In 2011, Angela Merkel, who just this past weekend won her third term as Chancellor, came up with a bold plan to shut down all her country’s nuclear plants by 2022, and shift 80% of consumption to renewable sources of energy like wind and solar by 2050.The Fukushima disaster in Japan was fresh in everyone’s memory and Germany has always had a vibrant Green movement, so the whole country embraced the plan with typical Teutonic efficiency.
Two years later the German economy and the people are paying the cost for this attempt at energy transformation, or “EnergieWende”, the German buzzword
for the program. Consumer power tariffs have gone up by 47% – thanks to a renewable energy surcharge levied by the four grid companies that manage power distribution in Germany. Germans now pay twice as much as Americans for power. Adding insult to injury, the general public subsidizes the heavy industries, the largest consumers, who are exempt from paying such surcharges.
Deciding to discontinue operations in eight of Germany’s seventeen nuclear power plants caused a large deficit in overall power production. This has led to a shortfall, which in turn resulted in production being shifted to coal and lignite fueled plants. The impact on CO2 emissions has been terrible—the country recorded the first successive year-on-year worsening in air pollution since the 1980s. In order to reduce emissions in the long-term, Germany has ended up with high emissions in the present.
Ironically, politicians in the UK seem to have rediscovered the virtues of nuclear power thanks to the German experience. The Liberal Democrats, currently part of the ruling coalition, for the first time in their history have accepted a limited role for nuclear energy if they want to reach the ultimate goal of a zero-carbon UK. Governments and nuclear opponents should also look to the US, another country trying hard to change its energy future—despite not building a new plant since 1973, nuclear plants have improved their efficiency such that it is equivalent to adding 40 new reactors, and today there are four new reactor units currently under construction.
Now it’s up to German politicians to recognize the writing on the wall, that renewable sources of energy, while an important part of the energy mix, are not ready to do the heavy lifting just yet. Rather than stubbornly stick to the timeline of decommissioning plants which will see the Grafenrheinfeld plant as the next one to go offline in 2015, it is time to think about revising the policy to secure the country’s long-term energy future.
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