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Does renewables pioneer Germany risk running out of power?

Germany, a poster child for responsible energy, is renouncing nuclear and coal. The problem is, say many power producers and grid operators, it may struggle to keep the lights on. The country, the biggest electricity market in the European Union, is abandoning nuclear power by 2022 due to safety concerns compounded by the Fukushima disaster and phasing out coal plants over the next 19 years to combat climate change.

In the next three years alone conventional energy capacity is expected to fall by a fifth, leaving it short of the country’s peak power demand. There is disagreement over whether there will be sufficient reliable capacity to preclude the possibility of outages, which could hammer the operations of industrial companies.

Katharina Reiche, chief executive of the VKU association of local utilities, many of which face falling profitability as plants close, said the government’s strategy was risky because it had not stress-tested all scenarios. She characterized the plan as “walking a tightrope without a safety net”.

Utilities and grid firms say if the weather is unfavorable for lengthy periods, green power supply can be negligible, while storage is still largely non-existent. Capacity aside, the network to transport renewable power from north to south is also years and thousands of kilometers behind schedule, they add.

Stefan Kapferer, head of Germany’s energy industry group BDEW, said it would be risky to rely on imports. “Conventional power capacity is falling nearly everywhere in Europe and more volatile capacity is being built up,” he told Reuters.

Regardless of reliability, however, Germany becoming a net power importer would have major consequences for the whole continent, whose power markets are interlinked under EU single market rules - and are dominated by exports from Germany. The shift comes at a time when nuclear plants in France, another major exporter to the rest of Europe, are ageing fast - meaning it is also increasingly likely to rely on imports.

“The early exit from coal-to-power generation fills us with great concern,” Philipp Schlueter, chairman of Trimet, operator of three aluminum plants in NorthRhine-Westphalia state, told Reuters.“Our aluminum plants need non-stop supply of power at competitive prices and a stable power grid at all times.”

The problem takes on a European dimension as much of the bloc is following a trend of reducing reliance on thermal plants and switching to renewables. Over the next 10 years, coal-fired and nuclear power plants with a total capacity of around 100 GW will be shut down in Europe, equivalent to Germany’s thermal power capacity alone, according to grid operator data.

A big question remains: how will Europe struggle through until this happens, keeping the lights on and its businesses competitive? Countries in similar positions can’t all import from each other. (Reuters)

 

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