The cold German winter is approaching. With fall in temperature, we can expect bigger waves of imported electricity from across the borders. In its wake, a moral question seeps in: what is a nuclear phase-out worth if the same country buys atomic energy from its neighbours?
Germany has long been exporting lots of electricity – not needing to import much due to the large amounts that its nuclear plants, as well as its gas and coal facilities, produced. That changed after the nuclear phase-out and the shift to renewables. In 2011, the country had to buy a third more electricity from France than a year before. It has ramped up on Czech supplies as well.
In the coming months, the output from wind and especially solar power is expected to be much lower than in summer. So during the last quarter of the year, we will need more electricity from across the borders again. With the kilowatt hours, we import a moral dilemma – because our neighbours use nuclear plants to generate large parts of their energy.
Nuclear imports from France and Czech Republic
In France, four out of five megawatt hours are made up of splitting up uranium. In the Czech Republic, about one third of the power is produced by nuclear plants – and these are much more dirty and dangerous than those that Germany so publicly abolished. We are exporting the nuclear risk that we deemed unacceptable in the aftermath of Fukushima. In the case of the Czech Republic to a much poorer nation, who could never afford the luxury of a nuclear phase-out.
We Germans may take issue with nuclear plants in our backyard – like French Fessenheim and Czech Temelin. But we happily take the power even from those facilities. The other old, dirty plants? Not quite on our nimby radar.
Should Germany only import Renewables?
Right now, electricity flows wherever it wants to, driven by supply and demand. Unfortunately, the markets are indifferent to our PC sensibilities. So should German utilities and traders only import power from renewables? Ethically speaking, probably. But is that a viable answer to the problem in a time of merging European markets?
Trumpeting an energy revolution might look avantgardish – but this is another example of the nuts and bolts Germany still has to get right. In the long run, setting up a market for coal and gas plants, which became unprofitable with the rise of green energy, will help reduce dependence on imports. Energy storages can, too. But even the storage technology that seems most viable – pumping water up when the energy is there and letting it down to produce electricity when needed – is far from being ready to be used on a larger scale. For now, Germany might just have to put up with buying energy from its neighbour’s dirty, dangerous nuclear facilities.