Energy experts stress that Germany’s ambitious move to phase out coal at a rapid speed is unlikely to succeed.
In a bid to wean itself off fossil fuels in electricity generation, Germany’s government has pledged to shut down all the Central European nation’s coal-fired power plants. According to the planned timetable, out of Germany’s current 84 coal-fired plants a quarter of its largest (with a capacity of more than 12.5 gigawatts) will stop operating by 2022. Smaller plants will be allowed to carry on for several more years, but they too will have been closed down by 2038 at the latest.
So far so good. It remains to be seen, however, just how the German government’s decarbonization effort will pan out. Prominent energy experts stress that Germany’s ambitious move to phase out coal is unlikely to succeed.
The reason is simple: Coal remains a mainstay of Germany’s electricity with hard coal and lignite accounting for a 35% share in German power production. Renewables account for another 35%, while natural gas came third last year with a 12.8% share in the energy pie.
Nuclear power might be a preferred option to replace coal. Yet German policymakers have been shunning nuclear despite its being a reliable and abundant form of low-carbon energy. Currently, nuclear provides just over a tenth, or 11.7%, of Germany’s electricity and there are no plans to boost that share. In fact, along with coal, nuclear energy too is on the way out in Germany.
“No one wants to burn coal,” says Ellen R. Wald, an American historian, author and energy expert who is president of the consulting firm Transversal Consulting. “However, such a bold move away from coal is geopolitically reckless for a country that has no other domestic carbon-based energy sources and refuses to use more nuclear power.” In 2000, coal-fired plants accounted for some 53% of locally generated electricity. In subsequent years Germany began transitioning to wind and solar energy, boosting them from a combined 1.63% of power generated to 18% by 2016. At the same time biofuels grew from 0.5% to almost 7%.
“By all reasonable analysis, coal’s place in German power generation should have decreased by more than the 10.5% it did. What happened?” Wald explains in an essay. Yet just as Germany “was committing to renewables, it was also scaling down its nuclear power generation,” she elucidates. “In 2000, nuclear accounted for more than 29% of electricity generation in Germany and by 2016 it contributed just over 13%.”
The nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture in Japan in 2011 prompted a policy reversal in faraway Germany. Shortly after the Japanese disaster, the country’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced that Germany’s 17 nuclear plants would all be shut down one after another with the last one ceasing operations by 2022.
Yet German concerns over the safety of nuclear energy are overblown, Wald argues. The disaster in Fukushima was triggered by a powerful earthquake, followed by a massive tsunami. Neither natural disaster is likely to occur in the Central European nation any time soon. “German politicians seem to think nuclear power is too dangerous and decided not to build more nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster in Japan,” Wald says in an interview with Sustainability Times. “Nuclear provides a very reliable source of energy for base load production,” she stresses.
Jeff Terry, a professor of physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology, concurs. “The current generation of western-designed nuclear reactors has done an incredible job of protecting lives even under incredibly difficult conditions like those faced after the earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima,” Prof. Terry tells Sustainability Times.
The latest generation of reactors currently in development will do an even better job at protecting lives and property, the physicist adds. “These reactors will effectively shut themselves down and protect themselves from harm,” says Terry, a specialist in energy systems and small modular nuclear reactors.
“We have had designs of these types of passively safe reactors since EBR-II demonstrated shutdown during simulated accidents in the mid-1980s,” the physicist adds. “It is too bad that we didn’t start building more of these then.”
Another oft-cited reason against nuclear energy is the high costs of building new plants. Yet that is hardly a major factor in the case of a country like Germany. “How cost-effective [nuclear power] is depends on how cost-effective the entities that build the nuclear plants are,” Wald says. “Less corruption and fewer costly regulatory hurdles would make it more cost-effective.”
Germany boasts very low levels of corruption and world-renowned technological capacities, which would both help keep the costs of new nuclear energy within reasonable bounds. Nor would investing in nuclear energy be too big a drain on the country’s ample financial resources. Germany’s plan to phase out coal-fired power plants is expected to cost upwards of €40 billion, much of which could be recouped by embracing nuclear power at the expense of coal.
Instead of boosting its nuclear capacity, however, Germany is currently pinning all its hopes on renewables: solar, wind, biomass and hydropower. The country’s government has set out to have 65% of Germans’ electricity needs met by renewables by 2030. This year the aim will be to achieve a share of 40% for renewables, more than double what it was in 2010.
Yet for renewables to become the single source of locally generated electricity in Germany, where the current annual rate of total power production stands at 542 TWh, both renewable technology and battery storage capacity will need to be boosted significantly. Massive investments in infrastructure and power grids will also be required if solar and wind power are to take over from coal and nuclear in a high-powered nation like Germany, where weather conditions are less than ideal for renewables during much of the year.
“I can’t imagine how energy needs for 12 hours on a windless night could ever be provided by wind and solar alone,” Terry observes. “We would need major advancement in energy storage capacities based upon high-temperature superconductors.” A workable solution, the expert argues, could involve deploying smaller modern reactors strategically to complement renewable energy sources with the aim of ensuring a steady supply of power during periods with weather unfavorable for wind and solar.
“Our research has shown that a sustainable supply chain does not need that many reactors to be ordered. It would be wise for governments to purchase a small number of reactors and then rent them to commercial operators,” Terry explains. “This would lower the risks to private industry, would lower costs for purchasing reactors, and would subsidize the nuclear supply chain back into existence. I think rebuilding the nuclear power industry in the west will require some level of public-private partnership.”
“Addressing the challenges of climate change will also require such partnership,” he adds. “Fortunately, we could address both with the same program.”