Germany may have to slash electricity exports to France and other countries this winter to prevent a breakdown of its power grid, a senior executive of the country’s largest grid operator has warned.
Hendrik Neumann, chief technical officer of Amprion, the biggest of Germany’s four power grid operators said a temporary halt could even become necessary to avoid electricity shortages and bottlenecks in a “last resort”. However, he said such a scenario was likely to be for a matter of hours rather than days.
The warning comes at a time of heightened tensions over Berlin’s response to the energy crisis, with some EU states saying the €200bn “protective shield” for German businesses and consumers announced last week risked undermining European unity.
Amid accusations that Germany was using its economic firepower to protect its households in a way others could not afford, Italy’s outgoing prime minister Mario Draghi said that “faced with the common threats of our times, we cannot divide ourselves according to the space in our national budgets”.
Any outage or reduction of German electricity exports may worsen supply shortages in France, where almost half of the country’s 56 nuclear power plants are currently off the grid.
The French government is pressing state utility group EDF to honour a scheduled restart this winter of all 32 nuclear reactors that had gone offline at some point this summer for maintenance and because of corrosion problems.
France imported 6,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity from Germany in January to March — equal to 5 per cent of the country’s total power production in the quarter, according to think-tank Fraunhofer ISE, a fivefold rise compared with the same period last year.
Germany has been a net exporter of electricity for years. Last year it sold 17,400 GWh more power to other countries than it imported, compared with 18,500 GWh a year before, according to data from the grid regulator. The biggest buyers of German power were France and Austria.
“We are assuming a highly stressed situation during the coming winter,” Neumann told the Financial Times, adding that the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine was only one of several “overlapping issues”. Other headaches include the shutdowns of the French nuclear power plants and disrupted coal deliveries caused by low water on main rivers.
Dortmund-based Amprion generated €2.6bn in revenue last year and €216mn in operating profit. Majority-owned by a consortium of German insurance firms and pension funds, it operates the power grid and substations in western Germany, the industrial heartland of Europe’s largest economy.
Neumann said he did not share the view of German economics minister Robert Habeck, who in July argued that the country was not facing an electricity problem.
“If that was the case, we would not have been asked [by the government] to conduct a special analysis [on the electricity market in the winter],” he said.
As a result of that review, the German government this month decided to postpone the scheduled decommissioning this year of two of the country’s three remaining nuclear power plants.
Neumann called for all three plants to remain in service, arguing that it was still uncertain how tight the market would be.
“All I can say is that three nuclear power plants would be better than two”, he said. However, he pointed out that Amprion’s view was a technical one that ignored “political and ideological aspects”.
“The government needs to draw the political conclusions and take the political responsibility.”
Germany also suffers from a regional mismatch of power generation and consumption. Many wind farms are located in the wind-rich north-eastern part of the country, while large parts of the power-hungry industry is based in the south-west, where there is an increasing shortage of generation capacity.
This can trigger geographical disparities between supply and demand as the grid operator may struggle to get the power from one region to the other.
Such an imbalance is normally addressed by firing up more coal and gas fired power plants in southern Germany, but there may not be enough available capacity this winter. In such a situation, Germany may have to curtail its exports, Neumann said.
Additional reporting by Sarah White in Paris