This past summer heatwaves wreaked havoc across much of northern Europe. Temperatures soared to around 30℃ in the Arctic Circle. Norway experienced a record 33.5℃ one day in mid-July. Finland recorded its hottest July ever. Swathes of greenery shriveled, while rivers and lakes lost much of their water.
Water shortages also affected electricity generation. Hydroelectric power, which currently accounts for 3,084MW in total capacity, is Finland’s second most common renewable energy source behind bioenergy, producing between 10% and 15% of electricity. “[Finland’s] total annual production has varied between 9.5 and 16.8 TWh, according to water conditions, in 2011 production totalled almost 12.3 TWh,” the World Energy Council notes.
“It could still be possible to increase Finland’s hydropower capacity, though the main potential sources are generally well exploited,” the council explains. “The total unexploited hydropower potential along river systems that are not protected for landscape or nature conservation is estimated at more than an annual production potential of 2 468 GWh. Of this potential 1 330 GWh/year is considered as economically exploitable. It is unlikely that hydropower developments could be launched along any remaining totally unharnessed rivers, for conservation reasons.”
Northern European countries have long been among leaders in hydropower, a low-carbon power source that can be generated both at small and larger scales. In Sweden, for instance, there are over 2,000 hydropower plants, which boast a total capacity of 16,197MW. Yet by its very nature hydropower is dependent on hydrological conditions like water flow and precipitation. That makes many hydroelectric power plants subject to the vagaries of the weather, especially heatwaves of the kind that swept through much of Europe last summer for weeks.
As average global temperatures are set to rise ever higher as a result of climate change, numerous bodies of water that host hydropower plants will likely experience fluctuating water levels. This may well affect the capacities of hydroelectric plants, making them less than ideal sources of reliable electricity in countries like Finland during certain months.
“Finland is a Scandinavian country. We tend to have cold summers and cold winters, but not this year. It was the hottest summer ever recorded that also triggered discussions in Finnish society,” observes Minna Forsström, project director of the nuclear energy company Fennovoima, which operates the Pyhäjoki power plant. “There was a shortage of electricity in July due to the fact that there was no rain.”
Consequently, the country is considering to source more energy from another low-carbon energy source, which isn’t dependent on weather condition, namely nuclear power. The Northern European country is a nuclear energy powerhouse with four current reactors and three more latest-generation ones in the works.
“Scandinavian countries rely a lot on hydropower,” Forsström notes. “This was the first time that most people understood what climate change might mean for them on a personal level. If we don’t have [enough] electricity it’ll be a disaster,” she added. “And we had a discussion that carbon-free nuclear energy can really be the solution here. We have the answers to the serious problem of climate change.”
Most Finns appear to agree, viewing nuclear energy favorably. According to a survey by the market research company Norstat Finland, for instance, more than two-thirds of residents in the municipality of Pyhäjoki are in favor of a locally based nuclear power plant overseen by Fennovoima. Similar numbers of residents in neighboring communities have likewise expressed support for the nuclear plant.
Finnish society was never characterized by staunch opposition to nuclear energy, unlike in Germany, where nuclear power is widely viewed as dangerous to human health and environmentally hazardous. Positive attitudes in Finland could certainly benefit Germany in its own transition to low-carbon energy sources. Yet lingering antipathy towards nuclear energy in the Central European nation, not least among local policymakers, may be hurting Germany’s chances to turn its back on fossil fuels in energy generation.
For Germany, it is seems to be becoming increasingly unfeasible to have all its electricity demands covered by renewables like wind and solar. The country has been investing heavily in wind power, yet wind energy, too, is subject to the vagaries of the weather as well as local climatic conditions.
“Germany has announced that they cannot have more aggressive renewable targets than they already have,” notes Philippe Knoche, CEO of the international energy company Orano. “[W]hen the wind blows they get to export electricity and when the wind doesn’t blow they have to burn coal. I really like renewables but at a certain point it brings you into a situation where it clashes with your vision.”
Complicating matters is that transitioning to low-carbon transport options will also come with increased energy needs, Knoche says. “[German Chancellor] Angela Merkel has stated she wants to decarbonize transport to meet decarbonization goals,” the expert notes. “But if one decarbonizes transport and increases the use of electric cars we are increasing demand for electricity, and then we’re back to square one. [The question is] ‘How am I really decarbonizing if I am burning coal for people to have two electric cars?'”
Knoche argues that nuclear energy should take a larger role in meeting energy needs in the most advanced economies of Europe. He cites the case of his native France, which has long been a leader in nuclear energy generation in Western Europe. “When I have this discussion [about the need for more nuclear] with governments and with people on the street, I always keep [two] things in mind,” the energy expert says.
“In France, our President has clearly confirmed the key role nuclear energy must play in fighting climate change,” Knoche elucidates. “He has very directly said that it would not make any sense to close nuclear plants and replace their electricity output with our gas plants. Although France is reducing electricity generation from nuclear power to 50% – and that’s not a positive development – I would love to see [other European countries] meet their electricity demands with 50% of it coming from nuclear.”
Finland itself is on course to achieving that goal. Once all current projects are completed, the share of electricity produced by nuclear power could double to around 60% or locally generated electricity within a decade. Unlike Central Europe, nuclear energy is set to play a greater role in the Nordic nation.