Imports from abroad: A little bit of nuclear power stays in the grid

Status: 04/14/2023 1:25 p.m

Germany is a net exporter of electricity. Nevertheless, nuclear power from abroad will still flow into the German grid even after the last nuclear power plants have been shut down. What role does the electricity exchange play in this?

By Emal Atif,

When the three remaining nuclear power plants in Germany are finally shut down on Saturday, this will also have an impact on the Europe-wide electricity market. Last year, the nuclear power plants Isar 2 in Bavaria, Emsland in Lower Saxony and Neckarwestheim 2 in Baden-Württemberg still generated around 35 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity. This corresponded to about six percent of Germany’s total electricity generation.

In January and February, the share of nuclear power was only four percent. In recent years, the importance of nuclear energy has continued to decrease. For comparison: According to the Federal Statistical Office, the most important electricity suppliers in 2022 were coal with a share of 31 percent, wind with 22 percent and gas with eleven percent.

Lots of electricity exports to France

However, the shutdown of the nuclear power plants does not mean that nuclear power will no longer flow into the German power grid. Because nuclear power is likely to continue to be imported, albeit probably in very small quantities.

Since 2003, Germany has consumed less electricity than it generates. It exports more than it imports. In 2022, the electricity export surplus was 28 TWh. Half of this went to France, according to the Federal Ministry of Economics In the neighboring country, there were power shortages due to numerous defective nuclear power plants.

Overall, Germany exported 72.7 TWh and imported 45.2 TWh last year. Of the imports, about 7.6 TWh came from nuclear power, equivalent to 1.4 percent of Germany’s net electricity generation (545 TWh in 2022).

Imports from different countries

Most of the imported nuclear power came from the Czech Republic with 2.7 TWh, which corresponds to about 0.5 percent of German electricity generation. France delivered 2.1 TWh of nuclear power to Germany. The rest came from Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden.

The German electricity market is part of the European electricity market. This is organized in such a way that electricity is always produced where it is cheapest. Germany has direct electricity connections to eleven countries – all nine neighboring countries as well as Norway and Sweden via submarine cables.

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How the electricity exchange works

Foreign countries can thus benefit from more favorable generation conditions in Germany and vice versa. Wholesale electricity prices and trading are determined by this interaction. “If there is a power deficit in Germany, for example, imports are made automatically,” explains the Economics Ministry. Such a deficit can arise regionally, for example, when there is no wind and at the same time little solar power is produced due to a lack of sunlight.

On the European electricity exchanges, suppliers and buyers meet in an auction. The lowest-priced offers are given priority, and the buyers with the highest bids are prioritized accordingly. This auction process enables electricity trading to be carried out efficiently and the market price to be determined on the basis of supply and demand.

Long-term plans for the energy mix

When asked, the Ministry of Economic Affairs did not give a concrete answer as to whether more nuclear power would be imported after the last nuclear power plants had been switched off. However, it points out that the importance of nuclear energy in Germany has continued to decrease in recent years.

“In the medium and long term, electricity generation from nuclear energy will be replaced by electricity from renewable energies,” said a spokeswoman. The share of renewable energies in the electricity generated had already risen to 48 percent last year. This share should increase to 80 percent by 2030 and to fully renewable electricity generation by 2035.

The energy expert Jürgen Karl from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg does not expect that more nuclear power will be imported as a result of the shutdown of the last nuclear power plants. “Germany imports little electricity anyway. The expansion of renewable energies will reduce that even further.”

Can consumers ensure they don’t use nuclear power at all if they don’t want to? “On the balance sheet yes, physically no,” says energy expert Karl.

You can conclude a special electricity contract in order to buy electricity that has been proven to be “green” produced, “but physically, of course, this mixes with other power sources in the power grids”. Even if it is not technically possible to only get “green” electricity – the expansion of renewable energies is still promoted in this way.

The daily topics on site are broadcasting live today at 10.15 p.m. from the site of the Isar 2 nuclear power plant.

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