How electricity is produced has been a highly political question since the war in Ukraine at the latest. On the other hand, most consumers are not aware that transporting the precious energy to the e-car charging station or the domestic socket requires far more than a few cables. Complex switchgear is required for the efficient distribution of electricity. Demand for this is growing steadily, as shown by the expansion of the Siemens switchgear plant in Fechenheim, which began on Monday.

According to site manager Martin Betzmann, around 120,000 switchgear circuits are built here every year, and more than 140,000 are to be built. By the end of the year, the existing production hall is to be expanded by a 1200 square meter extension. A fully automated warehouse is also planned, in which the material for the different systems will be assembled and sent directly to the respective production plant. This building, dubbed the "Power Tower", is scheduled for completion in spring 2024.

Despite automation, 2025 new jobs are to be created in Fechenheim by 200, mainly for electricians and fitters. The number of new hires will even amount to 400, said site manager Betzmann. In the next few years, part of the existing workforce will retire. Currently, 1600 people work for Siemens in Fechenheim, plus about 400 employees from external service providers.

Switchgear is needed more than before

Together, they produce a product that, in the words of their site manager, "doesn't seem sexy" – and yet is becoming increasingly important. This is not only due to the increasing demand for electricity for electric cars, heat pumps and large data centers. But also because a growing number of energy consumers occasionally feed electricity into the grid themselves – for example, when the solar cells on the roof yield more in summer than the residents themselves need. The supply of electricity can no longer be done via one-way streets, and more switchgear is needed to enable oncoming traffic than before.

Siemens also contributes to environmental protection by producing systems that do not require the insulating gas sulfur hexafluoride. Since 2018, the plant has been offering alternative systems that work with natural components of the ambient air. "Clean Air" is the name of this insulating medium, which, however, has so far only been used in about five percent of the switchgear manufactured in Fechenheim.

Betzmann is convinced that their share will increase, if only because many of the classic systems produced in Frankfurt since 1971 have now been in operation for decades and have to be replaced. In order to be able to offer customers replacements of the same size, the Fechenheim-based company tinkered until they were able to force the components for the new clean-air systems into the same format as the classic devices. From the outside, the systems, which are housed in inconspicuous grey cabinets in their final state, are hardly distinguishable – but the clean-air variant weighs 320 kilograms, around 70 kilograms more than the traditional one.

Behind the uniform façade are therefore very different components. Because both types of plant will probably be in demand for years to come, the Fechenheim-based company will have to operate on several tracks in production. This is another reason for the expansion.

"Urgently improving connections to public transport"

The expansion was "good for the district of Fechenheim and the development of the east of Frankfurt," said economic department head Stephanie Wüst (FDP). She recalled that the city and Siemens have a long history: The telegraph connection between Frankfurt and Berlin, built in 1848, was one of the first major projects of the then still young company. In 1884, a railway line built by Siemens from the Old Bridge to Offenbach was inaugurated – at the time it was the longest electrically operated railway in the world. In 1892, the first Siemens branch was established in Frankfurt. It is a prejudice to claim that the city is not an industrial location, said Wüst.

However, Stephan May, the manager responsible for electrification and automation at Siemens, poured water into the wine. In the decision to expand switchgear production in Fechenheim, the "local investment incentives had yielded the lowest score," he said. The city urgently needs to improve the connection to public transport. The nearest tram stop is about one and a half kilometers away, if you come by bus, you walk at least a quarter of an hour to the Siemens plant in Carl-Benz-Straße.

Again and again backlog by trucks

The truck drivers, of whom more than 100 head for the plant every day, also have a problem. Because they cannot plan their arrival on the factory premises exactly, there is always a backlog on Carl-Benz-Straße. Siemens manager May spoke out in favour of creating "buffer spaces" in the area – a suggestion that Wüst wants to discuss with the company. With the renovation of the pothole-strewn Carl-Benz-Straße, which partly belongs to the state, wants to start the state authority Hessen Mobil 2024, said Wüst. The city-owned section will not be completed until 2025 because there are even more urgent projects. "There is a lack of capacity for planning," explained Wüst.

The fact that Fechenheim was nevertheless able to prevail in the global competition for the new Siemens production capacities was justified by May with the performance of his colleagues on site. Since site manager Betzmann started here 30 years ago as a working student, production has increased fivefold.