Not since the grim period after World War II has Germany had significant blackouts, but it is now bracing for that possibility after shutting down half its nuclear reactors practically overnight.
Nuclear plants have long generated nearly a quarter of Germany’s electricity. But after the tsunami and earthquake that sent radiation spewing from Fukushima, half a world away, the government disconnected the 8 oldest of Germany’s 17 reactors — including the two in this drab factory town — within days. Three months later, with a new plan to power the country without nuclear energy and a growing reliance on renewable energy, Parliament voted to close them permanently. There are plans to retire the remaining nine reactors by 2022.
As a result, electricity producers are scrambling to ensure an adequate supply. Customers and companies are nervous about whether their lights and assembly lines will stay up and running this winter. Economists and politicians argue over how much prices will rise.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Let’s just go for renewables,’ and I’m quite sure we can someday do without nuclear, but this is too abrupt,” said Joachim Knebel, chief scientist at Germany’s prestigious Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. He characterized the government’s shutdown decision as “emotional” and pointed out that on most days, Germany has survived this experiment only by importing electricity from neighboring France and the Czech Republic, which generate much of their power with nuclear reactors.
Then there are real concerns that the plan will jettison efforts to rein in manmade global warming, since whatever nuclear energy’s shortcomings, it is low in emissions. If Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, falls back on dirty coal-burning plants or uncertain supplies of natural gas from Russia, isn’t it trading a potential risk for a real one?
The world is watching Germany’s extreme energy makeover, as politicians from New York to Rome have floated their own plans to shut or shelve reactors.
The International Energy Agency, generally a fan of Germany’s green-leaning energy policy, has been critical. Laszlo Varro, head of the agency’s gas, coal and power markets division, called the plan “very, very ambitious, though it is not impossible, since Germany is rich and technically sophisticated".
Even if Germany succeeds in producing the electricity it needs, “the nuclear moratorium is very bad news in terms of climate policy,” Varro said. “We are not far from losing that battle, and losing nuclear makes that unnecessarily difficult.”
The government counters that it is prepared to make huge investments in improving energy efficiency in homes and factories as well as in new clean power sources and transmission lines. So far, there have been no blackouts.
But Jürgen Grossmann, chief executive of the German energy giant RWE, which owns two closed reactors here in Biblis, about 40 miles south of Frankfurt, expressed skepticism. “Germany, in a very rash decision, decided to experiment on ourselves,” he said. “The politics are overruling the technical arguments.”
The Nuclear Equation
Germany’s planners believed they could forgo nuclear energy in large part because of the country’s remarkable progress in renewable energy, which now accounts for 17 percent of its electricity output, a number the government estimates will double in 10 years. On days when the offshore wind turbines spin full tilt, Germany produces more electricity from renewable sources than it uses, according to European energy monitors.
Germany has “exceeded everyone’s expectations on renewable power,” said Varro, showing that it could be cost effective and reliable.
Until it closed the reactors, Germany was Europe’s leading energy exporter.
With a total of 133 gigawatts of installed generating capacity in place at the start of this year, “there was really a huge amount of space to shut off nuclear plants,” Harry Lehmann, a director general of the German Federal Environment Agency and one of Germany’s leading policy makers on energy and environment, said of the road map he helped develop. The country needs about 90.5 gigawatts of generating capacity on hand to fill a typical national demand of about 80 gigawatts a day. So the 25 gigawatts that nuclear power contributed would not be missed — at least within its borders.
To be prudent, the plan calls for the creation of 23 gigawatts of gas- and coal-powered plants by 2020. Why? Because renewable plants don’t produce nearly to capacity if the air is calm or the sky is cloudy, and there is currently limited capacity to store or transport electricity, energy experts say.
New coal and gas plants will use the cleanest technology available and should not aggravate climate change, government officials said, because they will operate within the European carbon-trading system in which plants that exceed the allowed emissions cap have to buy carbon credits from companies whose activities are environmentally beneficial, thus evening out the environmental ledger.
