Junking nuclear power is creating problems for Germany's neighbors
Germany’s shift to renewable energy has been hailed as an historic policy move — but its neighbors don’t like it.
The country’s move away from nuclear power and increase in production of wind or solar energy has pushed it to the point where its existing power grids can’t always cope. And it’s the Czech Republic, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium and France that have taken the brunt.
“If there is a strong blow of the wind in the North, we get it, we have the blackout,” Martin Povejšil, the Permanent Representative of the Czech Republic to the EU said at a briefing in Brussels recently.
Germany’s north-south power lines have too limited a capacity to carry all the power that is produced from wind turbines along the North Sea to industrial states like Bavaria or Baden-Württemberg and onto Austria. That means the extra electricity is shunted through the Czech Republic and Poland.
To put an end to the often unexpected power flows from Germany — so-called loop flows — the countries are taking the matter into their own hands. Concerned about the stability of their own grids, additional costs and the ability to export their own power, the Czechs, for example, are installing devices to block the power from 2016 onwards.
Poland is also working on the devices, known as phase shifters, and expects to have some operating this year. To the west, the Netherlands, Belgium and France have also installed phase shifters to deal with the flows.
These separate moves come as Brussels pushes for integration of Europe’s energy markets. The struggle shows how the drive toward more renewables, combined with outdated infrastructure and inconsistent cooperation within the EU, is having unintended consequences.
“In the past, with coal and nuclear power plants, the power system was extremely predictable. Now, with ever more renewable energy coming online, the system isn’t as predictable anymore, which can cause challenges also for the single market debate,” said Joanna Maćkowiak Pandera, a senior associate with German think tank Agora Energiewende.
“We have been telling that to the Germans, ‘Increase your transmission system, or we will shut you off’,” an EU diplomat said at a briefing in Brussels recently.
Power loop flows occur when a country’s power grid infrastructure isn’t sufficient to handle new production, so the electricity is automatically diverted through neighboring countries on its way to its destination in the producing country.
“This also leads to congestion in neighboring systems,” said Georg Zachmann of the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank, adding that to deal with the situation countries can also reduce their own electricity exports to South Germany to make space for the German power. That, however, means that Germany’s energy transition is affecting the export potential of countries like the Czech Republic and France.
Pressure is building on Germany to expand its north-south connection. But the idea has aroused local opposition in Bavaria, with residents unwilling to see their picturesque countryside spoiled by unsightly transmission towers.
“If we want to have a growing share of renewables, we must build the grids,” Walter Boltz, vice chair of the regulators board of the EU’s Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER), told POLITICO.
The simplest solution, he said, would be for Germany to build up the necessary links. But that will take time. Alternatively, Germany could simply shut down wind power on highly productive days. But the country’s current policy stands in the way.
“It’s an uncomfortable problem and has to do with Germany’s irrational priority dispatch policy under which you cannot shut down renewables,” Boltz said.
Germany’s neighbors aren’t immune from criticism on the issue.
Poland, for instance, could also consume the power it imports from Germany, something it resists to shield its own industry, Boltz said. Further, Poland’s grids needed expansion, he said.
Germany, for its part, has stepped up cooperation with its neighbors to remedy the issue.
Energy Secretary Rainer Baake recently addressed criticism that Germany’s energy transition was an unilateral policy move, German media reported, saying, “People in this country and also outside of Germany who believe this must be some kind of act of re-nationalization of energy policy […] could not be more wrong.”
In 2014, German transmission operators agreed with the Czechs to regulate cross-border power flows to protect the Czech grid from overloading and reduce the danger of blackouts. A similar agreement was struck between the Polish and German sides.
On a political level in June, Germany signed a pact with 11 “electrical” neighbors, including France, Poland and the Czech Republic, to promote the integration of the respective power markets, counter overcapacity and let the market determine power prices.
Still, Poland’s regulator last year sent a letter to the ACER, asking it to come forward with an opinion on the loop flows from Germany. The response is expected in September.
In 2013, the agency issued an opinion on unscheduled loop flows, concluding that “in most cases these flows are a threat to a secure and efficient functioning of the Internal Electricity Market.”
Energy mix is a national policy
The situation is delicate for the Czech Republic and Poland, which have long insisted that choosing whether power should be generated by solar, wind, coal, nuclear or other ways remains a national issue, not one for Brussels.
So Germany is free to make decisions about how to generate electricity, in this case to shut down its nuclear plants.
Brussels has stepped up efforts to connect the bloc’s energy markets, with the European Commission in a policy paper in February stressing “the interconnection of the electricity markets must be a political priority.”
The Commission released an initial plan in mid-July about how to build a borderless power market that can deal with the rise in renewables. Draft legislation is expected in 2016.
“We haven’t developed the grids,” the EU bloc’s energy chief Miguel Arias Cañete told POLITICO last month, adding that while there has been a lot of investment in renewables, grids aren’t up to standard. That’s also why Brussels is keen on increasing cross-border power interconnections.
It’s making political and financial efforts to finally link up at least 10 percent of the EU’s installed electricity production capacity by 2020.
But it’s a long slog to connect the bloc: EU countries had originally pledged that target in 2002