Low Rhine water level to hit output at two German coal plants

Coal power plant in Datteln, Germany. (Image by Arnold Paul, Wikimedia Commons).

Low water levels on the Rhine, Germany’s main shipping artery, will affect output over the coming month from two major coal-fired power stations, adding another problem to Europe’s largest economy that is already grappling with lower Russian gas supply.

The Staudinger 5 plant east of Frankfurt has 510 megawatts (MW) of capacity and is operated by Uniper and situated on the Main, a major Rhine tributary.

Its output may be irregular until Sept. 7 “due to a limitation of coal volumes on site” caused by the low level of the Rhine, according to the transparency site of Deutsche Boerse-owned power bourse EEX.

Another document posted on Thursday said the 1,100 MW Datteln plant in the northern Ruhr area, also operated by Uniper, may see irregular output to Sept. 7 for the same reason.

Together, the two plants account for 4.2% of Germany’s total coal-fired power capacity.

Germany last month agreed to reactivate its coal-fired power plants or extend their lifespans in response to its worst energy crisis in generations, triggered by dwindling supplies of Russian gas.

But shallow river levels following a hot, dry summer mean that barges taking coal feed stock to generating plants can only sail with partial loads. Similar conditions caused a fall in output at power stations and hit profitability at chemical manufacturing plants in 2018.

“Much of the needed hard-coal is transported from the Dutch ports of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp by barges,” Deutsche Bank said in a research note, adding that reduced shipping cut economic growth by 0.2% percentage points in 2018.

A reference Rhine waterline level at Kaub WL-KAUB, where vessels need about 1.5 metres of clearance to sail fully loaded, fell to only 55 centimetres on Thursday.

Kaub hit 25 cm at one point in 2018.

Thyssenkrupp, Germany’s largest steelmaker, declared force majeure in 2018 after the Rhine’s extremely low water levels disrupted the delivery of raw materials to its sites.

“As part of our low water task force, we are continuously monitoring the situation on the river Rhine. We are taking various measures in the course of the current low water situation,” a spokesperson for the company said.

“On this basis, we consider our raw material requirements currently to be secure.”

A heat wave this week has also boosted transport prices on the river as fewer vessels can travel on it and pass through choke points, tightening transport space.

Low water likewise affects power prices EL/DE as well as other commodities such as mineral oil products and grains.

Warming rivers in recent weeks have also curtailed French supplies of cooling water to nuclear plants, contributing to tightness in the European power system and driving up spot electricity prices.

(By Vera Eckert and Christoph Steitz; Editing by John Stonestreet, Edmund Klamann and Christina Fincher)

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