Winter is just around the corner and the fear of blackouts or cold living rooms is growing. Expert Stefan Holzheu from the University of Bayreuth classifies the situation.
Bayreuth – In Bavaria, people fear that the dark season could be darker than intended. The specter of blackout is already haunting many people’s minds. So the total power failure over minutes, hours or even days. Politicians from different camps often play with the horror scenario in order to gain favor with voters. The calls for the continued operation of the last three remaining nuclear power plants hit the same horn. But what about blackout paranoia? Environmental scientist Stefan Holzheu from the Bayreuth Center for Ecology and Environmental Research at the University of Bayreuth sheds light on the matter.
Expert explains: what exactly is a blackout?
The fear is great that we will be left without electricity in the winter. Is the danger of a blackout really real?
Holzheu: First of all, you have to clarify what a blackout actually is. The topic is usually presented very uncleanly by the politicians. A blackout is a large-scale power failure that affects really large regions and is not easy to recover from.
And something like that doesn’t threaten us?
Holzhay: Most experts assume that the risk of a blackout is very low. However, partial power cuts may occur, but these will probably be announced in advance. So on a cold winter evening it could mean that we have to switch off the electricity for a short time because we can’t get enough energy. Very simple – if the demand is greater than the supply, then the power grid collapses.
Can’t you do anything about it?
Holzheu: You have to know that we have very competent network operators in Germany. They usually know this in advance when such a situation comes our way. They don’t just let the power grid collapse. The first measure will be to activate all power plants that are not yet connected to the grid. If that is still not enough, certain industries or districts will be cut off from electricity by the hour. Then you can stop watching Netflix for an hour. But even such a short power cut is considered relatively unlikely by experts.
In this case, is the citizen also obliged to do something about a short-term power cut?
Holzheu: If it comes to the point that the network operator calls for saving electricity in the evening because things could get tight for a short time, then you shouldn’t just run the dishwasher during that period. You can also do this at night. But unfortunately there are people with whom one has the feeling that they really want a blackout. For example, they take an extra long shower because someone said I should take a short shower. And then they turn on their heater because someone said you shouldn’t do it.
Energy expert from Bayreuth: Nuclear power plants cannot work miracles
The fear of a blackout is fueled again and again with the shutdown of the nuclear power plants at the end of the year. Is there something to it?
Holzhay: There will be no large-scale blackout because of the nuclear power plant shutdown. However, it could still make sense to let at least the two power plants in the south continue to run in stretching mode. I expect that when they are used, it will happen right from the turn of the year without being switched off beforehand. But the nuclear power plants will no longer deliver their full output. Emsland has to reduce in December and Neckarwestheim in October. Only Isar 2 can run until December, but then also has to gradually reduce performance. But as far as I know, continued operation could also pose a problem under European law for the federal government, because the operating license will expire at the end of the year and if complaints then arise, the nuclear power plants could be forced to shut down by urgent decision.
How much power are we talking about that would be lost if the two nuclear power plants in the south were shut down?
Holzhay: We’re talking about two, maybe two and a half gigawatts of power here – depending on the stretching period you are looking at. But that’s not the problem at all. We actually have enough power plants to intercept that. The bigger problem comes from abroad. A lot depends on the availability of French nuclear power plants. If these are not connected to the grid again, the demand for electricity from abroad will increase and this could lead to bottlenecks for us.
How can you classify this two and a half gigawatt output from our nuclear power plants?
Holzhay: This is not the world. In political discussions you always have the feeling that they could work absolute miracles.
Does that mean that politicians who insist on keeping the nuclear power plants running because otherwise there is a risk of blackout are playing with fire?
Holzheu: Yes, I am annoyed by such people. It is claimed that we are threatened with large-scale blackouts and that civil war-like conditions can occur. This is irresponsible. Especially for a democratic politician who only wants to use it to capture votes. Sure, we have a power and energy problem, but this is when the democratic parties should pull together. The populism of politics is a danger to our democracy.
Holzheu on the nuclear phase-out decided by the CDU and CSU in 2011: “You can’t do it any stupider”
They are very active on Twitter and often point out their mistakes to politicians with facts and studies in their posts. It seems that you have focused particularly on the CDU/CSU and the FDP. Is that correct?
Holzheu: This is where the simplification of problems often comes from that doesn’t do justice to the situation. But I would hold every politician, no matter what their political orientation, up to their mistakes. If the Greens talk nonsense, I would try to put it right, but it doesn’t happen that often at the moment. It is simply striking that the Union and the FDP often have less objective discussions.
In 2011, the Union and the FDP decided to phase out nuclear power, which they would now like to suspend – at least temporarily. What do you think?
Holzheu: If you look at this phase-out of nuclear power as a scientist or engineer, then you have to ask yourself who came up with the stupid idea of letting six nuclear power plants run almost to the end, then shutting down three plus three and that too in the middle of winter. You can’t do it any stupider. Why not take a nuclear power plant off the grid every year, then it would be a continuous process and then it wouldn’t all be such a huge issue now. Because of course that’s a problem if I take eight gigawatts out of a 60 gigawatt system within a year.
One of the people who helped push the nuclear phase-out in its current form is now Prime Minister of Bavaria.
Holzhay: You have to chalk that up to Söder. His populism back then led to the nuclear phase-out being written into law in its current form. He had rumbled that if a nuclear power plant is still running in Bavaria after 2022, then he will resign. That was eleven years ago and not much really happened. For example, Bavarian politics has not covered itself in glory when it comes to wind turbines. There is too much resistance in the population, too many are defecting to the AfD, then we don’t want any wind turbines, the party often says. And this despite the fact that Bavaria was good at expanding wind turbines.
Expert tips on saving electricity and gas
The blackout is now off the table. But what can be done to prevent potential shutdowns?
Wood hay: Of course, using less electricity and gas is now the order of the day. I am a municipal councilor myself and we regularly give a dance class in our community hall. Recently it was 16 degrees in the hall and we decided not to heat it. That has to be enough, because the hall is also heated with gas.
What can you pay attention to at home?
Holzhay: The example also applies to private households. Anyone who manages should try to dress warmly and lower the room temperature. Then you can see where you can save electricity – keyword identify power guzzlers. For example, old standby devices consume a lot of electricity. A power strip with an off button is worthwhile. Taking a shorter shower isn’t wrong either, even if it’s often ridiculed. And everyone should check whether they can put a PV system on their roof. It’s really worth it now.
What about the most popular electrical appliance in Germany at the moment – the fan heater?
Wood hay: As long as people don’t get the idea to turn on all their space heaters at once, you should be fine. Otherwise there is a risk of local power failures. Then you just sit in the dark and the electricity is only switched on again when people have disconnected their heaters.
The interview was conducted by Thomas Eldersch