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BONN (Reuters) - Germany must invest tens of billions of euros in its power grid over the coming decade to avoid an electricity shortfall as it switches from nuclear to renewable energy, grid operators said on Tuesday.
Germany's government, the federal energy network regulator and grid firms unveiled joint plans to build thousands of kilometers of new electricity lines by 2022, to help distribute volatile renewable energy.
Martin Fuchs, whose company TenneT TSO operates the grid to carry offshore wind power from the North Sea to mainland destinations, said that on top of 20 billion euros that must be invested onshore, there would also be a bill of perhaps 12 billion euros to connect future wind parks.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that, despite the cost, there was no going back on the country's decision to stop using nuclear power, describing her "Energiewende", or energy revolution, as "demanding but exciting".
"The process is gathering speed, so that we can catch up on a backlog and transmit renewable energy in a sensible fashion," Merkel said at a news conference with the grid operators.
She added that that she wanted to establish the legal foundation for expanding the power grid by the end of the year.
Since Merkel's abrupt policy reversal last year to shut more than half a dozen nuclear plants and accelerate a full nuclear phase-out following Japan's Fukushima disaster, her government has struggled to come up with a clear plan to manage the shift.
Industry has warned of power shortages and companies are experiencing problems with plans for offshore wind power due partly to an inadequate grid.
Fuchs of TenneT said Germany needed to build 2,100 km of direct current lines and 1,700 km of alternating current lines, while 4,000 km of existing power lines needed modernizing.
"These will be the first direct current lines," he said at the joint news conference at the Bonn-based federal energy network regulator.
Such lines are for long distance point-to-point power transmission, where alternating current lines have traditionally been used.
TenneT is one of the four transmission grid firms due to present more detailed plans at a news conference in Berlin on Wednesday.
Separately, transmission grid firm Amprion said at a news conference that it could invest nearly 10 billion euros in expanding the power network by 2025, although this would require "sustainable and reliable investment conditions".
The task of agreeing on new infrastructure projects with affected citizens will not be easy for the power sector.
"We want to speed up the switch to renewable energy and include as much of the whole of society as possible in this process," said Jochen Homann, head of the network regulator.
Merkel said her cabinet supported the push for a network expansion. New Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Economy Minister Philipp Roesler would coordinate efforts, she said.
Inadequate transportation and distribution networks are among the main hurdles in boosting renewable sources.
Questions about the liability for delays or damage and over who should bear the burden of the up-front financing are deterring potential investors.
A meeting by Merkel and state premiers last week brought agreement to hold twice-yearly meetings to evaluate progress and speed things up where necessary.
The next meeting will be on June 14, Merkel said.
"The energy shift can and will work if we succeed in the next weeks and months to make intelligent decisions," said Altmaier.
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Reporting by Vera Eckert and Tom Kaeckenhoff; writing by Sarah Marsh and Vera Eckert; editing by Jason Neely and Anthony Barker