Germans and Central Europeans lock horns over energy

November 12, 2012 | 00:00

Energiewende collides with Czech and Polish nuclear power projects

Germans and Central Europeans lock horns over energy

With winter creeping nearer, the Czech Republic has warned Germany in explicit terms that it will not tolerate surges of excess German electricity swamping its transmission grid this winter. It has stated plainly that it will shut its grid to Germany if blackouts threaten. The Germans for their part aren't pleased in the least with the plans of the Czechs to build new units at their Temelin nuclear plant, just 60 kilometers from the German border in Bavaria. With Slovakia and Poland taking the Czech side and Austria backing Germany, the energy imbroglio in Mitteleuropa is complete. EER's Berlin-correspondent Paul Hockenos reports from Ostrava in the Czech Republic.

The Czech Temelin nuclear plant, 60 kilometers from the German border (c) David Veis/AP

The Central Europeans have never had it easy, squeezed between their giant and often domineering neighbors Germany and Russia. Today, in dealing with energy issues, the countries of Mitteleuropa once again find themselves in the hot seat. In fact, Poland and the Czech Republic are currently locked in an unsightly imbroglio with Germany on further nuclear development in Central Europe, reactor safety, export conditions, and grid use. With non-nuclear Austria and its pro-nuke neighbor Slovakia part of the tiff, too, the brouhaha reminds one more of the interwar period's kleinstaaterei rather than the normally cordial relations between standing members of the European Union.

Not open to debate

One key source of the tensions is fundamentally different takes on nuclear energy. The Germans are deeply opposed to nuclear power, a popular consensus that formed in the aftermath of Chernobyl and has not ebbed since. In 2000 the “red-green” government of Social Democrats and Greens put a long-term phasing out of atomic power into law. The current Merkel government first prolonged the lifespans of Germany’s reactors and then reversed itself in the aftermath of Fukushima, shutting 8 of 19 at once and pledging to close the rest by 2020. With the experience of Chernobyl embedded in the memories of a generation, the Germans worry that an accident anywhere between the Baltic and the Black Seas could have dire implications for their country – again.

Today virtually the entire German political spectrum is of one mind on nuclear power. “It’s not even open to debate. We have that debate behind us,” says the federal minister of the environment Peter Altmaier.

On the other hand, Poles, Czechs, Romanians, and Slovaks believe that nuclear power is safe, reliable, and their best bet for energy security. The Central Europeans' faith in nuclear energy is closely linked to national identity. After four decades of Soviet-imposed communism they want to shake – or at least reduce – their dependence on Russia. The Czech Republic's main supplier of natural gas and oil is Russia. Although it has diversified its gas suppliers adding Norwegian gas to its import mix, the Czechs remain reliant on Gazexport, a subsidiary of Gazprom. The ratio of Russian gas imports compared to imports from Norway is approximately three to one. Moreover, the Czech Republic’s own fossil fuels reserves are minimal – or simply not market competitive – and neither hydro nor wind power are serious alternatives. The situation in Poland, Slovakia, and Romania is not substantially different. (German clean energy proponents, on the other hand, say the Central Europeans could make significant headway toward energy autonomy using the palette of renewables currently available.)

Safe, zero-carbon energy source

The Czechs are not alone seeing their best option as nuclear – and they say they’re going to expand their generation capacity, regardless of what Germans and Austrians think. The two Czech nuclear

"We're having a problem getting the Energiewende across to other countries. There's a lot of misinformation out there that needs to be set straight"
power plants, Temelin and Dukovany, cover a third of electricity production in the country, while the Jaslovske Bohunice and Mochovce plants in Slovakia account for 55 percent of its electricity production. Romania has two nuclear reactors that account for about 20 percent of electricity production. Poland currently has no nuclear capacity but intends to embark on a nuclear program. Slovakia and Romania are on side with Prague, and, like the Czech Republic, intend to invest further in nuclear to diversify their supply as well as to export electricity.

