By Vera Ecket and Muriel Boselli
FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Germany is coping without about three quarters of its nuclear power capacity by burning more climate-warming coal, reaping the rewards of renewables investments, and importing more French atomic energy.
The shutdown over the weekend of another nuclear plant means almost 16 gigawatts (GW) of German nuclear power capacity was offline Monday, with nearly half of the capacity ordered to shut by the government in reaction to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March.
The move to close older reactors in response to Japan's nuclear crisis threatens possible power cuts next winter, but for now Germany is comfortably supplied with its own giant green power capacity, dirty coal units and other countries' nuclear reactors.
"The closure of 7 GW of nuclear capacity in Germany following Fukushima has also not caused a greater call on hub gas, as Germany made up for the lost generation with greater use of lignite and French nuclear power imports," Barclays Capital said in a note Monday.
European energy traders said Germany has become a net importer of around 2 GW of French electricity -- which is mostly nuclear -- since Berlin ordered Germany's oldest plants close for a safety review. France used to import some 2 GW a day from Germany.
The website of European grid operators' group Entso-E showed Germany also importing power from coal-dependent Poland and coal and nuclear reliant Czech producers but exporting to Switzerland and the Netherlands.
"We are getting some 0.5 GW of power a day more from Poland because the Czechs have one Temelin (nuclear) block offline but when there is a lot of solar production in the midday, then even France imports from us," one trader said.
A spokesman at the Federal Network Agency said that since the mid-March closure orders there had been some days when Germany was a net importer and others when it was an exporter.
More coal burning in, and around, Germany to compensate for the loss of nuclear means higher emissions of climate-warming carbon in countries that are already among the region's biggest polluters.
But Germany's multi-billion euro investments in clean energy technology are softening the impact on the environment and on energy supply in Europe's biggest economy.
"The situation is tight but under control and we have safe network operations," said Marian Rappl of network company Amprion, the RWE high voltage power grid arm.
"There are some 6 GW of solar and 1.7 GW of wind power availability in peaktime hours, and some nuclear capacity is due back at the end of the week," he said.
Thanks in part to huge investments in green technologies over the last decade, Germany had plenty of spare capacity when it decided to shut the old reactors.
It has a maximum load requirement of 80 GW in the winter but a fossil fuel power capacity overhang of some 20 GW and up to 40 GW of renewable generation capacity.
The huge nuclear shortfall has arisen from maintenance outages, which operators carry out in the spring when prices are low to limit their losses.
At least three nuclear plants are expected back next weekend or early next week, which will help boost Germany's own atomic energy output, while France is seeing record levels of nuclear capacity, with grid firm RTE predicting capacity in a range of 48.4-50.0 GW for this week.
(Editing by Daniel Fineren)