German Power Generators Split Over State Payments to Plants

Utilities operating in Germany are divided over whether the government should pay generators to keep uneconomic power plants open to ensure supply can meet peak demand.

Vattenfall AB, the third-biggest utility operating in Germany, says that stability of power supply is not an issue and the market is so oversupplied that so-called capacity payments aren’t necessary. Statkraft AS, whose power output from German gas-fed plants fell 50 percent last year, said the nation will need to build new plants by 2019 if action isn’t taken to keep existing facilities online.

Ten of Europe’s biggest utilities mothballed 21.3 gigawatts of gas-fed power stations last year, or 12 percent of the generation fleet, as plants lost money for a second year, according to an Oxford University study. Some countries, including France and the U.K., are preparing measures to pay utilities to keep some of these plants in reserve, while the European Commission says an integrated European power market can resolve concerns over security of supply.

“There is the risk that if we jump to the conclusion of a capacity mechanism, rather than trying to integrate renewables, it will be the nail in the coffin for the market,” Stefan Dohler, head of asset optimization and trading at Vattenfall, which is owned by the Swedish state, said in an interview in Essen, Germany yesterday. “The EU talks about an integrated market and this is the best option for consumers.”

Unprofitable Plants

Utilities have been losing money by burning gas for power since 2012, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Next-year power in Germany, a regional benchmark, fell to 35.80 euros ($48) on Jan. 7, the lowest since 2005, according to data from European Energy Exchange AG. The contract was at 36.55 euros a megawatt-hour at 1 p.m. Berlin time, the data show.

A German gas plant loses about 20 euros for every megawatt-hour of power it produces according to the clean-spark spread, a measure of profitability based on the year-ahead power price and the cost of fuel and carbon permits compiled by Bloomberg. Such plants will continue to lose money as far ahead as 2018, the data show.

“Gas power plants are essential to guarantee the security of supply,” Juergen Tzschoppe, managing director at Statkraft Markets GmbH, told reporters at a conference in Essen on Feb. 11. Statkraft keeps its gas plants “ready to operate and we supply to the system when needed. However, we are far from even covering pure operational costs.”

Paying Double

Germany’s five-fold increase in intermittent renewable energy in the decade through 2012 intensified the need for back up plants. Wind and solar accounted for as much as 49 percent of Germany’s power on Dec. 23, falling to 4 percent two days later, data from the European Energy Exchange compiled by Bloomberg show.

Implementing capacity payments to keep plants available now means Germany would avoid “having to pay double to turn the market around in 2020 as gas capacity has already exited,” Tzschoppe said in an interview. Germany needs to implement capacity payments this year, Johannes Teyssen, chief executive officer of Germany’s largest utility EON SE, said in November.

Germany is already paying plants deemed essential for power supply stability, including EON’s Irsching gas-fired station in Bavaria, on an individual basis. Details have not yet been agreed by the government for a longer-term measure.

Renewable Expansion

“There is still downside potential for power prices because renewables are dominating in Germany,” Tzschoppe said. “We are not isolated, the rest of Europe is moving towards this too.”

While current market conditions will probably persist for some time, Germany’s power system still has enough flexibility, Dohler of Vattenfall said. Backup power options like pumped reservoir storage are not being fully used at the moment, he said.

Electricity supply in Germany is set to increase as 11 new coal and gas-fired power plants will start generating by 2016, according to regulator Bundesnetzagentur and plant operators. Renewable energy capacity will rise by 5.1 gigawatts this year, according to Berlin-based consultant, Energy Brainpool GmbH. After that capacity will decline as no new capacity will be built, closing of unprofitable stations continues and Germany exits nuclear power by 2020, Tzschoppe said.

Power consumption in Germany last year was the lowest since 2009, according to AG Energiebilanzen e.V., an association of energy lobby groups and research institutes.

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