“Our way has to include nuclear,” the Czech republic’s deputy environment minister, Tomas Jan Podivinsky, told a conference on energy policy sponsored by the German-Czech Discussion Forum in early November in the former coal mining town of Ostrava in eastern Moravia. “This is the only safe, zero-carbon energy source that can guarantee the Czech people and our industry the base load we need. There’s a broad consensus in Czech society that spans the public, the government, scientists, and industry. This is the way we’re going until we can be sure that renewables will get the job done. There should be an evolution toward renewables, not a revolution,” he said, referring to Germany’s Energiewende.

The current Czech administration is planning at least two new reactors at the Temelin site, which would constitute the biggest business deal in Czech history. The American firm Westinghouse, the French company Areva, and Russia’s Atmostroyexport have all submitted bids to build the reactors, a $10 billion tender. CEZ, the state power company that operates Temelin, will make a decision next year and the facilities, it says, should be up and running by 2025.

Podivinsky predicted that with the extra nuclear capability the Czech republic could produce 50 percent of its electricity from Czech reactors. The Czech Republic, he said, was well aware of its carbon emission responsibilities within the EU and thus was using nuclear combined with energy efficiency measures to meet those targets. Study after study, he and other Czech panelists at the Ostrava conference underscored, showed that nuclear energy was the only viable option for the Czechs.


These plans though have Germans and Austrians living near the Czech border taking to the barricades. On the Bavarian side, there has been a grassroots movement opposing the Temelin plant and calling for its closure for more than twenty years. “It’s extremely diverse including farmers, parents, and many ordinary people,” explains Andrea Fröba, the Central and Eastern Europe point person for Bavaria’s state government. “They’re worried about an accident and want at the very least to be informed about what’s happening.” At the request of the Bavarian and the German federal government there were public information forums on the Temelin issue in Passau in Bavaria and Budweis in the Czech Republic this summer.

At the highest levels of government, the Bavarians and the Austrians have indicated their deep unhappiness with the expansion of the Czech plants (as well as the more general inclinations of

At the highest levels of government, the Bavarians and the Austrians have indicated their deep unhappiness with the expansion of the Czech plants
Slovakia and Romania to do the same). Bavaria says that it is not yet satisfied with the results of studies examining the conditions for expansion; it contends that questions about nuclear waste, previous accidents at Temelin, and the suitability of the location remain unaddressed. “There are still a lot of questions open,” says Fröba. “This isn’t a done deal. We don’t even know yet exactly what kind of a reactor it’s going to be.”

In dealing with the Central Europeans, Germany treads lightly underscoring that energy is a national prerogative and that, in the end, the Czechs and their neighbours can decide for themselves whether they want nuclear power or something else. “We’re trying to convince them by our own success with renewables that this is the way to go,” says Fröba. Austria, on the other hand, is explicitly calling for the Czech Republic to drop its plans to build the new towers and to phase out nuclear power in favor of renewables.

Limited choices and pseudo-debate

At the conference, the stark differences of opinion between the Germans and the Czechs were unmistakable. There was a lot of head-shaking and eye-rolling on both sides despite the polite and constructive dialogue.

One of the few Czech participants skeptical about his country’s nuclear plans was the leader of the Czech Greens Ondrej Liska. “What looks like a broad consensus on the Czech Republic is a product of the limited choices and a pseudo-debate in the country. There’s a collusion between the nuclear industry, the government, and the media that has predetermined what the result will be. There are no alternatives posed as real alternatives to nuclear. The government won’t even look at or publicly comment on alternative proposals devised by relevant NGOs,” he said, referring to a report entitled Smart Energy, an alternative road map for Czech energy policy.

The conference’s German participants living in the Czech Republic noted that the Czech media was one-sided in favour of nuclear. When German commentators were quoted on the Energiewende, it was voices from a small group of staunch Energiewende skeptics, most of them little known in Germany.

“We’re having a problem getting the Energiewende across to other countries, not just the Czech Republic,” noted one German participant. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there that needs to be set straight.”

