Energy supply in Germany: “We are now in a real crisis on the electricity market”

energy supply in Germany
“We are now in a real crisis on the electricity market”

Against the backdrop of soaring electricity and gas prices, more and more voices are in favor of extending the operating hours of nuclear power plants. In an interview, environmental economist Andreas Loechel calls for gas savings. Because the other three nuclear power plants would not provide heat in winter.

Mr. Loechel, how important is nuclear energy for the energy supply in Germany?

Andreas Loeschel: The three remaining nuclear power plants have a capacity of four gigawatts. This corresponds to around six percent of total electricity production in Germany. Today, nuclear energy accounts for only a small part of the energy supply. It used to be a very important element, 15 years ago they provided five times more electricity. Today it is no longer of primary importance.

Can nuclear power plants help to prevent bottlenecks?

Andreas Loechel is professor of environmental and natural resource economics and sustainable development at the Ruhr University in Bochum. The environmental economist advises the federal government on issues related to the energy transition, sustainable development and economic transformation.

(Photo: photo of the alliance / dpa / RUB)

In addition to short maintenance, nuclear power plants run virtually non-stop and provide energy continuously. By generating electricity, nuclear power plants help ease the difficult situation in the electricity markets. Electricity prices will explode, this week a kilowatt hour is almost all the time over 30 cents, that’s crazy. In addition, there are temporary shortages that have pushed prices to almost 70 cents. Flexible gas and coal power plants are then sought after. You can mitigate such price spikes. They turn on when it gets tight and turn off again when things calm down. Nuclear power plants can hardly fulfill this function.

Why?

Because it would be too expensive. Switching nuclear power plants on and off is very costly, the process takes hours, and each cycle change is burdening the material. They are much less flexible than, for example, gas power plants. They are already often used, especially in the evenings, when little solar or wind energy is fed into the grid.

Won’t these three stoves keep us from freezing in winter, even if we kept running for longer?

We are in a real crisis on the electricity market. Electricity is scarce in Europe. This is mainly because more than half of France’s 56 nuclear power plants are idle due to damage or maintenance work, or because cooling water in rivers has become too warm due to intense heat. So Germany exports huge amounts of electricity to France. At the moment, everything that produces electricity is good, including the three German nuclear power plants. The federal government wants to find out if the situation will improve in the winter thanks to another stress test. But nuclear energy won’t keep us from freezing. Many gas-fired power plants also generate heat in addition to electricity, while nuclear power plants do not. At most, we could use them to save gas that would otherwise be used to produce electricity. But that probably wouldn’t be much. Coal power plants would help here more, also in terms of size.

How long do old fuel rods in nuclear power plants last?

The fuel should be designed to run until the end of the term in December. If the working times were extended by a few months, it would only be possible in the so-called stretching operation. The power plants then do not run at full capacity, but are throttled. It doesn’t help much to get through the winter. Electricity is no longer produced, just for a long time. And thanks to this, you should practically not save gas. If the operating hours of a nuclear power plant were generally extended, operators would not only have to stock up on new fuel elements, but also carry out safety checks and clarify liability issues. But then the power plants would probably stop for now. And then we’re next winter – if it goes so fast at all.

Does this also mean that electricity will not become cheaper for now?

Nuclear energy would help to combat extremely high prices. But further action would not fundamentally change the situation, nuclear power would not change the game. They work all the time and we still have very high prices. Electricity prices will be more influenced by high gas prices. I see more leverage here in the rapid development of renewable energy and the use of coal-fired power plants that would either have to leave the market or be held in reserve. You should not expect a large drop in price by extending the deadline.

Does extending the terms make economic sense?

For France, we know that extending this period by ten years would cost around EUR 100 billion. Longer operation can also be associated with significant costs here in Germany. You have to take that into account. The operators know this and do not want to extend it. They put forward various arguments: problems with the supply of fuel elements, personnel planning, and above all, safety issues.

The nuclear power plant must be inspected every ten years. However, operators did not perform this security check in 2019 as the stacks are expected to disappear from the network by the end of 2022 anyway.

Yes, that’s one of the unanswered questions: Would there be an operating permit at all? A complete security audit is extensive and takes time. So you would probably find yourself in a gray area. And who secures it? The state would probably have to make a very strong commitment. The runtime extension would not be available for free. Nobody has submitted an invoice yet.

How much is nuclear energy costing us?

A clear distinction needs to be made: total costs, including construction, operation and disposal, are very high, making nuclear energy generally very expensive. We see this in construction projects in Finland, France and the UK. That is why nobody in Germany wants to build a nuclear power plant for a long time, because it will never pay off. On the other hand, clean operation is cheap: if you allocate variable costs for example fuel rods, a nuclear power plant achieves less than 2 cents per kilowatt hour. Therefore, power plants are practically always in operation. If you let them run longer, the calculation will no longer be correct. Then you should also take into account the cost of living, which increases rapidly with age. And the issue of final storage costs is unfortunately completely sidelined. We do not have a repository yet, storage is expected to start in 2050. Extending the lifetime of the three remaining power plants is unlikely to significantly change the amount of highly radioactive nuclear waste. But this aspect cannot be completely ignored.

Can the lost nuclear energy be replaced from 2023?

Yes, it could be replaced by more coal power plants. We have several power plants in reserve that will return to the market. Power plant shutdowns as well as possible reactivations should also be considered. All in all, this should ensure three times more production than other nuclear power plants. The federal government should now resolve this issue quickly. A lot has just started in the development of renewable energies, a long-term key success factor. Only then will we find out whether the ambitious goals will actually be achieved.

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What do you say as scientists – is nuclear energy a necessary evil to bridge, or should we stay away from it?

In my opinion, far too much attention is currently being paid to the nuclear energy debate. Now we need a huge reduction in gas demand. This is crucial. If it were clear that the costs of extending the service life – and I mean also the political costs – are small compared to the benefits, then such a discussion could be held. But now I don’t see it at all. We should focus our energy on saving gas.

Laura Esslinger spoke to Andreas Loechel

The interview first appeared on Capital.de.

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