. “For example, when it comes to a porch house, as you often see in The Hague. Then it is possible that more homes are ‘looped through’ to the same connection box,” says Marcel Stekelenburg, team leader of engineers. Stedin also has to arrange more than manpower and materials for such a porch house. “If someone wants weight there, they usually have to install a new cable for all floors. The result is that everyone has to be at home during those activities and that the power is temporarily cut off.”
If there are any doubts about the necessary work, a survey will follow first, an inspection to determine what needs to be done. Permits must then be requested from the municipality in order to be able to excavate. “That takes an average of six weeks, but because we request it immediately, we don’t have to wait for it,” says Martinez. In many cases, a soil investigation also follows. “Stedin is obliged to have soil research carried out to prevent our people from working in contaminated soil,” says Stekelenburg. “Sometimes groundwater has to be pumped out and we also need a permit for that.”
For this type of work, the network operator assumes a preparation time of twelve to a maximum of eighteen weeks. According to Martinez, this term is met in 97 percent of cases. “It is also the maximum legal lead time; within that time we must have helped the customers, unless the resident first needs to make provisions. Then it starts all over again. As a network operator, we do everything below the meter, the installer who has to engage the customer does everything above the meter. Think, for example, of a suitable main switch, we are not allowed to do that kind of activity.”
Cables with paper or lead
Like its large colleagues Liander (North Holland, Gelderland, Friesland, Flevoland and part of South Holland) and Enexis (Groningen, Overijssel, North Brabant and Limburg), Stedin is a monopolist in its region and the grid operator is only allowed to perform tasks. The network operators are owned by provinces and municipalities. They are responsible for the gas and electricity pipes that run from the energy supplier to the household meter cupboard. Stedin has 2.3 million households.
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It sometimes happens that Stedin does not comply with its legal connection obligation of eighteen weeks, says Martinez. “We are then surprised by what we encounter in people’s homes. Once on site, we see, for example, that there is a metal plate or box in the meter cupboard. Most mechanics are not allowed to tinker with that.” Especially in the big cities there are still cables wrapped in paper and lead. “We are not allowed to work with that at all. If you look at that, it is already dangerous,” says Stekelenburg.
The result is that technicians will have to come who have other ‘instructions’ (authorities). “And some work may not be done by one mechanic and then a team may have to come in at a later time,” says Martinez. “For example, if a power cable has to be cut. Then the process and preparation starts all over again. If you then add everything together, it can take five to six months in a single case.” In practice, if there are no additional obstacles, the weighting of a cable takes half a day.
Stedin does not have a fixed waiting time of seven months – as is the case with Liander for a 3-phase meter – but according to Stekelenburg, no network operator has a large stock. “We all fish in the same pond, often have the same suppliers, but those meters do not lead to extra delays for us at the moment.”
Full power grid
The problems go beyond a meter that takes months to appear. Since the outbreak of the energy crisis, so many people want to make their homes more sustainable that the network is starting to crack. “After companies, households are now also confronted with a full power grid”, said chairman of the board Maarten Otto on Thursday during the presentation of Liander’s annual figures.
In order to cope with the extra demand for electricity, Liander has decided to increase the load on the network. In fact, the network operator is going to push the boundaries further, with all the associated risks. “We are faced with a major dilemma,” says Otto. “Either we say no to people who want to increase their connection or we increase the risk of voltage problems. We now choose the latter. The electrification of houses is going faster than we can handle.”
The voltage problems can lead to a flashing lamp, but also to blockages in solar panels. The so-called inverter, which converts direct current into alternating current, then ensures that the panels are temporarily unable to supply their electricity to the energy company. Last year, these voltage problems led to 2,000 complaints at Liander from people who saw on the app that their panels could not lose the power. “In 2022 alone, 760,000 solar panels will have been added in our region,” says Otto. “In two years, the number of consumer requests for increased weight has doubled to 43,000.”
By placing an extra load on the grid, Liander is taking a greater risk of failures that could lead to power outages. “At times that can indeed happen. We now have twenty minutes of power outages every year. I cannot say how much that will be, it really depends on the demand for electricity. And a power failure can happen at district level, but also in one street or house,” says Otto.
In the low-voltage grid, which households use, Liander will invest around 5 billion euros until 2030. That money will go to more cables and also to twenty thousand extra electricity houses to make the greater demand for electricity possible. “That means that we will have to break up one in three streets in the coming years. A gigantic operation, and everyone will notice that.”
A version of this article also appeared in
the newspaper of March 11, 2023