German Energy Priorities

By Dana Nuccitelli
Environmental Scientist
Posted on 6 July 2011
Filed under Carbon Reduction, Energy
and Bärbel Winkler

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Germany has decided to phase-out its nuclear power plants by 2022.  Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany would need to replace a substantial amount of this phased-out energy with coal and natural gas power plants.

"If we want to exit nuclear energy and enter renewable energy, for the transition time we need fossil power plants. At least 10, more likely 20 gigawatts [of fossil capacity] need to be built in the coming 10 years."

However, phasing out its nuclear power plants was first planned by Chancellor Schroeder in 2000.  In 2010, amid much uproar among the German public, their government announced a plan to prolong the lifespan of most nuclear reactors by many years.  Chancellor Merkel's recent announcement is therefore a return to the previous German plan.

Chancellor Merkel also said that Germany would still attempt to meet its aggressive target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2020 despite the phaseout of its nuclear plants.  Although such a substantial emissions cut may sound infeasible while phasing out and replacing nuclear power plants, the previous German climate plan – which included phase-out of nuclear power – had also set a goal of 40% emissions cuts below 1990 levels.

Currently Germany produces 44% of its electric power from coal, 23% from nuclear, 13% from natural gas, 6.5% from wind, 5.5% from biomass, 3.3% from hydroelectric, and 2% from solar photovoltaic.  As of 2010, renewable energy sources (including hydroelectric) accounted for nearly 17% of German electricity generation, which is nothing to sneeze at (in comparison, it's currently approximately 10% in the USA).  Germany intends to more than double that figure to 35% by 2020.

Thus the good news is that Germany plans to replace most of its phased-out nuclear power with renewable energy.  This is a plausible plan, as there have been several studies proposing pathways for Germany to meet 100% of its energy needs from renewable sources within a few decades.  Additionally, because many of the coal power plants are becoming old and require replacement anyway, even with the nuclear power phase-out, Germany planned to decrease coal production from 51.1 gigawatts (GW) in 2010 to 42.9 GW in 2020.

The bad news is that according to Chancellor Merkel, 10–20 GW of new fossil fuel power plants need to be built in order to facilitate the nuclear phase-out.  If the nuclear power plant lifetimes were extended as briefly planned in 2010, the retiring fossil fuel plants could more easily be replaced by renewable energy sources, followed by a replacement of the nuclear plants with renewables as well.  New power plants have lifespans of many decades, so building 10–20 GW of new fossil fuel power will commit Germany to their associated emissions for a long time to come.

Ultimately it's a problem of priorities.  There has long been an anti-nuclear sentiment amongst the German public, which was amplified by the Fukushima disaster.  However, the public health risk associated with coal power is several times larger than that from nuclear power (Ren et al 1998), and the CO2 emissions associated with nuclear power are approximately 7 times lower than natural gas and 15 times lower than coal (Sovacool 2008).

Thus from a logical and scientific standpoint, Germany should first phase-out the use of more dangerous and environmentally damaging fossil fuels before pursuing a phase-out of nuclear power.  Unfortunately the German public has its priorities backwards, phasing-out the energy source which poses less of a threat to both public health and the global climate. 

It's also worth noting that according to the German Advisory Council on the Environment, there are scenarios in which Germany could phase-out the use of coal and nuclear power simultaneously, replacing them with renewable energy.  Perhaps Germany can pursue these plans, rather than building the 10-20 gigawatts of additional fossil fuel power Merkel believes is necessary.

If not, we can only hope Germany straightens out its priorities, or they will find it difficult to meet their commendable greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets.  Then again, Germany is already way ahead of the emissions reductions game when compared to many other developed countries like the USA, Australia, and Canada, for example.  In fact, Germany has the benefit of the European Union (EU) carbon emissions trading program – a type of system which the aforementioned countries have thus far failed to implement, but which caps the EU's total emissions:

"CO2 emissions would rise only in the short term under a phase-out of nuclear power by 2020 instead of 2022. A complete phase-out by 2015, however, would push up CO2 emissions considerably...Climate change mitigation would not be affected, contrary to some widespread beliefs. There is a cap for European greenhouse gas emissions. When one country increases its emissions, they have to be reduced somewhere else."

In other words, not only does Germany already have a far more aggressive emissions reduction goal than most other developed nations, but it's also part of the EU, which has implemented a serious system to cap carbon emissions.  It's also worth noting that German per capita CO2 emissions are approximately half those of the three aforementioned countries, and have already dropped more than 20% since 1990.  Therefore, although Germany may have its priorities backwards in terms of fossil fuel vs. nuclear phase-outs, it's still far ahead of the USA, Australia, Canada, and others in terms of taking serious steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This post is an updated version of a post that first appeared on Skepticalscience.com

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