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29.01.2020 - Artikel

Germany is highly dependent on energy imports, primarily on fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, hard coal and uranium for its nuclear power plants  ...

Germany is highly dependent on energy imports, primarily on fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, hard coal and uranium for its nuclear power plants. Only lignite (brown coal is domestically available in large quantities. Concerning electricity, however, Germany has been a net exporter over the past decade.

Located in the geographical heart of Europe, Germany enjoys the advantage of an European power grid. Germany trades energy with the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Luxemburg, with a large surplus for Germany. In trading with France and Sweden, Germany is a net importer. The amount traded with Sweden is very small. France in 2019 has imported a substantial share of 14.8 TWh to Germany. Most of the power import is however not based on lack of power at home, but based on cheaper energy on offer. Energy providers will buy the cheapest power available to deliver to their consumers. As power comes with a certificate of origin, the provider always knows what type of power is on offer.

Apart from electricity trade, there is also physical power flows, i.e. the delivery/exchange of power through grids and interconnectors between Germany and its neighbours.

Looking at the export and import figures, Germany has been a net power exporter for years. In 2018, 9% of all power produced was exported. In 2019, about 4% (as of May 19). However, exporting electricity has a negative effect on the CO2 balance and is not always commercially viable. CO2 emissions from the production of exported power are credited on Germany, the importer receives energy without any CO2 balance.

Furthermore, Germany usually enjoys power surplus on sunny and windy days. During such favourable weather conditions, typically the neighbours also enjoy high yields from RES. This actually means giving away electricity for free. The number of annual hours with negative power prices occurring at the energy exchange has increased from 134 hours in 2018 to 211 hours in 2019 according to the energy exchange EEX and the Federal Network agency. This is - of course - not the way it is supposed to be. It can be considered as unintended and temporarily inevitable side effect of the energy transition until Germany reduces the large capacity of inflexible base load produced by nuclear and coal power stations. Those power stations cannot or only to a certain extend be ramped up and down and started / stopped within short notice. So they continue to produce power and are responsible for the overcapacity. A solution is more flexible thermal generation as e.g. gas power stations and sufficient storage facilities or alternative use for energy.  In 2019, the net amount of exported electricity sharply declined from 51.1 TWh in 2018 to 30.5 TW in 2019 according to the energy balances from AGEB.

Chart: Electricity exchange of Germany with its neighbours in 2019. Source: Fraunhofer-ISE 2020

Critics suggest that Germany might be conscientiously relying on imports of nuclear power from abroad to prevent blackouts at home as Germany will rid itself of significant base-load capacity (to back-up power sources for intermittent renewable sources), which then would be procured from neighbouring countries with substantial nuclear power capacities such as France and the Czech Republic.

An agreement on further European cooperation in the electricity sector, supported by Germany, stipulates that the signatory states „will not restrict the cross-border electricity exchange, even in times of electricity scarcity.“ The insinuation here is that Germany might not be able to ensure its own power supply when it shuts down nuclear, so Germany would be „outsourcing its future energy security.“

Critics assume that first, Germany can import nuclear power when demand is high; and second, that Germany may lack dispatchable generating capacity to cover its own peak power demand. Both assumptions are wrong.

France produces approx. 75% of electricity by nuclear, but in times of high demand, French nuclear may not serve Germany’s demand as well. It is a physical impossibility for Germany to import nuclear power from foreign reactors already running full blast anyway, yet the claim that Germany is relying on foreign nuclear power is continuously repeated. As every country with nuclear needs other plant types to cover peak power demand, France is sometimes an importer of power from Germany at peak consumption times, specifically in winter because large shares of heating demand are met by electricity.

The second assumption, that Germany does not have enough dispatchable capacity of its own, is also not correct. Germany’s statistics of installed capacity show the 2011 dip - the year of nuclear phase-out - but since 2011, Germany has continued to add capacity, mainly RES to make up for the nuclear phase-out and also for the planned future fossil phase-out. Because wind and PV are available during times of peak load only with a certain percentage of their capacity, the long-term German strategy relies on power-to-X technologies, mass storage of green hydrogen and green methane as well as flexible gas fired power stations.().

Finally, the grid interconnector capacities between Germany and France as well as between Czech Republic and Germany are too small to solve Germany’s capacity needs: theoretically, only 5.7 GW could be imported. This would not be sufficient to cover Germany's peak load of 80 GW. Germany will continue to produce power close to consumption.

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Disclaimer: this information has been compiled by the German Institute Taipei based on information provided by trustworthy governmental, scientific and other sources. While we have taken great care to cross-check information, we cannot guarantee accuracy. Note, that some data might be provisional and is subject to adjustments (01/2020).

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