Two Americans Get Why Germany’s Nuclear Phaseout Makes Sense

Almost simultaneously there were two excellent online publications by US journalists recently debunking some of the myths about Germany’s nuclear phaseout.

David Roberts mostly focuses on the fact that nuclear is actually incompatible with renewables.

Nuclear power’s proponents frequently point out that it is one of the only low-carbon sources that can serve as “baseload” (always on) power. Baseload power is needed, they say, because renewable sources like solar are intermittent (the sun isn’t always shining) and non-dispatchable (the sun can’t be turned on and off at will). You need large, steady, predictable power plants if you’re going to have all those flighty renewables involved.

However, the intermittency of renewables is exactly why they are not compatible with nuclear.

The residual load will fluctuate in ways that are only partially predictable. To cover it you need options that are flexible and responsive.

Nuclear power plants are not that. They are the opposite of that. In fact, they “have a technically mandated minimum down time of approx. 15 to 24 hours, and it takes up to 2 days to get them up and running again.”

Craig Morris’ piece takes apart a whole series of myths. The whole piece is 8 pages and excellent reading, here are the key points:

Will Germany not have to simply import nuclear power from other countries?

Germany has been a net exporter of power for years and remained so in 2011.

Isn’t Germany planning to replace nuclear largely with natural gas, which only goes to show that renewables alone cannot replace nuclear?

Yes and no.

The partial switch to natural gas also lays the foundations for a feasible solution to the problem of storing excess power: power to gas, in which excess solar and wind power is used make hydrogen. Germany also plans to refine more and more biogas into “biomethane,” essentially biogas with properties nearly identical to natural gas. (…) As natural gas becomes scarcer and more expensive, Germany could produce excess solar power in the summer, store it for the winter as gas, store excess wind power as gas for hours and days at a time, and use dispatchable cogeneration turbines running increasingly on biomethane as natural gas is phased out. No fancy gas storage tanks will be needed; Germany will just use the gas lines it already has.

In 2010, researchers from Germany’s Fraunhofer estimated that the German gas network has a storage capacity equivalent to more than four months of German power consumption. German researchers have also estimated that 100 percent renewable power would only “require up to two weeks at a time to be bridged during the winter,” far less than the four months already available. But that two-week gap can only be crossed if Germany gets rid of nuclear and resorts to natural gas as a bridge today.

What about coal power – is Germany not going to switch to that?

Central-station coal plants would also be just as inflexible – and hence incompatible with intermittent renewable power – as central nuclear plants are (see above). Given Germany’s ambitious climate targets, the strong push for renewable energy, and constraints for CO2 storage, large investors such as Vattenfall don’t see a future for new coal plants in Germany.

Won’t switching from nuclear to natural gas increase carbon emissions?

Morris answers that Germany is anyway overachieving its Kyoto target. And that it is rather ironic that it being criticised by countries who either do not meet their Kyoto targets or did not even sign on in the first place. But here as well the simple answer is no. Emissions from power plants are capped by the EU’s emission trading system. So even if emissions from Germany’s power sector increased temporarily, the net effect would still be zero, emissions would just need to be reduced somewhere else in the emission trading system.

Aren’t renewables a relatively expensive way to lower carbon emissions?

If you want to compare apples and oranges, yes. It is often claimed, for instance, that insulation is a much cheaper way. But even if we insulate our homes better (which, incidentally, Germany also already does better than anyone else), we still have to decide how we are going to make electricit

Aren’t renewables raising the cost of power in Germany, and isn’t nuclear cheap?

A qualified yes to the first part, a qualified no to the second. Decades-old nuclear plants (built with heavy subsidies and governmental support) do indeed produce quite inexpensive power, but all estimates are that the cost of building a nuclear plant today without heavy subsidies would be prohibitive. The only plants currently under construction in the EU (in France and Finland) are both behind schedule and far over budget.

In the US, Wall Street has turned its back on financing risky nuclear power. Only the massive subsidy of $8.33 billion in conditional federal loan guarantees keeps Southern Company’s dream alive to build two additional reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia. Vogtle, however, has a history that should trouble taxpayers. The original two reactors at the Georgia site took almost 15 years to build, came in 1,200 percent over budget and resulted in the largest rate hike at the time in Georgia.

In addition, costs of renewables have been coming down rapidly. Some even see solar PV on its way to becoming the cheapest electricity technology (see previous posts here and here).

Anything else we need to know about Germany’s switch from nuclear to renewables?

Yes. Germany is replacing central-station plants that can only be run by large corporations with truly distributed renewable power. While Germany’s Big Four utilities make up around three quarters of total power generation, they only own seven percent of green power. Roughly three quarters of renewable power investments have been made by individuals, communities, farmers, and small and midsize enterprises.

small-town energy revolution is going on in Germany, with more than 100 rural communities becoming 100% renewable. More people work today in Germany’s renewable sector than in the country’s nuclear and coal industry combined. These are not only new green jobs, but also blue-collar jobs in very traditional industrial areas, such as steel, glass and ceramics. Even worn down shipyard areas in northern Germany are revitalized thanks to the offshore wind industry. So one reason why Germans might not mind paying a little more for green power is that they largely pay that money back to their communities and themselves, not to corporations.

Related Posts:

No Blackouts, Still a Net Electricity Exporter – German Nuclear Phaseout Is Working

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