No nukes, No problem. Germany is proving a rapid transition to renewable energy is possible

Within four decades, one of the world’s leading economies will be powered almost entirely by wind, solar, biomass, hydro, and geothermal power.

atomkraft_nein_danke_2-750599Stephen Lacey: As Germany is showing, it is very possible to get large penetrations of renewable energy while phasing out nuclear energy. With bold political and social support, a consistent incentive framework for clean energy investment, and creative thinking about how to deploy geographically-dispersed resources, Germany is undergoing a major transition in its energy sector.

Below, two experts on the German experience “” Wilson Rickerson of Meister Consultants and Arne Jungjohann of the Heinrich Boll Foundation “” describe how the country will “reduce carbon emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2020 (and 80% by 2050)” without nukes.

During the last several years, there has been talk of a global “renaissance of nuclear energy”. That was yesterday. Today, the tragic disaster in Fukushima, Japan, has raised worrying questions about the safety standards of existing nuclear power plants. Countries around the world have prompted safety reviews of active reactors. In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will publish a review of the 104 active reactors within three months. China has meanwhile suspended new plant approvals and Switzerland has shut down its plans for nuclear expansion.

But safety issues are not the only concern for nuclear power these days. Rising costs and perceived financial risks are significant barriers to new investments. President Obama supports nuclear power and has included it in his plans to achieve 80% clean energy by 2035. The Administration has also tripled the Bush-era nuclear loan guarantees to $54.5 billion. But despite this federal support, the financial outlook is grim and several projects in the U.S. are delayed or have been cancelled. Analyses suggest that even before the Fukushima crisis, nuclear energy was not competitive in free market economies without significant government support.

Transition or Transformation? Benchmarking against Germany

Countries around the world are in need of reliable and clean energy. Climate change will require a transition towards a low carbon economy within the next decades. In the wake of Fukushima, the key question is: “If not nuclear, what’s next?” As policy makers and industry stakeholders around the world continue to evaluate the role of nuclear power for energy transition, it will be useful for the US to benchmark its strategies against those of other countries.

Germany, in particular, is pursuing a path forward that represents a significant departure from business-as-usual in the US and other countries. Rather than developing nuclear power, Germany is aggressively pursuing renewable energy in combination with innovative new electricity grid management strategies. Interestingly, Germany used to depend much more on nuclear electricity (~30% of national supply) than the U.S. currently does (~20%).

The scale of change that will be required for Germany to meet its renewable energy targets is unprecedented. In September 2010, the conservative government under Chancellor Merkel released its Energy Concept, which outlines the government’s plan to reduce carbon emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2020 (and 80% by 2050) in part by increasing the national share of renewable electricity to more than 35% in 2020 and to 80% by 2050. Within four decades, one of the world’s leading economies will be powered almost entirely by wind, solar, biomass, hydro, and geothermal power.

The German government is combining its push for renewables with a rapid retreat from its existing nuclear assets. Following the Fukushima disaster, the German government announced a three-month shutdown of seven of its seventeen nuclear power plants and a review of its nuclear strategy. Some analysts have argued that a nuclear scale-back in Germany would prevent the country from reaching its long-term climate and energy goals. In reality, Germany is already well on its way to transitioning from nuclear and fossil fuel power to renewable energy. It is likely that the nuclear crisis in Japan will only accelerate progress towards its goals.

Within the next decade: Germany’s Nuclear Phase Out

There has been strong anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany since the nuclear accident in Chernobyl in 1986. This has been reflected in a series of legislation placing limitations on nuclear build out. In 2002, Germany passed legislation establishing a phase out of nuclear power by 2022. In 2010, the Merkel government confirmed the phase out in general, but extended plant lives by an additional 8-12 years. This extension, which was framed as a necessary “bridge” to a renewable energy future, was unpopular with the public. Soon after the Fukushima crisis, Chancellor Merkel’s party (the conservative Christian Democratic Union, or CDU) lost a key election in the state of Baden-W¼rttemberg. The historic election was largely seen as a referendum on nuclear power and it handed the governorship of Baden-W¼rttemberg, one of Germany’s largest and most economically powerful states, to the Green Party, following close to six decades of CDU rule.

At the national level, there is now a new consensus across the political parties in Germany that the nuclear phase out will again be accelerated. The question is not if Germany will phase out nuclear power, but how quickly. Instead of being shut down some time after 2030, current proposals envision full nuclear shut down some time between 2015 and 2025.

