Greenwashing after the Phase-Out: German 'Energy Revolution' Depends on Nuclear Imports

By Laura Gitschier and Alexander Neubacher

Germany's decision to phase out its nuclear power plants by 2022 has rapidly transformed it from power exporter to importer. Despite Berlin's pledge to move away from nuclear, the country is now merely buying atomic energy from neighbors like the Czech Republic and France.  

The Czech Republic's nuclear power plant in Temelin: Germany is now exporting atomic energy from its neighbors. Zoom
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The Czech Republic's nuclear power plant in Temelin: Germany is now exporting atomic energy from its neighbors.

The nuclear power plant in the Czech village of Temelin, barely 100 kilometers (62 miles) as the crow flies from the Bavarian city of Passau, has a reputation for being particularly prone to malfunctions. Over the years, there have been 130 reported incidents here. Sometimes it's a generator that fails; at others, a few thousand liters of radioactive liquid leak out of the plant.

"The entire facility needs to be shut down immediately," says Rebecca Harms, a member of the European Parliament representing Germany's Green Party.

Still, due to high demand for electricity in Germany, the accident-prone Czech reactor is doing good business. Indeed, when Germany took some of its nuclear power plants offline this spring, the Czech nuclear industry went into the export business. These days, it's sending roughly 1.2 gigawatt-hours of electricity across the border every day.

Though it might be exaggerating things a bit to say it, after having to worry about the danger of the nearby Czech reactor for years, Passau residents are now glad it's there to keep their lights from going out.

An Unpleasant Surprise on the Horizon

The German government's 180-degree turn in nuclear policy has helped breathe new life into Europe's energy industry -- though not always to Germany's benefit. The country has gone from being an energy exporter to an energy importer practically overnight, which brings along with it a number of negative consequences for its economy, consumers and security.

The country's economy is still growing, but only barely. In the second quarter of 2011, Germany's gross domestic product was just 0.1 percent higher than it was the previous quarter.

The Federal Statistical Office believes the nuclear phase-out has helped cause this anemic growth. "Electricity has increasingly had to be imported in order to satisfy demand," the organization explains.

This has noticeably weakened Germany's economic strength. In fact, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) even believes the country is headed toward an economic downturn. Last Thursday, OECD chief economist Pier Carlo Padoan said that one of its causes will have been the "uncertain consequences of the nuclear phase-out."

In recent months, the Leipzig-based European Energy Exchange has monitored an increase in electricity prices in Germany of around 10 percent. "Prices are already at an alarmingly high level," warns European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger of Germany.

Still, most consumers have yet to notice anything in the way of price increases. That unpleasant surprise won't come until the next fiscal year, when one leading executive in the energy industry predicts most households can expect to pay significantly more than they have been due to higher fees.

From Energy Exporter to Importer

Those benefiting the most from Germany's move to abandon nuclear energy are power plant operators in neighboring countries. At the Brussels-based European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E), computer monitors provide a clear visual representation of this phenomenon. Countries producing more electricity than they use are shown in yellow, while those that draw electricity from abroad are blue. Germany has been more blue than yellow in recent months, though this is also partially the result of an unseasonably cold summer that has provided little of the sunlight needed to generate solar power.

The computer system also indicates the sources from which electricity flows into Europe's pipelines. A thick arrow is constantly pointing from France to Germany. Since France hardly has any other energy sources, this electricity obviously comes from nuclear power plants.

Another thick arrow is coming from the Czech Republic, and it mostly represents electricity from the nuclear power plant in Temelin. Even Poland has an arrow pointing toward Germany now, though this one primarily represents electricity generated from brown coal in Europe's dirtiest CO2-belching facilities.

Replacing Nuclear with Nuclear

Since the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, the German government has no longer deemed its nuclear plants sufficiently safe. Instead, foreign facilities that have long been viewed as significantly more dangerous than Germany's are jumping into action to make up for shortfalls in supply.

Indeed, the phase-out has turned out to be more of a switch-over, with nuclear replacing nuclear. "The only difference is that other countries now bear the risk," says Konrad Kleinknecht, former climate representative at the German Physical Society (DPG), the world's largest organization of physicists. He calls this policy nothing but "German hypocrisy."

The double standard is especially striking in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg. Elections in March made Winfried Kretschmann the region's new leader and the first governor of a German state to ever hail from the Green Party. Kretschmann is pressuring EnBW, the German utility giant based in his state, to shut down the last of its nuclear reactors as well -- and preferably as soon as possible.

But the state also has a financial stake in the nuclear plant in Fessenheim, lying just on the other side of the Rhine in France, a facility Kretschmann himself has referred to as "junk." And the state is also responsible for paying for some of its operating costs.

Austria Sees Opportunity

In recent months, even Austria has gone from rarely to regularly providing electricity to Germany. Since Austria has opted not to build its own nuclear power plants, it has traditionally relied on electricity imports from countries, such as nuclear energy from the Czech Republic.

But the situation has since changed. Wolfgang Anzengruber, the CEO of Verbund AG, Austria's largest energy company, recently declared: "Germany is a good customer. In the future, we want to work even more closely with Germany and the rest of Europe."

Verbund's plan centers around two man-made lakes, the Mooserboden and the Wasserfallboden, located at over 1,500 meters (4,900 feet) above sea level, beneath the flank of an Alpine peak called Geierkogel.

The cold, clear water of the reservoirs sparkles in the sunlight, and cows graze nearby. Hikers pass through from the nearest village, Kaprun, and admire the views of Kitzsteinhorn, another mountain.

All the while, machines are working away inside the mountain. Pipes connect the two lakes and the difference in elevation, over 300 meters (985 feet), is enough to drive turbines that convert the water's energy into electricity.

Power Laundering

More importantly for the energy supply company, the water can also move in the opposite direction, from the lower Wasserfallboden up to the Mooserboden. The equipment needed for this process recently underwent another expansion, and gigantic pumps can force up to 144 cubic meters (5,085 cubic feet) of water uphill per second -- or the equivalent of what it would take to fill roughly 900 bathtubs.

At first glance, this doesn't seem like very good business since pumping water uphill consumes more energy than what is generated by sending it downhill. But the lakes provide a way to store energy. At times when electricity is available in abundance and therefore cheap -- at night, for example, or on windy days -- the facility pumps water uphill. When electricity is in short supply and prices rise, the downhill sluices are opened.

This so-called "pumped-storage" hydropower plant acts as a buffer against supply and demand peaks in the power grid -- and it has meant very good business for Verbund. The company first imports inexpensive nuclear power from the Czech Republic and uses it to pump the water uphill. Then it allows the water to flow downhill and feeds that energy into the international power grid at a much higher price.

Although, on balance, Austria still obtains more energy from Germany, it aims to tip the scales the other way by 2015.

Resistance to Change at Home

The current mood at Germany's utility companies is sober. While their competitors in other countries are making a profit, German energy giants like E.on and RWE have announced cost-cutting measures and job cuts. In fact, they planned to air their grievances at the Chancellery, the offices of Chancellor Merkel, this week.

German energy corporations won't be able to set up a laundering facility for nuclear power that is as effective as the Austrians'. But they would certainly like to get into the business of pumped-storage power plants. RWE and EnBW hope to open Germany's largest facility of this type near Atdorf in the Black Forest.

Planning for this project was finished long ago, but environmental-protection organizations are opposed to it. Local Green Party officials are also against it. Germany might very well be making a complete about-face in energy policy, but they still don't want a pumped-storage power plant ruining their lovely views.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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