“There are also critical voices here in the Czech Republic,” said Eva van der Rakt

There was a lot of head-shaking and eye-rolling on both sides despite the polite and constructive dialogue
from the Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Prague, about the public debate in the Czech Republic. “However, Czechs aren’t worried about safety like the Germans are, but many of them are starting to ask whether the Czech Republic can really afford these new reactors and whether they really need them.”

Massive overloads

The nuclear question is only one source of tension underlying German-Central European relations on energy matters. Both the Czechs and the Poles are bitter about north-to-south German electricity flows that rely on their grids to transfer electricity from Germany’s northeast to southern Germany and Austria. More than one third of Germany's 22,500 wind turbines are located in the nation's east, while Germany’s big industrial hubs are in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, where most of the 2011-mothballed nuclear reactors were located. The German transmission hardware is simply inadequate to cope with the huge surpluses that the northern wind parks generate on very windy days. With limited technical means of storing surplus electricity, German grid operators send the excess to other regions, whether they request it or not.

The Central Europeans claim that their grids are stretched to their limit when Germany’s northern wind farms operate at full capacity for longer periods of time, as they did in February this year. Both Polish and Czech officials say that the situation was critical; the overflow even taxed the Hungarian and Slovak grids. The Czechs have told Chancellor Merkel that blackouts could happen if their systems experience such massive overloads again and that their priority is that this doesn’t happen. The Czechs, like the Poles, have already begun building transformers and phase-splitters along the borders to Germany that will better regulate the German flow. They won’t be completed, however, until 2017.

“We may very well have to shut down German access to our grids this winter,” Vaclav Bartuska, the Czech ambassador for energy security, told the conference. “We’ve spoken to the Germans many times about this and all they say is they’re going to build new transmission lines. This is good but it will take at least ten years. We can’t wait that long. We have no other choice.”

The Czechs are aware that this will compound Germany’s own problems with its ever-more renewably

"We may very well have to shut down German access to our grids this winter"

generated supply, but they say frankly that this is Germany’s problem. The Czechs view Germany’s Energiewende as rash and poorly planned. “If Germany is taking unilateral decisions, then we have the right to defend ourselves,” explains the Czech journalist Martin Ehl, international editor of the weekly Economia. “It’s not a diplomatic war [between the Czech Republic and Germany], but it's a war of words.”

Parallel agenda

Yet German experts grumble that the Central Europeans have a parallel agenda. German electricity is cheaper than that of the Central Europeans – in part because of the high share of renewables in the mix – and thus it undercuts its neighbours’ higher offers on the wider European energy market, not least to the Austrian market. By restricting Germany’s transmission possibilities, the Central Europeans will have more competitive access to a greater share of the market. With the desired new nuclear towers in place, this could be extremely lucrative.

German experts also point out that the problems with grid usage along the German-Central Europe border are nowhere near as great as along the German-French border. But the two countries have worked out a deal that is acceptable to both sides. This should be possible between Germans, Czechs, and Poles, too.

Until the new grid is in place, Germany’s Energiewende is likely to further exacerbate network fluctuations and intensify the need for tinkering with Europe's power system, argues Thomas Sattich, energy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), a Brussels and Berlin-based think tank. “Crossborder power transfers will have to increase in order to overcome national limitations on absorbing large volumes of intermittent renewables,” he argues. “As the Nordic power market demonstrates, only a truly integrated, supranational electricity market can provide the capacity needed for synergetic interaction of diverse national power systems.” As Europe’s share of renewables in the energy mix grows, Sattich argues, all of Europe will be compelled to distribute electricity more efficiently.

The tenor of the conflict reflects a situation crying out for EU level coordination and regulation, as well as for much more benevolent cooperation between Germany and its neighbours. Yet an electricity infrastructure on a European scale - a condition for a truly integrated Internal Electricity Market - seems a long way off in a continent with diverse power systems, priorities, and values. Ironically, in a union created initially as an energy cooperative, energy remains a national responsibility. And there are more than a few parties who want to keep it that way.


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