Renewable Energy in Germany: Implementing Rapid Transformation

In advance of the phase out revision, Chancellor Merkel met with the governors of the 16 German states in April of this year and outlined a plan to accelerate Germany’s transition from fossil fuel and nuclear power to renewable energy. This is a remarkable development because Germany already has one of the fastest growing renewable energy markets in the world.

During the past decade, Germany has fundamentally transformed the way it produces electricity: from 2000 to 2010, Germany increased its share of renewable electricity from 5% to 17%. The country has consistently met its legislated targets ahead of schedule and appears poised to outdo itself again in the next few years. The previous target of 30% renewable electricity by 2020 has recently been updated by Germany’s official National Renewable Energy Action Plan (NREAP). The NREAP reveals that the country expects to actually generate 38% of its electricity from renewables by 2020.

While hydro power, geothermal, and biogas play an important role in the renewable mix, wind and solar power will expand the most rapidly under the German renewable energy strategy. It is projected that wind and solar will supply 18% and 7% of national electricity by the end of this decade, respectively. Although Germany has received criticism for supporting comparatively high-cost photovoltaic (PV) systems, the government remains committed to growing its PV markets and it seems likely that PV will be competitive with retail electricity within the next two to three years.

Several PV markets in Europe — the Czech Republic, France, and Spain – were recently scaled back following rapid market growth in 2008-2010. Some analysts speculated that Germany would be the next large PV market to be capped. Germany has installed 17,000 MW of PV to date which amounts to more than half of the world’s total, including over 7,400 MW of new PV capacity in 2010 alone. The official projections are that PV will expand to more than 50,000 MW by 2020. Given the phase out of nuclear power, it is likely that this projection could be revised upward as the transition towards a renewable energy based economy accelerates.

Rethinking the way we do business

Most electricity grids have not been built to accommodate the scale of intermittent energy generation (e.g. wind and solar) envisioned in Germany. When pressed about this challenge, a German government official recently responded, “Without a problem there would be no solutions.” Rather than viewing the restructuring of the current grid as an insurmountable obstacle, Germany views the challenge as an opportunity for necessary innovation to support an affordable, clean, and more decentralized energy system in the future. As Germany’s Minister of Environment recently stated:

“It is economically nonsensical to pursue two strategies at the same time, for both a centralized and a decentralized energy supply system, since both strategies would involve enormous investment requirements. I am convinced that the investment in renewable energies is the economically more promising project.”

The future of the German electricity industry will require a rethinking of the way energy is bought, sold and transmitted. In developing the Energy Concept and in presenting its recent six-point plan for accelerated transition, the Merkel government has identified several key initiatives to reorganize the grid, including:

  • Maximizing existing storage options and rolling out innovative new battery technologies
  • Relying increasingly on flexible power plants, such as biomass, biogas, and natural gas, that can more readily balance intermittent wind and solar generation
  • Strengthening and expanding existing electricity grid infrastructure, including the construction of transmission super-highways that can move electricity between the north of the country, where wind is plentiful, and the south, where the solar resource is stronger.
  • Widespread introduction of smart meters and smart grid technologies
  • Accelerated energy efficiency deployment

If centralized nuclear energy and renewable energy are indeed on a collision course, then the German government is working to ensure that renewables not only survive the impact, but emerge stronger than ever before.

Germany’s path forward

The German experience provides a useful case study as the world continues to look for ways to address mounting energy challenges in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Germany is aggressively pursuing a transition away from both nuclear power and from conventional fossil fuels and will likely encounter the challenges – and reap the benefits – of this strategy before other countries. Some analysts have hypothesized that Germany’s 20-year support for renewable energy would place a drag on the economy. However, Germany has rebounded from the financial crisis faster than many other countries around the world and is currently enjoying its strongest economic growth (and lowest unemployment) since its reunification 20 years ago. Renewable energy currently employs 340,000, compared to 50,000 in the coal industry (from mining to the power plant) and Germany forecasts that its exports of clean energy technologies and expertise will continue to expand in the future. If the investment that Germany is making in renewable energy pays off, then it is likely that Germany will continue to remain the economic engine of Europe in the decades to come.

– Wilson Rickerson and Arne Jungjohann

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20 Responses to No nukes, No problem. Germany is proving a rapid transition to renewable energy is possible

  1. Tyler says:

    I understand all the enthusiasm when talking about Germany, but what many people fail to talk about is that Germany still burns a lot of coal. By deciding to phase out nuclear it’s keeping the coal. How is this a good thing from a climate perspective? Same goes for Japan. Yeah, renewables will be a bigger percentage of power supply, but so will fossil fuels. I’m not arguing the decision to phase out the nukes isn’t a good idea, but we have to put this into proper perspective.

