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Germany

RWE Power Producer Called to Account

After the Münsterland region lost power last week when heavy snows caused electrical pylons to collapse, concerns that the nation's electricity network is unreliable have prompted calls for investigations.

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Some 250,000 people were affected by the power failure

After the recent power outages left thousands without electricity for nearly 4 days, politicians have begun pushing for a nation-wide inspection of the power grid to test the stability of electrical masts and guarantee service in all weather conditions.

RWE to blame?

Germany's energy regulator will be investigating whether utility RWE AG invested enough in its network, Economics Minister Michael Glos said Monday.

BdT Schneechaos im Münsterland

Are RWE's high-voltage pylons fault?

According to media reports at the weekend, Germany's largest power producer RWE knew about problems with its pylons several years before ice and wind brought many of them down last week.

"I expect an urgent report about the state of the network. The energy regulator will look into whether RWE invested enough in the network," Glos was quoted in the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Critics say the move is long overdue. They accuse power companies of cutting maintenance and capital investment down to dangerously low levels in the name of profit.

Material faults

Heiner Konert can back up the complaints. The electrical pylons linking his wind farm to the regional power grid are now piles of twisted steel, after heavy snow caused the masts to collapse. It will be months before his generators are back online.

Konert is angry at RWE. He says the pylons were anything but modern, let alone well maintained.

He's not alone. Phones at the chamber of industry and commerce in the federal state of North-Rhine Westfalia ran hot shortly after the snowstorm to the Münsterland region.

The head of the chamber, Wieland Pieper, says local businesses are struggling to count the costs of the power cuts.

Winter im Münsterland

Germany wasn't prepared for heavy snowfall

"Production processes were interrupted, goods perished, machines and computers were damaged," he pointed out. "That all adds up to a hefty amount. I think we'll be reckoning with nine-figure sums."

Called to account

With a bill like that, it's no wonder German politicians want answers. Experts say Germany's electricity grid could have a problem with power poles made from Thomas-Steel -- a type of steel that was used widely in construction until the end of the 1960s.

Notstrom

Münsterland was plunged into chaos

RWE admits that the strength Thomas Steel can, in certain conditions, deteriorate over time, making pylons vulnerable to collapsing under the weight of heavy snowfalls.

But Aribert Peters from the Federation of Energy Consumers says power companies can’t blame all their woes on bad weather.

"The electricity providers have failed to make necessary capital expenditures," he said. "The electricity network brought in 18 billion euros, but only two billion euros have been reinvested. They've been putting the money in their own pockets rather than investing in security."

A spokesperson from RWE's electricity distribution arm says the company will replace tens of thousands of affected pylons as quickly as possible. That may sound promising, but not all energy consumers will be happy. And RWE says the massive task may not be completed until 2015.

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