Germany: the closure of nuclear plants highlights urgent need for grid improvements
Apr 12, 2011 (Datamonitor via COMTEX) -- The German government has closed seven of its oldest nuclear power plants for a safety review, and subsequent energy imports have fueled discussions as to whether Germany can meet its future energy needs without nuclear power. However, the true issue is the lack of investment into Germany's aging power network, which urgently needs expansion by 2020, in order to avoid network congestion.
In September 2010, the German government extended the lifetime of its 17 nuclear power plants by an average of 12 years. The reasoning was that the low-carbon energy would bridge the supply gap arising from fossil-fueled power stations being shut, until such time that sufficient renewable power capacity was installed. To this end, the German government set a target of a 35% share of power consumption from renewable sources by 2020. The increased power generation from renewables is a vital element in the nation's ambitious climate change strategy.
However, the recent damage caused to the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, led the German government to provisionally close down the seven oldest nuclear plants for three months, during which time, the safety of all nuclear power plants would be reviewed. RWE, among others, claims that the country - particularly the south - would suffer blackouts very soon, should the decision not be reversed; however, this is an unhelpful exaggeration.
Datamonitor argues that the real problem that Germany's energy industry faces is its power network infrastructure, including its interconnectors. Since the shut down of the seven nuclear plants, Germany has imported electricity from France, the Czech Republic, and Austria. This was less a question of a supply gap than an economically motivated decision by energy operators, as Germany has sufficient back-up capacity for energy generation, but it is currently more economical to import energy from abroad.
The interconnectors from Germany to France and the Czech Republic have reached capacity over the last weeks, while during summer 2010, network operators had difficulties absorbing solar power during sunny hours. What this highlights is the difficulties that the country faces when transporting electricity from its point of generation to the point of consumption, especially in the case of renewable power.
The German Environmental Agency estimates that 3,600km of grid infrastructure is needed by 2020 to accommodate the renewable energy coming online by then. However, transmission system operators have only agreed to invest approximately one third of that so far. Even more problematic is that it takes an average of 12 years to build a power line in Europe, and Germany is no exception. Unless new transmission and distribution networks are built, Germany could experience critical network congestion by 2015. Energy security comes in many guises. The energy industry and government bodies need to look beyond the question of nuclear power to include power network upgrades.
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