    [JR: That just isn’t true. They will “reduce carbon emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2020 (and 80% by 2050).” You could argue fossil fuels will be a bigger percentage of power supply than it otherwise would have, which is to say, they could get a 50% reduction by 2020 and a 90% reduction or more by 2050. I haven’t advocated shutting down nuclear plants — though I think they need much more safety oversight.]

  2. Tom&Jerry says:

    50,000MWe of installed PV doesn’t equal 70 coal fired plants. German solar power runs with about a 13% capacity factor and German coal fired plants run at about 71% on average. Assuming, as you do, the average coal fired plant is somewhere in the 700MWe range, 50,000MWe of installed PV will only replace 13 coal fired units.

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    Congrats to the Germans for showing leadership here.

    Bear in mind that it’s far more difficult for them to transition to clean energy than it is for us. Germany is too cloudy and too far north to be able to implement competitive utility scale solar. They are talking about bringing the power from solar farms in the Sahara, but depending on countries like Algeria and Libya does not inspire confidence.

    Germany’s wind resources are also far less than ours- they have no Great Plains, and the good winds offshore are in the turbulent (and expensive to install) North Sea area.

    The same limitations are there for geothermal and biomass.

    Yet Germany is still going forward, and aggressively. Meanwhile, the US can power the whole country from solar farms in the Mojave desert that occupy about .25% of US total land area, and there are also plenty of good wind locations.

    The main reason for their action and our inaction is that German leadership is enlightened. Ours is buffeted by fossil fuel companies, who exploit ignorance through their friends in the media and their employees in government.

  4. John ONeill says:

    I am definitely arguing that the decision to phase out the nukes is a bad idea. Germany is planning 24 large new coal burning power stations to add to those it already has.There is not much hydro available in winter,so shortfalls in wind and solar power then must be compensated for with gas backup, and to maintain some energy independence from Russian gas supplies they will have to burn more low grade, high CO2 producing east German coal.This decision by Merkel’s government will return to haunt her successors. Meanwhile Sweden to the north, Switzerland to the south and France to the west are making nearly all their electricity from a combination of nuclear and hydro, and all have significantly lower carbon footprints than Germany does. If electricity production is to be increased to replace transport fuels, closing down by far the largest fossil free segment of it is a strange way to start.

  5. Peter Wood says:

    Closing down nuclear plants in Germany will not increase global emissions by one tonne – and its not because of renewable energy policy. Quite simply, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme puts a cap on emissions each year, and that cap will be met. The EU carbon price has increased, and that has driven the rest of Europe to reduce emissions more.

  6. Matter says:

    I agree with John.

    Phasing out nuclear is all well and good if the choice is nukes or renewables. But it’s not, because they’re not going to be 100% renewable for decades. For a good portion of their power supply for the next 40 years it’s nuclear or coal.

    And they’ve chosen coal, which will kill thousands and pump out hundreds of millions of extra tons of CO2.

  7. sod says:

    to understand what is happening in Germany, you need to follow the developments since last year.

    Germany was run by a big coalition of the conservative CDU and the social democratic SPD under the first Merkel Government.

    in 2009, Merkel won a new majority, together with the (market-) liberal FDP.

    the new Government was looking for a way to change politics away from the centrist position they had to take during the government with the social democrats. (they needed to do this, to show that the new government brought a change. it didn t have a good start)
    the problem was, that the change should not cost any money and it was to happen fast, as there were several very important elections in federal states early in 2011.

    they chose to change the nuclear consensus that was a remnant of the social democrat and green government in 2002. it was the plan to restrict all nuclear reactors to a 32 year running time. this decision had been made together with the nuclear industry and had significant support in the population.

    the decision last autumn to allow reactors an additional 12 years of running was mostly a tactical decision. the conservative government was hoping that this would motivate their base for the state elections. these were supposed to be classic decisions between right (CDU and FDP) and left. (SPD and Green)

    so it is no surprise that an analysis of the change did not show a significant advantage of keeping the reactors running lower (it showed a really tiny price reduction)

    at the same time it turned out that the decision was very bad for alternative energy. many regional suppliers (“Stadtwerke”) had made investments into alternative energy, which were threatened by the longer running times.