Electricity prices are expected to rise by 35 to 40 euros ($50 to $60) per household each year, or less than 5 percent, the government estimates. Though nuclear energy generally costs less than newer options, German law has long stipulated that renewable energy must be purchased first even if it is costlier.
But skeptics consider government assumptions overly optimistic. Stefan Martus, the mayor of Philippsburg, says he believes energy costs could rise more dramatically than government estimates; the price of permits to offset dirty power plants is highly unpredictable and variable, like the value of stocks. And the International Energy Agency does not think Germany — or any other country — will be able to reduce its emissions at a reasonable cost without nuclear power.
Energy agency officials also question predictions that electricity use will decline an additional 10 percent over the next decade given the projected expansion of electric growth of the German economy. The average German family already uses only about half the electricity of its American equivalent.
“Yes, there is German angst about nuclear power,” said Hildegard Cornelius-Gaus, the mayor of Biblis. ”But if you phrased the question, ‘Would you want to phase out nuclear energy if it cost massively more and you risk blackouts?’ the answer would be very different.”
An Ambivalent History
Even before Fukushima, nuclear energy’s days in Germany were numbered. Biblis had been the site of giant national antinuclear demonstrations, and Germany was already enacting a plan for slowly phasing out nuclear energy by 2023. The country had become the world leader in wind power and a master at squeezing more energy efficiency out of appliances and homes, having built tens of thousands of self-heating “passive houses.”
Still, Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself a physicist, decided last fall to extend the operating licenses of Germany’s nuclear plants over concerns that innovation alone would not satisfy the country’s energy appetite.
Fukushima changed everything.
That Japan is a technologically advanced country made the nuclear accident more alarming to the German people than the Chernobyl disaster, at an old Soviet reactor. Despite that, industry experts and residents of reactor towns like Biblis and nearby Philippsburg were stunned by the suddenness of the about-face.
Both towns will lose hundreds of jobs and millions in tax revenue.
German energy companies say they have been handed a national energy template that looks good on paper but is technically challenging. Although the country’s production of energy is bounteous, they say it is not always available where and when it is needed. Northern Germany has offshore wind and coal deposits, but southern Germany — a manufacturing epicenter that is home to Mercedes, BMW and Audi — has no plentiful local fuel source other than nuclear. Germany’s current grid is highly decentralized, lacking high-voltage transmission lines to move electricity over long distances.
“Now, with the nuclear shut down, we have a very difficult task,” said Joachim Vanzetta, head of transmission system operations at Amprion, the largest of the country’s four grid operators.
Amprion had already started working toward a renewable future with no nuclear power, planning for 500 miles of new transmission lines to bring electricity from north to south that would cost $4.3 billion and take 10 to 15 years to build. At most, 40 miles of lines have been completed.
The country has also been pouring money into biomass plants and solar installations — millions of panels now sit on German roofs and fields. Despite recent technological improvements, solar electricity is still far more expensive to generate than wind, gas or nuclear power. And output can be highly seasonal.
Germany’s hope that gas and coal plants will temporarily replace some of the lost nuclear generation may be hard to fulfill — power companies remain lukewarm about building them especially given the German policy of buying “clean” energy first. “Few operators will be willing to build a power plant in a form that may ultimately only run a couple of hundred hours a year,” Grossman of RWE said.
This winter, Amprion predicts its grid will have 84,000 megawatts of electricity at its disposal, to provide 81,000 megawatts needed for consumption — an uncomfortably slim margin of safety, Vanzetta said. In prior years, electricity was readily available for purchase on the European grid if the price was right. But exported German power is what helped keep France glowing in winter.
“At the moment, we have a stressed system, but it’s under control,” Vanzetta said. “If we have days with no wind and no solar and can’t buy energy from abroad, then there is the risk of blackouts.”