Martin Bursik is deputy leader of the Greens and chairperson of the Chamber of Renewable Energy Resources in Prague. Paul Hockenos talked with him about the renewables, the problem that Germany’s electricity flows swamping the Czech grid and the missing public debate about energy-related topics in the Czech Republic.
How do the Czechs view the Germans’ Energiewende?
Since most Czech journalists do not follow foreign-language sources, good information is limited. Debate goes on behind closed doors and a lot of the important facts don’t make it to the Czech people. So there’s no critical discourse about energy-related topics. Remember, we didn’t even have a debate about nuclear power in the aftermath of Chernobyl, which happened right next door to us. Forty years of communism has damaged the way people think and their mode of communication. Something like Germany’s energy cooperatives aren’t even conceivable in the Czech Republic. Moreover, all of the political parties, with the exception of the Green Party which is not currently represented in parliament, are pro-nuclear.
The Czech establishment’s explanation of the Energiewende is that the Germans went crazy after Fukushima. Yet it’s odd, because if you look at polls about what Czech people think about the future, they say renewables and energy efficiency will be key. They’re for promoting renewables and they see the long-term prospects. So in a long-term perspective, people understand the advantages of renewables. But they had a bad experience with photovoltaic subsidies in 2009 and 2010, when the feed-in tariffs were particularly high; the tariffs were at 50 cents per kilowatt hour and 1,500 MW of capacity entered the mix. This costs us one billion euros a year.
So people are critical of renewables right now. People blame renewables for the high cost of electricity. It will take some time to change this.
The Czech Republic and Poland complain bitterly about Germany’s electricity flows swamping their grids. Is this really the case and is it as harmful to your infrastructure as they claim?
It’s hard to say. The same guys also complain that the Czech grid cannot absorb more than five percent of renewables. Yet it now absorbs 11 percent and there’s no problem. This argument is being used against the German Energiewende. They charge that the national interests of the Czech Republic are at stake. The grid operators say huge investments are necessary to regulate German loop flows. But this would cost consumers a lot of money. I don’t think it’s necessary. Rather, the charges against Germany are political and ideological; they reflect the position of certain politicians supported by our energy industry.
One can’t understand anything about energy politics in the Czech Republic with understanding something about the energy giant CEZ Group (Czech: Skupina CEZ Ceské Energetické Závody). Could you tell us a bit about it?
CEZ is a dominantly state-owned conglomerate, the largest utility and biggest public company in Central and Eastern Europe. It operates the nuclear power stations in Temelin and Dukovany, as well as over a dozen coal-fired power plants. It is hugely influential in the Czech Republic, thanks in large part to the powers granted it in the 1990s when the Social Democratic government was in power. Interestingly, that government was lead by our current president Milos Zeman who decided to enforce “vertical integrity” and gave five out of eight distribution companies to CEZ. In this way it became the dominant supplier and distributor of energy. It’s extremely powerful and has a huge influence on political life, as it supports both major parties.
Its external relations unit and a top lobby group have a great impact on public opinion and it even formulates many of the country’s energy laws. In terms of influence, its backers have a majority in the government as well as in both chambers of parliament. Even though it invests in renewables in Poland and Romania, it undermines the production of and support for renewables in the Czech Republic. Why? Because it knows it will eventually lose out. Not only has it acted to eliminate all supports for renewables as of January 1, 2014, but it wants to retroactively shorten a 20-year guaranteed payment of feed-in-tariffs for all types of renewables (and even 30 years for small hydro power plants). If this amendment is adopted, it would endanger a major part of all clean energy operators since their bank loans were contracted for a period of over ten years.
Everything CEZ does has the goal of maintaining and expanding the nuclear sector. The Czech Republic is one of the laboratories where the nuclear industry wants to show that nuclear has a future. One and a half years ago, CEZ scoffed at charges that it would not be healthy enough to invest in further nuclear plants at the Temelin site in southern Bohemia. Today though, it says something very different. CEZ now claims that without a government guaranteed capacity payment, namely a fixed price for nuclear electricity, it will not be able to build.
Speaking of Temelin and the Czech Republic’s nuclear sector, how important is it to the country?
We have six nuclear reactors generating about one-third of our electricity. The Czech Republic is a net exporter of electricity. Last year we exported more electricity than the electricity used by all Czech households combined. So there is no need for more nuclear plants. We already have greater base load than we need. We need flexible sources of energy. We’re not like the UK which is trying to phase out coal.
Now there are talks with Westinghouse and the Russian company Rosatom about investing in new nuclear reactors at Temelin. This is supposed to happen before the election in June 2014. There is a great potential for corruption behind this tender. Politicians are pushing harder for it than CEZ, which understands its faulty economics. CEZ will not be able to pay tens of billions of crowns for the investment. It’d have to sell some of its biggest holdings to do so. So there are real questions as to why anybody at all is pushing for more nuclear when it’s so obviously uneconomical.
So what’s the way forward for the Czech Republic?
The government should first cancel the tender for new reactors in Temelin, if not for reasons of safety, energy dependence, and unsustainability, then because of the cost of nuclear power, which is close to triple the guaranteed price of electricity on the spot market. After that, the Czech Republic can reevaluate its attitude towards renewables. The failure of the state regarding the regulation of photovoltaics should not be reason for cutting all support for and stopping the further development of renewables. Thirdly, I believe in the gradual growth of citizens’ interest in energy independence, namely in lowering energy bills by covering a significant share of household energy consumption with renewable self-production. And, last but not least, pushed by citizens, politicians should significantly lower the influence of CEZ and allow real competition on the electricity market.
Martin Bursik is a Czech politician who has twice served as Minister of Environment and is also a former chairman of the Green Party. He is currently deputy leader of the Greens and chairperson of the Chamber of Renewable Energy Resources in Prague.