The unprovoked Russian war against Ukraine has resulted in an electric energy crisis in Europe, in particular in Germany. Because of the escalation between sanctions and gas deliveries, Russia on September 2 for an indefinite time shut down Nord Stream 1, the main pipeline for the natural gas deliveries to Germany. It triggered higher electricity prices not only in Germany but all the surrounding countries. The indefinite time was further extended on September 26 after both Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines ruptured after a series of explosions. Added to the serious concerns about exceedingly high electricity prices are now concerns in Germany for the coming winter about grid reliability, as well as for the ability to adequately heat buildings.

However, there is more to the story about the crisis than losing the Russian gas through the Nord Stream pipelines. Germany has been fortunate to be able to import substantial amounts of electricity when short on own generation, but this summer the availability of power to import has been reduced. France, normally the biggest exporter of power in Europe, has had more than half of their nuclear reactors offline due to routine maintenance or to evaluate the risks of corrosion problems. In addition, the record drought in Europe dropped the water levels in many large rivers, not least in France. It reduced the hydro generation as well as put restrictions on the output from some of the nuclear reactors in operation. (The latter is due to limitations of the amount of available/allowed cooling water.)

Nevertheless, probably the single biggest factor for the present situation in Germany, was the May 29, 2011, decision by the Merkel administration to accelerate to phase out of all nuclear power generation by 2022. Originally it was planned to be done by 2036. It was a political decision but with a broad public support. No political party opposed the decision. Reportedly 75% of the population supported it.

For the German environmental movement, the May 29, 2011, decision was seen as the final victory in the long and many times intense fight against nuclear power, which had started already in 1975. That year 30,000 people occupied the site in Wyhl for the planned first German nuclear power station. After 10 months the authorities gave up and the plant was never built.

The anti-nuclear movement grew into a broader environmental movement. In 1979 Sonstige Poltische Vereinigung Die Grünen was formed, followed in 1980 with the political party “Die Grünen”. The party quickly grew in importance. Between 1998 and 2005 Die Grünen was part of the Red-Green coalition government.

The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and the Chernobyl accident in 1986 triggered large anti-nuclear demonstrations, but it was the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, that tipped it over in Germany. The decision to face out all the 17 operating nuclear reactors by 2022 was made only two months later. The electric utilities responded fast. Within 2 months the first 8 reactors had shut down. In addition, Siemens announced same year they were shutting down their nuclear business.

By the end of 2021 Germany had only 3 nuclear reactors. All of them were supposed to be shut before end of this year. However, on September 5 the German government decided to postpone the retirement of the Neckarswestheim and Isar 2 and keep them as an “emergency reserve” during the winter and until April 2023. These units have the capacity of 1310 MW and 1410 MW, respectively.

In 2011 nuclear generation produced 18% of all electric power in Germany. Lignite (“brown”) coal, the only domestic fossil fuel of significance, produced about 25%, and renewables (wind, solar, biomass and hydro) stood for about 20%. 10 years later, 2021, nuclear had been reduced to 13.2% of the power generation. Brown coal had come down to 20.2%, while renewables had doubled to over 40%. The proportion of generation from natural gas was by and large constant at about 10%.

In several aspects the natural gas fired generation is more important than what the 10% share of generation indicates. It is a very flexible resource, which is especially important as a key component in balancing the variability of wind and solar. Together with the ability to export and import substantial amounts of power to/from neighboring countries, Germany has so far been successful in managing a high portion of wind and solar on its system without sacrificing the reliability. It can be seen when taking a closer look at the import and export during a week. Let us look at week 7 2021, a year ahead of the Russian attack on Ukraine. Noticeable Germany exports power most of the time, but the swings between import and export are frequent and significant.

Import (positive numbers) and export negative numbers. Generally, the export is high when demand is low and output from wind and solar is high. Source: Fraunhofer ISE Energy Charts.

