The long-overdue rebuilding of Rheinfelden depends on the plant's classification as a renewable project. Without government backing, power from the scheme will be unmarketable and the owners face restoring a stretch of the Rhine that has been dammed for over 100 years. Simon Jones reports

RHEINFELDEN is Europe’s oldest major river hydro plant. Located on the Rhine along the Swiss-German border, just upstream from where the river swings north towards the sea, Rheinfelden was first awarded a 90-year licence in 1898. In 1988, Germany and Switzerland extended this licence for a further 80 years but on condition that a new plant (Neu Rheinfelden) was commissioned by 2004. The fate of that project is now central to the debate over hydro’s future in Germany.

Dramatic price falls since liberalisation of the German market in 1998 mean electricity from Neu Rheinfelden will be near impossible to market – even to green consumers willing to pay an environmental premium for their power. Yet plant operator Kraftübertragungswerke Rheinfelden (KWR) insists that the US$400M project – and other large hydro developments – should be part of a government strategy to boost renewables and meet Kyoto targets on climate change. KWR wants a transitional levy to support Neu Rheinfelden, which will save 600,000t/yr of CO2 compared to a coal-fired plant of equal capacity.

At present, 20 turbines (several of them originals) with a total capacity of 26MW generate some 185GWh per year at Rheinfelden. What was a technical milestone by 19th century standards – and a vital energy source for a region far from Germany’s coalfields – is now making relatively inefficient use of the mighty Rhine. The new plant would more than triple this output, using four turbines with a capacity of 116MW to supply over 200,000 homes.

The existing plant and dam walls are severely eroded after over 100 years of service, according to KWR spokesman Thomas Zwigart. ‘The new licence requires us to boost plant performance,’ he says. ‘In the particular circumstances of Rheinfelden, this can only be achieved by building a new facility, with four times the capacity.’

KWR wants to relocate the plant some 140m downstream, with the power house closer to the Swiss bank – and designed with minimal elevation to reduce the structure’s visual impact. Water levels upstream of the dam will rise by some 1.4m, while the riverbed beneath the plant will be lowered by 0.7m. Redundant channels on the German side of the Rhine will be renatured and converted to fish spawning grounds. The rest of the plant will be dismantled once Neu Rheinfelden begins operating. The entire process will take some six years.

All this was approved at regional and national levels several years ago. KWR has already sunk US$45M into the plant before building work even begins. The problem for KWR, and more especially its power distribution and sales arm NaturEnergie, is how to market the increased output that eventually flows from Neu Rheinfelden. Projected average generation costs of US$0.08/kWh for the plant’s first three decades cannot compete with Germany’s cheapest suppliers. The big utilities lock in major customers with discounted power (often sourced from east European coal-fired and nuclear plants) at as little as US$0.02. Interest payments alone will add more than this to production costs at Neu Rheinfelden.

Renewable sources

NaturEnergie is Germany’s leading trader of power sourced purely from renewables. The Grenzach-Whylen based firm, a joint venture of KWR and the Laufenburg plant (KWL) further upstream, supplies 160,000 homes in its core upper Rhine region. Its ‘silver tariff’ package offers power exclusively from the two Rhine plants. A more expensive gold tariff adds in power from other renewable sources, including Kraftwerk Wyhlen, Germany’s first dual hydro-solar plant.

NaturEnergie has also operated nationally via trading partners since January 2000, even overcoming lignite protection laws to win customers in east Germany. This is one positive aspect of market liberalisation, which unlocked old supply zones for such independent hydro suppliers. ‘We will break even in 2004,’ says NaturEnergie Chairman Andreas Fusser. He expects turnover to approach US$18M in 2001, up one-third on the previous year.

The firm aims to ‘escape from a pure eco-niche’, according to board member Kai-Hendrik Schlusche. A shirt sponsorship deal with local football team SC Freiburg is the most visible sign of this ambition. ‘Planned’ losses of US$500,000 in the first half of 2001 were due primarily to high marketing costs; only industry leaders RWE and EOn can boast similarly costly sponsorship deals.

KWR stresses Neu Rheinfelden’s potential in helping the government meet its twin goals on climate change and renewables. The firm wants to turn the project into a political issue, with a campaign to bring large hydro within the remit of Berlin’s recent renewables law (known as EEG). At present, the government only offers subsidies and cheap credits under the EEG to small hydro plants (below 5MW). ‘For years, all electricity consumers paid their Kohlepfennig to support the coal mines of North Rhine-Westphalia and the Saarland,’ argues Schlusche. The EEG funds wind farms and solar power, while another recent law subsidises the expansion of cogeneration (heat and power) plants in urban centres. ‘Neu Rheinfelden will supply as much eco-power as 1000 wind turbines in the Black Forest,’ he says.

All these sectors are growing rapidly but hydro still supplies over 90% of Germany’s renewable power. KWR even disputes the idea of Neu Rheinfelden as large hydro, when compared to plants operating in Brazil or China.

The EU aims to cut CO2 emissions by 8% by 2010, while Germany is pledged to double renewable power supplies by 2012. The firm insists any joined-up policy would back hydro as the key to reaching such targets – especially after the government’s recent decision to phase out nuclear power. It wants Berlin either to bring Neu Rheinfelden within the EEG, or sanction subsidies for a limited and specified period.

This strategy won a major boost in July 2000, when the EU Parliament approved member states including hydro plants above 10MW capacity in any support package for renewables. The decision clears the way for a massive expansion of renewable power in Germany, according to Andreas Fusser of NaturEnergie. He wants Germany to adopt the measure without delay. ‘It is up to Baden-Württemberg and the federal government to make possible the long overdue renewal of Rheinfelden,’ he says.

KWR has other cards to play. The one option not available at Rheinfelden is the status quo ante. ‘If the project is abandoned at this stage, then naturally the technical issues surrounding that decision must come to the fore,’ insists Hans Peter Kesselring, long-time project leader at KWR. If the firm fails at least to start work on Neu Rheinfelden by 2004, and so loses its licence, KWR is in theory required to restore this stretch of the river to a ‘close to nature’ state. Yet a century of damming up the Rhine has left its imprint on the entire region. ‘It’s just not feasible to restore this area to its natural state,’ argues Kesselring.

Kesselring can also point to some alarming effects if the plant’s impounding dam was ever demolished. The resulting one metre drop in groundwater levels would cause big problems for farmers and trigger a one-third fall in water levels in aquifers on the Swiss side of the Rhine. Most serious of all is the likely impact on the industrial zone near Rheinfelden. Huge chemical complexes and land subsidence are not a happy combination, while altered groundwater flows could also wash out poisons from beneath long-established industrial plants.

Even preserving the dam walls alone is not an easy option. ‘If the old dam stays, it will need to be restored,’ warns Kesselring. ‘And then we must consider how much longer this structure, which does not meet modern standards of earthquake-security, is likely to last.’
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