Germany's solar schadenfreude | RenewEconomy

Germany’s solar schadenfreude

When last week’s freak cold snap left France’s nuclear plants unable to meet demand, guess who came to the rescue?


Berlin energy officials, along with proponents of the Merkel government’s ambitious renewables plan, could have been forgiven for enjoying a moment of well-earned schadenfreude last week, after Germany came to the rescue of its nuclear neighbour, exporting huge amounts of electricity to France, whose power plants were struggling to meet demand during a freak cold snap.

As reported by Reuters, the move has silenced critics, who last year decried the Merkel government’s decision to shut down eight of Germany’s nuclear reactors in response to the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

As Zachary Shahan put it on CleanTechnica, everyone “got freaked out about how German electricity prices would rise and the country would just start importing electricity from France’s nuclear power plants.” But, he adds, it now “seems pretty clear that solar photovoltaics are bringing down the cost of electricity in Germany. Additionally, German electricity exports to France have been increasing!”

“The cold snap was a situation most experts feared and we managed without bigger problems,” said Stephan Schnorr, German power trader at utility Dong Energy, quoted in Reuters. In other words, far from putting Europe’s electricity supply balance at risk, as was predicted by many doomsayers, along with widespread blackouts, a nuclear-lite Germany negotiated the cold snap without incident, and even managed to extend a helping hand to those countries not so fortunate.

Meanwhile, France — usually Europe’s biggest electricity exporter — experienced a case of supply tightness last week that pushed its power prices to two-year highs and prompted the grid to issue directives to the public urging them to refrain from using their washing machines and coffee makers.

France, whose electricity demand has been reaching new record highs nearly every winter, relies heavily on electric heating developed by successive governments to meet supplies generated by the country’s 58 nuclear power reactors. According to Reuters, 30 percent of homes use electric heaters and as many as 65 percent of new homes are heated using electricity.

The report says that French electricity demand rises by 2,300MW, or the equivalent of two nuclear power reactors, per one degree Celsius drop in temperatures during winter, double the demand surge seen 20 years ago.

This meant that when demand reached a new all-time high last Wednesday, France was forced to import from Germany at full capacity in nearly all hourly blocks, according to grid operator data.

At the same time, Germany, which houses 37 per cent of the world’s solar plants, relied on its growing renewable energy output and resurrected idled coal-fired plants to cover a rise in electricity demand, says Reuters.

And while a spokesman for Germany’s largest high-voltage network, Amprion, described the situation on the network as very tense, and requiring more network intervention than normal, the situation remained under control, he said.

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  1. Matt Robinson 9 years ago

    Are you sure the detail of your article supports the implication that renewable energy is better than nuclear?

    You’ve described a perfectly normal situation in Europe where grids are interconnected to allow energy movement.

    My view on this event is that if Germany had kept their nuclear reactors running, they likely wouldn’t have had to resort to fossil fuels at all.

    You stated the equation of 2 nuclear plants per degree – what would that be in land area under solar panels?
    If Germany are stating that solar has reduced the price of electricity (and they would) I expect this to be a blip.

    As the intermittent nature of solar continues to impact German life, in the longer term they will need to build fossil fuel plants, and report suggest their power prices will surge.

    Of course they have the option of restarting their nuclear plants…

    • Matthew Wright 9 years ago

      Land area under PV = 0 sq km on an opportunity cost basis because Germany can put 200GW nested in the grid on rooftops
      (200GW penetration would of course be dynamically controlled shaped with some pro-active curtailment)

      Would also allow 30-35% of the country to be run on PV

  2. Simon 9 years ago

    France: the country with the foresight to entrust its national security to the Maginot Line.

    It is entertaining to watch the Germans outflank them once again.

  3. michael James 9 years ago

    I tend to agree with Matt Robinson. This situation probably reflects that Germany’s investment in solar has resulted in substantial excess potential generation capacity which mostly resides in under-utilized fossil fuel plants. Though one should also note that despite closing a very large fraction of its nuclear plants Japan has not suffered massive shutdowns or brownouts that were predicted (of course significant swathes of industry may still be on slow operation since the tsunami).

    But another side to this story is that France suffered an unintended consequence of over-reliance on (cheap) nuclear power. Since it began its strategic shift to nuclear (way back in 70s and 80s) it encouraged use of electricity for heating (& cooling which is on the uptake, ie. domestic aircon which was hardly known in the 80s) and relaxed on building regulations relative to the rest of Europe–ie. higher standards of insulation. After three decades it is having an impact in that housing is less resistant to both cold and hot snaps. And as we know the Areva next-gen 1.6 GW nuclear plant being built in Flammanville is behind schedule.

    Equally in summer the now hotter and drier summers are colluding in increasing the electricity demand (for cooling) yet reducing nuclear power’s ability to deliver due to limits on cooling water in inland power stations (and there may be a triple whammy in that there may be less hydro power; France has more % grid power from hydro than any other advanced country). A quadruple whammy is that nuclear is mostly ideal to deliver baseload–though France is the only nuclear operator who runs their N plants at less than the optimal >90% (often as low as 70%) and sometimes even practices load-following (presumably in big freezes like now). These awkward properties are the result of their grid being so dependent on nuclear. Worse, it means that they must import power when it is most expensive–at peak times–while mostly only being able to export power at off-peak times; not a financially good outcome.

