Why did Sweden’s oil power plant start up in the middle of summer?

Why did Sweden's oil power plant start up in the middle of summer?
A view of Karlshamnsverket. Photo: Uniper
On Tuesday, the oil power plant at Karlshamn started running again, despite it being the height of summer and despite Sweden's goal of working towards 100 percent renewable energy. This stirred up political argument, so what's actually going on?

Sweden’s goal is that all electricity should be 100 percent renewable by 2040. There have been long-standing ambitions to reduce dependence on both nuclear power and oil and instead use wind, water and solar energy.

Energy company Uniper, which runs the Karlshamn power plant, has an agreement with the Swedish system operator during the winter months (mid-November to mid-March), to be ready to operate if there is a need for more electricity. Outside of that agreement period, Uniper is free to make commercial bids on the electricity market. But it’s very rare this happens.

“It’s very unusual I must say,” Torbjörn Larsson, press manager at Uniper, told The Local. “We have an agreement with the system operator during winter because consumption increases but during the summer it decreases, so it is very unusual that there is a commercial window to operate the plant.”

Uniper says there were a number of reasons for this unusual activity.

“On Tuesday there was an electricity shortage in southern Sweden, with very little wind production,” Larsson said. “At the same time, there was the yearly maintenance of the nuclear plants and a limited capacity in the interconnections between northern and southern Sweden, to send electricity,” 

“It don’t think it’s the consumption that has increased. It’s because there was almost no wind at all on Tuesday and transmission capacity was also strongly limited, so southern Sweden was depending on imports from Denmark and Germany.”

So how does this fit in with Sweden's renewable goals, and is it a sign that something's gone wrong?

Carl Bildt, former conservative prime minister and foreign minister, was critical of the need to use oil power to cope with electricity supply and blamed his political opponent the Green Party.

“There is something wrong when you are forced to start the old oil power plant in Karlshamn to manage electricity supply in the middle of summer. Was that what MP [the Green Party] wanted when they shut down nuclear power?” he wrote on Twitter. 

Lorentz Tovatt, the climate policy spokesperson for the Environment Party, told Aftonbladet he believes there are more reasons for the use of the oil power plant, including cheap oil prices, which makes it more profitable to sell energy that is extracted through it, and the unplanned maintenance of nuclear power plants.

“We should not have fossil fuel in our electricity generation”, Tovatt said.


Photo: Jerker Andersson/Image Bank Sweden

Niclas Damstaard, chief strategist for the Swedish power grid (Svenska kraftnät) explained that the biggest challenge lies in supplying power to southern Sweden, where there’s a growing deficit in production. 

“There is a lot of production capacity in northern Sweden but the issue is transporting it to the south, so we are investing heavily in that,” Damstaard told The Local.

“What is interesting to note is if we look at tomorrow (Thursday), we have a price of around 200 euros per MWH in southern Sweden, whereas in northern Sweden the price is 12 euros per MWH. So a huge price difference, which illustrates the issues with transmission capacity.

“I wasn’t expecting this situation to occur but to some extent it depends on when we can get connectors up and running and increase import capacities. So I think we will see the oil plant operating like this going forward from time to time, but I wouldn’t expect this to occur every summer,” says Damstaard.

Uniper says it didn’t operate the plant on Wednesday but it can't predict how long it will run for during the rest of the summer, as the electricity market can change on an hourly basis. But Uniper's Torbjörn says this unpredictability is part of the challenge of using renewable energy. 

“There is a close connection to the fact we have three closed nuclear reactors and increased wind power. Of course it brings challenges to the system operator because there’s much more variation in the electricity system generally. So that’s maybe something the system operator has to deal with,” he said.

 


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