Without Nuclear Power, Germany's Energy Future Looks Short of Energy
Green dreams are no substitute for good planning and reliable electricity.
For all of the terrible political decisions made in recent years, it's not often that you get to see a country's government effectively contemplate national suicide. At least, that's the way it feels to watch German officials boldly stumble into the country's energy future, which looks all too much like a future without energy. Berlin politicians' commitment to green ideology, which had already gone down a series of unproductive paths, recently culminated in the closure of Germany's last nuclear power plants without a credible plan for keeping the lights on or the economy producing.
"Germany has shut down its last three nuclear reactors," Deutsche Welle reported on April 14. "For the country's Green Party, it's a long-held dream come true." At one time, "19 nuclear power plant units supplied up to a third of the country's electricity." But that era ended to make way for the dream.
That dream is part of Germany's official policy of Energiewende (energy transition). "The energy transition is our pathway into a future that is secure, environmentally-friendly, and economically successful," boasts the country's Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action. "We are in the process of overhauling Germany's energy supply, moving away from nuclear and fossil fuels towards renewables and better energy efficiency."
That said, Energiewende hit some speed bumps along the way because of the unpredictable nature of wind and solar power and resulting high costs.
Dreams Won't Keep the Lights On
"The new system, using intermittent power from wind and solar, accounted for 110 GW, nearly 50 percent of all installed capacity in 2019, but operated with a capacity factor of just 20 percent," Vaclav Smil wrote in 2020 for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' IEEE Spectrum. That means other power plants using nuclear, coal, and gas have to be maintained as backup.
"It costs Germany a great deal to maintain such an excess of installed power," Smil added. "The average cost of electricity for German households has doubled since 2000. By 2019, households had to pay 34 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 22 cents per kilowatt-hour in France and 13 cents in the United States."
Then Russia invaded Ukraine and cut off natural gas to the underdog-supporting Europeans. The flow is unlikely to resume in the wake of the Nord Stream pipelines going boom. Pretty soon, "green" Germany was firing up old coal-burning power plants and sending in riot police to clear out protesters so coal mines could be expanded. It was an energy transition all right—to the 19th century. That is, unless German politicians were to rethink their commitment to abandoning nuclear power. They didn't. A lot of smart people consider that a mistake.
"We are among the leading international scientists from various fields of research, including natural, environmental and climate sciences," reads an April 14 letter to Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz signed by, among others, Nobel laureates in physics Klaus von Klitzing, of the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research, and Steven Chu, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "In view of the threat that climate change poses to life on our planet and the obvious energy crisis in which Germany and Europe find themselves due to the unavailability of Russian natural gas, we call on you to continue operating the last remaining German nuclear power plants."
Nuclear power, they pointed out, is a lot cleaner than coal. It's also, as Vaclav Smil pointed out in IEEE Spectrum, much more reliable than solar and wind. In the absence of nuclear power, electricity prices are bound to rise. Price hikes are already being announced—up to 45 percent in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. That's even after Europe dodged the worst effects of the natural gas crunch courtesy of a combination of cooperative weather and sacrifice.
Crisis Averted by Sacrifice and Luck
"Number one, the Europeans, especially the Germans, shut down most industrial demand," noted geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan, the author of last year's The End of the World is Just the Beginning, a downbeat assessment of global economic prospects for the near future. "So they just stopped smelting aluminum and steel and stopped fabricating petrochemicals and fertilizers. That is something you can sustain, but only at the cost of absolutely massive damage to your economic system… Second, the Europeans paid five, six, seven, eight, nine times the prices that they were paying before in order to tap natural gas [in] liquefied form… The third thing is they got really lucky. Temperatures for the last nine, ten weeks across all of Europe have been 20 to 30 degrees above historical average."
"Now, the problem for the Europeans is none of these things are really replicable," Zeihan adds.
Some Europeans agree and seek to avoid a poorly lit, deindustrialized future.
"We want to have a strategy for nuclear in Europe," commented Joël Barre, who leads France's effort to build new nuclear plants, two weeks ago. "I don't understand the position of Germany because I don't believe at all that up to the middle of the century they will be able to carry out a zero-carbon strategy based solely on renewable sources."
Likewise, Finland just started up Olkiluoto 3, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. And as Germany closed its last reactors, Deutsche Welle pointed out that "China, Russia and India in particular are all planning to build new nuclear power plants… Even Japan wants to return to more nuclear power."
Plans Are Better Than Dreams
That's not to say that the path to the future necessarily relies on nuclear power. But modern civilization needs readily available and affordable energy. Lighting, heating, and manufacturing all require electricity at competitive rates, and producing it necessitates, at the very least, replacing sources that fall out of ideological fashion. A little less rigidity might even help to achieve the green dream.
"Without anything like the expensive, target-mandated Energiewende, the United States has decarbonized at least as fast as Germany, the supposed poster child of emerging greenness," Smil observed in his 2020 IEEE Spectrum article.
Renewables such as solar and wind can play a role—if you find a way to store the power for when the air is calm and the sun is down. One "option would be to turn the wind power into methane or hydrogen and then turn them into so-called e-fuels. Here, too, existing infrastructure could be used: fuel-storage facilities, pipelines and gas stations of the petroleum industry," speculated a 2019 Der Spiegel article about the then-already obvious failures of Energiewende dreams.
That might work if it was tested and implemented before abandoning proven energy sources. Actually, innovation might come up with a host of new solutions if it wasn't stifled by the ponderous bureaucracy for which Germany (and Europe overall) is justly famous. What's not an option is shutting down reliable power plants and hoping for the best.
Well, maybe shutting off the power is an option. If a country is trying to commit suicide.