Saturday, May 7, 2011

Germany shows the way

Earlier this year things looked a little bleak in Germany. Two German nuclear plants were due to come back on-line thanks to a controversial new law extending Germany’s nuclear phase out deadline. Brunsbüttel had shut down in 2007 after a grid-trip, and Krümmel after a transformer fault. Under the previous national phase out schedule there was little incentive to bring them back online (only to operate for a few years) but the new law meant Brunsbüttel could operate until 2018 Krümmel until 2030.

However, in March, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the German government shut down all of Germany's oldest nuclear plants. That was perhaps surprising until you remember that an election was due. And the greens were looking very strong; there were massive demonstrations across the country after Fukushima with 250,000 people campaigning for a complete and rapid phase out.

In the event, the government still did badly in the election, loosing in key areas (the greens got 15% of the vote), and in April, Secretary of State for the Environment and Nuclear Safety, Jürgen Becker, told Reuters: “A decision has been taken to shut down eight plants before the end of this year and they definitely won’t be reactivated. And the remaining nine will be shut down by the end of the decade.”

This policy was then backed by the German Association of Energy and Water Industries, BDEW, which said that nuclear should be phased out by 2020 or at the latest by 2023. It called on the government to set everything in motion to speed up the transition toward a stable, ecologically responsible and affordable energy mix without nuclear energy. ‘The catastrophe at the Fukushima reactors marks a new era and the BDEW therefore calls for a swift and complete exit from using nuclear power.’

The association represents about 1,800 utilities, among them the operators of the country’s 17 nuclear reactors, which, when all were running, generated 26% of Gemany’s electricity. The two biggest operators, E.ON AG and RWE AG, opposed to the decision, but were outvoted.

Can they do it? German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen told der Spiegel that he was confident that it could be done given the rapid growth of renewables and the potential for energy saving, but ‘everyone will have to invest in the energy turnaround. The expansion of renewable energy, the power lines it requires and the storage facilities will cost money. That has to be clear. But after the investments are made, the returns will follow - I don't doubt that.’

He went on ‘ First we'll have to focus on retrofitting buildings. The €460 million ($653 million) currently budgeted for that program won't be enough. But every euro in government subsidies will trigger seven or eight euros in private investment, which also translates into tax revenues. Everyone can benefit in the long term, from citizens to the economy to the environment.’

In terms of renewables, there would be no need to cover Germany with wind farms as some critics had suggested ‘ We achieve the biggest capacities by replacing smaller wind turbines on land with more powerful ones and by generating wind energy in the North and Baltic Seas’.

He concluded ‘The events in Fukushima marked a turning point for all of us. Now we jointly support phasing out nuclear energy as quickly as possible and phasing in renewable energies’.

Germany already gets 17% of its power from renewables, and the potential for expansion is certainly there long term. In addition to backing a nuclear phase out, last years ‘Energiekonzept’ review, produced by the Federal Environment Ministry, BMU, looked to renewables supplying 35% of electricity by 2020, 50% by 2030, 65% by 2040, 80% by 2050. It also planned major increases in grid integration with the rest of the EU. It saw offshore wind as a major growth area- it wanted 25 GW in place by 2030. At present it has around 27GW in place but mostly on land, plus around 16GW of solar PV. In addition to a large hydro contribution, including pumped stage facilities, major new geothermal and biomass projects are on the way, with biogas seen as key new option, replacing imported Natural Gas. The review also called for primary energy consumption to be halved by 2050, and overall, the review aimed for a 40% by 2020 CO2 reduction target.

With nuclear to be removed by around 2020, the renewables expansion programme and energy saving initiatives will have to be accelerated. A draft of a new plan, reported on Dow Jones Newswires, said “After the catastrophe in Japan, we will accelerate the fundamental conversion of our energy supply already laid out in the [2010] energy concept" i.e the 'Energiekonzept' review. Among measures to boost renewable energy, the draft plan envisions a €5 billion programme to increase offshore wind power, financed by the Germany's KfW state development bank. The plan says legislation on renewable energy will be updated this year, while existing wind parks should be "repowered" by replacing old turbines with more efficient models. The draft plan also foresees the construction of new gas-fired power plants to balance out fluctuations in energy output from renewables. These should be built by companies currently providing less than 5% of Germany's electricity-generating capacity, the plan stipulates. That would exclude the country's major energy producers. The draft plan also demands an "offensive" to designate new areas for wind parks and plan the construction of "electricity highways" to bring renewable power from windy northern Germany to industrial areas in the south.

The Wall Street Journal said the report ‘marks a significant shift as Germany ceases to debate whether to phase out its reactors and focuses more on how quickly and at what cost’.

It won’t be easy. But, with the greens now playing an increasing role, the political will seems to be there to try.

There could still be some political problems though. The lead is being taken by Merkel’s CDU, still the dominant party. Might that be just temporary opportunism? Could we have the sort of ugly coalition between a conservative party and an allegedly progressive party that we have in the UK, with the later being sidelined? Fortunately the German Greens seem quite robust, whereas the German Liberals have almost been wiped out and Merkel does really seem to have changed position on nuclear: at the April Summit on the issue she said ‘I think we all want to move away from nuclear energy as quickly as possible and switch to renewables’. She might of course backslide after Fukushima is forgotten. But that won’t be easy – especially since support for nuclear, already very low in Germany, has now fallen from 10% to 5%, while support for renewables, already very high, continues to rise, with 86% now backing solar (as against 83% in January), and 80% wind energy (Jan: 72%).

A nuclear free Germany? Yes please!

*And also now, a nuclear free Italy: with opposition mounting, the government backtracked on its earlier attempt to push for a nuclear renaissance in Italy.