Renewed support for renewables and an end to nuclear power keep Germany on its carbon neutral path
By Linda Pentz Gunter
Germany is a country of sensible shoes. And, I might add, supremely comfortable ones. Germans do buttery leather as well as they do beer.
Germany’s energy policy is similarly sensible. Germans see no reason to choose the slowest, most expensive, most dangerous and decidedly non-renewable energy source with which to address the climate crisis.
Consequently, Germany rejected nuclear power, and on Saturday April 15, it closed the last of its reactors. Germany, like its even more sensible neighbor, Austria — where nothing nuclear may even traverse its terrain — is now a nuclear-free country. Almost. The next step for the German anti-nuclear movement will be to close the URENCO uranium enrichment facility there and the Lingen fuel fabrication plant. And of course there remain nuclear weapons in Germany, not theirs, but ours.
While France continues to wobble along on its high-fashion nuclear stilettos, turning ankles and snapping off heels whenever the going gets rough, Germany will trudge on inexorably, and comfortably, to its stated goal of carbon neutral by 2045.
Germany also plans to end it coal use possibly as soon as 2030, but certainly by 2038. Although, you’d never know it, with all the alarmist hype in circulation post nuclear shutdown. The nuclear lobby, already in propaganda over-drive, has now gone supersonic in its efforts to persuade the world that Germany’s choice to close those last three reactors — never mind that their energy has already been replaced by renewables —will mean burning more coal.
The decision to prolong the operating time of its last three reactors until April 2023 (they were originally due to close at the end of 2022) was largely political, designed to appease rightwing voices within the governing alliance led by the Social Democrats. “We could, in fact, have already shut down the nuclear power plants by January 1 of this year without the lights going out,” said German economist, Claudia Kemfert. “The extension was more like a psychological comfort blanket, as we had an oversupply of electricity,” she told the Washington Post.
Germany didn’t need those last three reactors to keep its green revolution on track. And it especially didn’t need them through this winter, after rejecting the supply of gas from Russia in response to that country’s invasion of Ukraine. German heating is not electric. So nuclear power had no role to play in easing that situation.
Meanwhile, power prices on the European Energy Exchange for the first quarter of 2023 were more than twice as high in France than in Germany. Much of this was due to loss of market confidence in French state energy company, EDF, to get sufficient numbers of their troubled nuclear reactors back on line to meet demand.
This did not change after Germany’s last three reactors closed. As Bruno Burger of Energy Charts noted as a caption to the graphic below: “The shutdown of the last three German nuclear power plants has no visible effect on weekly Future Electricity Prices in Germany.”
The nuclear power contribution to Germany’s energy mix has been steadily declining since the renewable energy boom, known as the Energiewende, was launched in 2000 with the Renewable Energy Act. A precondition of the Act’s passage was that as nuclear power was phased out it would be replaced by renewable energy and energy efficiency (although demand should have been brought down much faster, much further) and not by fossil fuels.
In 2000, the renewables share in German electricity was just over 6%. The nuclear share was 30%. In just 23 years, those numbers have more than reversed, with today’s share of on- and off-shore wind plus solar at just over 46% and nuclear at 4.6% in the last week before the final reactor closures. Germany remains on track to achieve its carbon neutral goal by 2045.
The renewable energy boom was greatly helped by the implementation of a feed-in tariff that helped to create confidence and certainty for renewable energy investors who were guaranteed a fixed price for 20 years, above the standard market price. This spurred a big investment, not just by companies, farmers, and coops, but by individuals and many municipalities.
This led to local success stories such as Morbach, a small town about 92 miles west of Frankfurt that boasts 14 wind turbines, 4,000 square meters of solar panels and a biogas plant. Combined, these generate three times more electricity than the community of 11,000 people needs. They sell the surplus back to the grid.
Simply put, the nuclear phaseout opened the way for renewable energy growth in Germany and put the country on the path to a fossil fuel-free future as well. Without the former, the latter would not have happened.
Critics who falsely ascribe Germany’s continued use of coal, including brown coal or lignite, to the nuclear phaseout, fail to understand that these upticks are driven by the export market and are not related to domestic consumption or the nuclear shutdown.
Ironically it is nuclear France, dependent on electric heat, that is partially responsible for the demand for German coal. This was especially so this past winter when the French nuclear sector all but collapsed with more than 50% of its nuclear capacity down due to serious safety issues combined with scheduled maintenance.
In contrast, in 2022, Germany succeeded in weaning itself off Russian gas entirely and supplying France with 15 billion kWh of electricity net.
Furthermore, Germany’s lignite and coal production remains well below earlier levels and Germany is legally committed to end coal use by 2038. The current government is working to advance this date to 2030.
According to the 2022 World Nuclear Industry Status Report: “Lignite peaked in 2013 and then declined—especially in 2019–2020—before increasing again by 20.2 percent in 2021. However, lignite generation remained below the 2019-level and 25 percent below the 2010 level.
“Hard coal also peaked in 2013 then dropped to 64 percent below the 2010-level. While it has seen, at 27.7 percent, the strongest increase in 2021 of any power generation technology, it also remains below the 2019 numbers.
“Natural gas fluctuated since 2010 and peaked in 2020 at 2.6 percent above the 2010-level before dropping by 5.3 percent in 2021.”
In fact, Germany’s struggle to get off fossil fuels lies mainly in the transport rather than the electricity sector. The country’s love affair with the car and speed limit-free autobahns is a long engagement that now needs to be broken.
Germany’s path to a carbon neutral economy is all about the trajectory, which is on track, despite bumps in the road. As always, it is about a political commitment rather than any technological challenges. If the current government sticks to its word to greatly accelerate renewable energy implementation, the Energiewende, by no means a perfect roadmap, will get itself back on track.
Mistakes were undoubtedly made. Even after then Chancellor Angela Merkel had her epiphany in 2011 in light of the Japan nuclear disaster at Fukushima, making an overnight decision to restore Germany on the path to nuclear shutdown, she subsequently made drastic cuts in solar subsidies, something environmentalists described as “nothing less than a solar phase-out law”.
But despite this, Germany remains one of the few Western countries that has demonstrated a consistent commitment both to a nuclear phaseout and to climate chaos abatement.
The German anti-nuclear movement is greatly to be credited with much of this progress. It has long been one of the most powerful and politically effective. Like the sensible shoes they march in, green advocates in Germany understood exactly what their fight was about and the significance of that final nuclear shutdown. I hope they are having a jolly good party. They deserve it. Then it will be back to vigilance over the Energiewende — and hopefully to removing US nuclear weapons from German soil and closing those uranium fuel fabrication plants. Because that is the kind of thing that only people power can get done.
“The German nuclear phase-out is a victory of reason over the lust for profit; over powerful corporations and their client politicians,” read a statement from Greenpeace. “It is a people-powered success against all the odds.”
Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.
Headline Photo: Anti-nuclear demonstration, Germany, by Bündnis 90/Die Grünen Nordrhein-Westfalen/Wikimedia Commons.
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