    • michael James 9 years ago

      In fact the delay in the new N station is probably most responsible for power shortfalls in France: (Wikipedia):

      “EDF has previously said France’s first EPR would cost €3.3 billion[1] and start commercial operations in 2012, after construction lasting 54 months.[2] The estimated cost has now increased to €6 billion ($8.5 billion) and the completion of construction is delayed to 2016 [3]”

    • quokka 9 years ago

      France’s “over reliance” on nuclear power, as you put it is what has caused it to have substantially lower per capita CO2 emissions than similar economies such as Germany or the UK. The is surely the bottom line when it comes to climate. Other issues remain secondary.

      As for encouraging use of electricity for heating from low carbon generators – what is the problem with that? It is the only realistic path to sustainable heating. It should be promoted.

      Germany and France have almost the same per capita energy consumption, but France has a higher per capita electricity consumption than does Germany. That electricity is low carbon and the figures obviously point to it displacing some fossil fuel use. What is the problem with that?

  4. michael James 9 years ago

    Another point is that, while Germany has permanently closed those eight (oldest) N reactors, it still has 9 in operation, and which will stay in operation until 2021/22. No doubt they are ramped up to the max capacity and thus some of that power exported to France could be considered nuclear.

    • Matthew Wright 9 years ago

      Actually the official program is to progressively close them from 2015 with the last two being closed 2021/22

  5. Mark Duffett 9 years ago

    Another much under-reported point is that the French demand peak occurred at 7 pm, so the contribution of German solar to this was zero. Over 90% of the electricity exported to France was fossil or hydro-generated. Moreover, this is a ‘man bites dog’ story, notable only for its exceptional nature. The flow of power between France and Germany is overwhelmingly in the other direction. How this situation can be construed as a tick for renewables over nuclear is beyond me.

  6. Mark Duffett 9 years ago

    Sorry, Michael James is quite correct – my sentence should have read ‘Over 90% of the electricity exported (by Germany) to France was fossil, NUCLEAR or hydro-generated.’

    • michael r james 9 years ago

      Right, but this still should not be construed as a case for long term nuclear. Foremost is it is a case for the most overlooked form of energy: conserved energy. France needs to do a major job on insulating its housing stock, for both winter and summer. The US could probably save 20-30% of its energy use without sacrificing anything, even more if its absurd use of SUV for transport is included.

      My point about France which, Mark, I believe you overlook, is that the prospect of “electricity too cheap to meter” from nuclear led them into a cul de sac of poor planing decisions (almost American in its encouragement of electricity use and waste!) And of course that “cheapness” turned out to be a chimera–those two new nuclear stations approved last week for construction in Georgia, US, are now estimated to cost $14 billion (US federal loan guarantee of $8.5 billion). Being France and cloaked behind two huge quasi-governmental companies (Areva and EDF) we will probably never know what the Flamanville reactor will eventually cost; scheduled to be operating today but now likely to be 2016.

      • Matt Robinson 9 years ago

        I think we can leave France to sort out it’s own energy plans. Estimates of cost are just that – estimates, and often the true cost of major industrial-scale projects (renewables included) simply never comes to light.

        There is obviously a perceived economic benefit that outweights the cost, otherwise these projecs wouldn’t start. This includes solar and other renewables of course.

        So I think cost discussions are probably not pertinent to this topic.

        Energy conservation is a noble idea, but conscious adherance to conservation is very difficult to maintain over the long term without incorporating it into the fabric of the things we use.

        It is largely impractical to retrofit this into existing buildings, but we can certainly take the view that new building codes should include known measures to mitigate energy loss.

      • Mark Duffett 9 years ago

        I haven’t exactly overlooked it. I actually made a similar point, amongst others, in a comment (still yet to emerge from moderation, inscrutably) on an earlier piece ( “…the last para can be summarised as ‘French nuclear electricity has been too cheap’” – at least in the way it’s been retailed.

        • Giles Parkinson 9 years ago

          Mark, the wordpress system must be a better judge than me. Not sure where that one went. But let’s not trot out the old “cheap electricity in France” canard, as you know the french government wrote off capital costs etc etc. Write off the capital costs of solar with storage and it will appear cheap too. Lets frame the debate should be around new build – whether you aspire to nuclear build or solar or wind or ccs or whatever.

          • Mark Duffett 9 years ago

            I’ve got no problem with that, Giles; indeed that’s why I qualified my last sentence as I did. What I do maintain is that France serves as an existence proof that decarbonisation of electricity supply to the degree required, in the time required (a couple of decades), while supporting a modern economy, is possible with nuclear. Despite the major efforts of Germany, Denmark etc, we are still a long, long way from being able to say the same about any other low-carbon technology, and many reasons to believe we will not be able to in any relevant timeframe.

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