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Green German gov battles to keep fossil powerplants running

No longer profitable, thanks to renewables - but vital to keep the lights on

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The German government is engaged in increasingly heated negotiations with energy companies in an effort to stop them closing carbon-emitting power plants which have been rendered unprofitable by the national renewables policies.

Last week power giant RWE grumbled that many of its coal and gas power stations "are no longer profitable to operate", and said it would be closing some of them down. Its rival E.ON also said that it had plants "working for nothing", and announced plant shutdowns.

The problem for the fossil-fuel powerplants is the rise of renewables, particularly in Germany, and the fact that government policies mean that whenever a renewable plant generates any power it will take priority on the grid. This means that fossil plants get to sell less electricity, and also that their costs rise due to being turned on and off all the time.

Unfortunately German renewables still generate just 25 per cent of the country's electricity requirement over time, and worse, they aren't controllable: they produce power when the wind blows and the sun shines, not when the grid needs it. There is still no way to store electricity on the scales demanded by a major national grid, so the fossil powerplants are still completely essential if Germany is to keep its lights on.

But the government's renewable policies have meant that you can't make a profit running a fossil powerplant, and left to themselves the energy firms would now like to close so many plants as to lead to power cuts in southern Germany (where solar installations are especially widespread).

According to newswire AFP, reporting on the energy firms' plans:

The networks agency has warned that it is loath to approve many closures in the south of Germany.

But the German government cannot, ultimately, force the private sector to run plants at a loss. It is already paying E.ON to keep open a new gas plant in Bavaria which it had intended to shut, and it would seem that if the lights are to stay on - and the renewables boom is not to be halted or reversed - bigger and bigger incentives for the fossil sector will be needed, on top of the colossal handouts that have driven the renewables to the point they are at.

As German consumers are already charged some of the highest electricity prices in the world, there may soon come a point at which even green Germany will turn against its solar panels and windfarms, especially given current plans - resulting from the global panic following tsunami damage to the Fukushima plant in Japan during 2011 - for complete shutdown of Germany's nuclear power stations (even though Fukushima is actually set to cause no measurable radiation health effects at all). ®

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