Nuclear energy has been under a cloud ever since Japan’s Fukushima disaster, but that cloud has a silver lining, at least for some of Germany’s neighbors.
Countries that tenuously embraced the use of nuclear energy previously are now openly shunning the power of the atom. Nations like Switzerland and Italy took Japan’s crisis as a sign to put old arguments to rest, taking firm anti-nuclear stands. The European Union’s (EU) economic stalwart, Germany, too has joined the bandwagon, adopting an anti-nuclear posture.
Almost immediately after the March disaster in Japan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel imposed a temporary shutdown of seven of the country’s oldest nuclear plants. In May, Germany’s anti-nuclear stand strengthened when Merkel announced that the country would shutter nearly all of its nuclear plants permanently over the next 11 years.
With nearly a quarter of the country’s electricity coming from nuclear energy sources, analysts and energy experts are now questioning how the country can cope with the loss in the short term. Merkel’s long-term aim is to double the share of electricity generated from renewables. However, significantly, even after years of effort and expenditure, less than 18% of Germany’s electricity is produced from renewables. Natural gas and other energy sources account for around 18% of the energy mix, while climate-polluting coal leads with a 42.2% share.
The long-term replacement solution aside, there has been no official word on what will fill the short-term gap, which will only widen as the remaining nuclear plants go offline. Power production from renewables is unpredictable in nature and cannot be scaled up easily. This means Germany will most likely be unable to beef up its renewable energy share adequately, and in time, to meet power supply demands. Doing so will require a total shift in its energy mix, and that kind of change will not come overnight.
After the nuclear plant shutdowns in March, Germany lost about 8.4 gigawatts of power, Platts said on its website. With over half of its nuclear power capacity down, Germany is expected to experience a power shortage and even blackouts this winter, with the southern part of the country likely to be most affected. Although Germany plans to keep one of the older nuclear plants open in anticipation of these blackouts, this might not be enough. A trader at German utility, Stadtwerke Hannover, told Bloomberg that until additional power supplies go online, Germany will need to import more electricity from France, the Czech Republic and Scandinavia. And Germany’s neighbors are waiting on the sidelines to benefit.
For instance, Germany has imported around 2 gigawatts of electricity from France since its nuclear plant shutdown, Reuters said quoting energy traders. In contrast, the French had actually imported power from Germany last year. CEZ, the state-controlled utility of Germany’s eastern neighbor, the Czech Republic, can also expect a windfall. It stands to gain from not just power exports to Germany, but also higher electricity prices. Spot prices of electricity on the Power Exchange Central Europe (PXE) jumped 23% after Germany’s seven nuclear plants closed in May, Czechposition.com said.
What’s more, since the March shutdown, Germany’s power imports from Poland have increased by 500 megawatts a day, Reuters said quoting a grid operators co-operation site. Poland is hopeful that Germany will import more power, which will in turn boost its power sector as well as its coal industry. Coal accounts for over 90% of the electricity Poland produces. In fact, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has said that Germany’s decision will put coal-based power back on the agenda. Similarly, other countries such as Italy could also benefit from Germany’s anti-nuclear stand.
On the flip side though, nuclear power companies in Germany are unlikely to accept their government’s anti-nuclear stand quietly. RWE AG, one of Germany’s largest utilities, announced in April that it would file a lawsuit against the government for damages due to the idling of nuclear plants.
With Germany standing firm on its decision, despite criticism, more legal actions such as these may follow and challenge the nuclear ban in courts. These uncertainties notwithstanding, Germany will surely need some time to fill its power shortfall. And until that happens, countries such as Poland and France will owe Germany a debt of gratitude for giving their power sectors a boost amid the current slowdown. This time though, debt will not be a bad word in Europe.
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