During this week, the demand ranged from 44.5 GW to 77.5 GW. The output from solar ranged from 0 to 27.4 GW, and from wind (both onshore and offshore) ranged from 4.2 GW to 36.2 GW. The import from France at the highest was 4.8 GW. Also, the import from The Netherlands peaked at 4.8 GW. For the export Austria and Switzerland were the biggest receivers, with peaks of 3.5 GW and 3.7 GW, respectively.

Things have certainly changed during this summer. However, looking at week 34 we can only see slight change in the import/export patterns. Germany is still an exporter of power for most of the time, but when it comes to the import France has disappeared as a source. Instead, The Netherlands, Czech Republic, Denmark, and Switzerland have become major exporters to Germany.

Import and export.
Source: Fraunhofer ISE Energy Charts.

During this week demand ranged from 38.2 GW to 66.7 GW. The output from solar ranged from 0 to 36 GW, and from wind (both onshore and offshore) ranged from 0.6 GW to 15.9 GW. Most of the import came from Denmark, The Netherlands, Czech Republic, and Switzerland with peaks at 2.6 GW, 2.9 GW, 2.5 and 2.2 GW, respectively. A good portion of the Swiss power is probably pumped hydro. Denmark has strong electric ties with Sweden (hydro and nuclear) and Norway (hydro), which may explain the high Danish numbers. For the export France had become the biggest recipient with a peak at 4.3 GW.

So, what can we expect for the coming winter? Even if the two remaining nuclear units will continue to operate through the winter, nuclear generation is 2000 MW less than since week 7 this year. Natural gas generation will also be down, maybe as much as about 5000 MW. In 2021 55% of the natural gas to Germany came from Russia. Losing that will not be possible to fully replace from other sources in the near-term. The reduced amount of natural gas will also reduce how much natural gas can provide the flexibility to balance the variable wind and solar. The drop in generation from natural gas and nuclear will be offset by increased generation from coal. Germany has the installed capacity to do so. While the installed capacity of wind and solar more than doubled from 54 GW in 2011 to 122.5 GW in 2021, the reductions of coal fired generation were remarkable small, from 45.5 GW to 44 GW. On the contrary, the installed capacity of brown coal generation even increased with 500 MW.

Germany. Installed nameplate generation capacity 2002 – 2021.
Source: Clean Energy Wire. Creative Commons. By SA 4.0

During 2002 – 2021 the electric consumption peaked in in 2007 with an annual average of about 63 GW. It has then been dropping to an annual average of about 57 GW (2020). Peak power demand can reach 85 GW. The huge increase from 2011 is wind and solar. The net capacity for wind and solar is substantially lower due the capacity factors: 20% for onshore wind, 37% for offshore wind, and 12% for solar.

Crucial for the coming winter will be the ability to export and import, both as a mean to balance the variability of wind and solar, but also for bringing bulk power at times of high electric consumption. Thus, one may expect higher amplitudes in the export/import pattern. Question remains if the neighboring countries will have enough to export. Will France have all its nuclear power back on in time for the winter? Will there be enough flexible resources available.

The German Energiewende, the energy transition, is not unique in its goals, but it is unique in prioritizing phasing out nuclear above reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. To balance the variability of the large and growing amounts of wind and solar, and to eventually replace coal, natural gas fired generation was an increasingly vital component, probably for a longer time than just a “bridge fuel”. To secure natural gas Germany took several steps to build out the gas infrastructure to support gas from many sources. The biggest bet was on natural gas directly from Russia through Nord Stream 1 and 2. That bet was lost in February this year.

No doubt, this winter and the next couple of years will be challenging. Germany will more than ever need its neighbors to be the source for import of power and the sink for export of power. The schedule to reduce GHG and phase out the coal generation will be delayed. The reliability of the system will be tested, as will the acceptance of high electricity costs for the consumers. There will be times of pain, but eventually Germany should get through this crisis.

Read more:

Unintended Consequences.

Energiewende, the German Energy Transition.