Critics who cherry pick out-of-context soundbites are missing the overall trajectory
By Linda Pentz Gunter
This week, Beyond Nuclear introduces the fifth in our series of Talking Points: Germany’s Energy Revolution (’Energiewende’) is working.
The purpose of the Talking Points series, is to provide some concise and accessible factoids that answer the many questions in circulation about the role, if any, of nuclear power in addressing climate change.
In the view of Beyond Nuclear, nuclear power not only has no role to play in addressing what is now a climate emergency, it is a proactive impediment to progress, wasting time and diverting money from the measures we should and now urgently must take to get off fossil fuels— those being renewable energy implementation, conservation and, above all, energy efficiency.
Germany’s green energy revolution — known in German as the Energiewende — is constantly misrepresented in the talking points dished out by the other side. It has become the convenient whipping boy of the pro-nuclear crowd, who simply cherry pick headlines out of context without looking at the actual facts.
The purpose of our Energiewende Talking Points, is, therefore, to set the record straight. This was validated in some measure by Javier Blas’s July 29 timely Bloomberg article — Paris Faces an Even Colder, Darker Winter Than Berlin. France is more vulnerable than Germany to blackouts once the weather turns colder.
France is equally misrepresented by the pro-nuclear lobby, held up as the poster child of the nuclear success story. But the truth is rather different. As we point out in these Talking Points, the French nuclear monopoly, and the country’s reliance on electric heat, means it has to import power in winter, often from Germany. Its nuclear supply cannot meet demand but at the same time has stifled growth in renewable energy.
The Talking Points are all freely available to download and print at home. An email request — to firstname.lastname@example.org — will get you as many printed copies as you need, usually for the price of an optional tax-deductible donation.
During our research for this fifth edition of Talking Points, we made some interesting discoveries.
The early rise of the German anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s opened the way for the climate movement and the growing influence of the Green Party. This made it possible to introduce renewables, rather than rely on coal, as the alternative to nuclear power.
This should be encouraging to those who sometimes question whether their protests really change anything. As Kerstine Appunn of Clean Energy Wire wrote last year, “The conviction that nuclear power should not be part of Germany’s energy mix has a long history and is deeply rooted in German society. After years of protests against nuclear power station projects in several locations, and fuelled by the accident at Three Mile Island (U.S.) in 1979 and the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986, the anti-nuclear movement resulted in no new commercial reactors being built in Germany after 1989.”
Equally, not building any new reactors as of 1990 and deciding gradually to close down the existing plants in 2000 opened the way for the renewable energy revolution. German power consumers would not so easily have accepted paying billions of euros to support new renewable technology, if there had not also been huge support for a nuclear phaseout.
Those surcharges may have resulted in some of the highest electricity rates in Europe. But the rate itself is less relevant than what Germans actually pay on their bills. And that’s where we learn that Germans don’t pay more than anyone else, because they consume less. An interesting comparison: while Germans pay almost three times more per kilowatt hour of electricity than Americans, residential electricity use per capita in the United States is almost three times higher than in Germany.
It is also clear that Germany’s continued reliance on — but significant reduction in — the use of coal, has nothing to do with the nuclear phaseout and is driven by market prices, especially for exports. While France has to import electricity to make up for its own shortfalls, (despite its nuclear “prowess”) Germany is a net energy exporter. Any spike in coal production in Germany is driven by that export market and is not for domestic consumption. And even with these occasional upticks, the trajectory of coal and gas in Germany remains downward.
The largely American critics of the German Energiewende are good at casting the first stone without looking in the mirror. Unlike the US, Germany is well on track to meet, or possibly even exceed, its carbon reduction targets. The country’s emissions have fallen by 53% since 1990. The same boast cannot be made in the US.
In fact, Germany could even hit its 80% target share for renewables by 2030 or sooner. And it’s also important to consider where Germany began. In 2000, when the Energiewende was legislated, the renewable share of the German power consumption market was just 6 percent. Today, wind, solar and other renewables make up 54% of Germany’s power consumption.
Equally, the share of coal power in Germany’s electricity generation has fallen from 43 percent in 2011 (when 7 nuclear plants went offline) to 23.4 percent in 2020. Therefore, the argument cannot be made that shutting nuclear power plants in Germany caused increased coal usage.
As Appunn concludes in her December 2021 article:
“Germany’s energy transition in the electricity sector has turned into a comprehensive plan to decarbonise the entire economy and reach net-zero greenhouse gases in 2045. With nuclear power and coal out of the picture by the end of the decade, the new government – which is adhering to the previous government’s climate targets – is putting the focus on renewables growth. Its aim is to reach a share of 80 percent renewables in electricity demand (which is envisaged to grow). Several “Germany net-zero” studies have shown that a system based on renewables is possible.”
Headline photo: Guim Bonaventura I Bou/Creative Commons.