    *** it is simply false to assume that if we keep nuclear energy, we would get more CO2-free electricity production. instead, nuclear power would block the development of alternatives! it was the clear timetable of a nuclear phase-out, together with feed in tarifes that were driving the growth of alternatives in Germany over the last decade! ***

    the decision after Fukushima (3 month moratorium, with 7 of the oldest plants being switched of) was again a tactical one. Merkel was hoping that this could swing the state elections in her favour. this didn t work out.

  8. MarkF says:

    very informative, thankyou.

    Here’s a single sentence, that says all you need to know about nuclear power: from “solartopia”

    nuclear power is ” an industry that can’t get private financing or meaningful liability insurance, can’t compete in the marketplace and can’t deal with its wastes.”

  9. Viking says:

    Nuclear power is not an option for combatting climate change – it’s a necessity.
    Abandoning a safe, clean, reliable and abundant energy source will not benefit the environment, only fossil fuel interests.

    I totally agree that 100% renewables would be the ideal case, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near realistic, except for a few select countries.

  10. sault says:

    With nuclear’s soaring costs and the enormous lead-times necessary to build reactors, it would be wise to build out wind, solar and other renewables first.

    The lowball cost estimates put forward for the AP1000 or the other Gen III+ designs are not reflective of reality. The $1/W I’ve seen is probably in China with near zero labor costs, corners cut in construction and with the government hiding or absorbing a good deal of the costs. When the costs of reactor construction are much more transparent, $7/W is a more realistic lower bound. Even with that, we still have the potential for more Fukushima-style disasters AND the waste/proliferation issue with these reactors.

    If you can find convincing evidence that my estimates for reactor construction are too high and that reactor construction can commence on a realistic timetable to help avert the worst of climate change, I’ll look at it. However, nuclear booster blogs/websites and industry-funded figures are probably not trustworthy.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    sod #8 is correct, in my opinion. The fanaticism for nuclear, even despite the hideous Fukushima calamity (which has been lied about with typical enthusiasm from the start)is simply a ruse to de-rail renewables. In other words nuclear is not an alternative to coal, it is a Trojan Horse for coal, which interests it promotes, along with other hydrocarbons, by delaying renewable research and roll-out.

  12. Sylvia Keet Peebles says:

    The continued government subsidies for nuclear power, with all it’s health risks and explosive possibilities, would block the growth of alternate power sources and to turn a blind eye to the realities facing our universe.

  13. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Excellent post.

    Germany is the largest Renewable Energy Economy.

    Increases in installed renewable electric power capacity and generation in recent years is shown in the table below:

    Year 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
    Capacity (MW) 11,944 14,821 18,321 21,625 24,823 28,249 32,003 35,779 39,934 45,310
    Generation (GWh) 37,217 39,033 45,647 44,993 56,052 62,112 71,487 87,597 93,269 93,543
    % of total electricity consumption 6.4 6.7 7.8 7.5 9.2 10.1 11.6 14.2 15.2 16.1

    Renewable electric power produced in 2009 by energy source:

    Wind 40.4%
    Hydro 20.3%
    Biomass 19.8%
    Biogas 11.8%
    Solar 6.6%

    Germany is the world’s first major renewable-energy economy. In 2010 nearly 17% (more than 100 TWH) of Germany’s electricity supply (603 TWH) was produced from renewable energy sources, more than the 2010 contribution of gas fired power plants.

    Biomass in Germany is currently growing at the fastest pace of all the renewables, and has, for the first time, overtaken hydropower as a source of electricity.

    In 2008, biomass supplied 3.7 percent of the electricity consumed in Germany, up from 3.1 percent in 2007, while wind power’s share increased by 0.1 percent, up from 6.4 percent in 2007 to 6.5 percent in 2008.

    Biomass’s share is predicted to grow rapidly thanks to continuous innovations and new technologies.

    One example is a biogas electricity plant developed by Dr. Michael Stelter of the Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Systems in Dresden that uses only compost and waste. The plant not only produces 30 percent more biogas, but it also does it in about a third of the time of conventional plants using food crops. And thanks to a new procedure for breaking down cellulose molecules in compost and waste using enzymes, the period needed for fermentation has been reduced from around 80 days to 30 days.

    Given the advancement of Renewables in Germany now , it is no wonder Germany will be using maximum Renewables within 4 decades from now.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP), India

  14. Lewis C says:

    Dr A Jagadeesh Nellore –

    Thankyou for these data on Germany’s non-fossil electricity supplies, which give a clear account of the rate of progress possible to date under the potent obstruction of the nuclear lobby’s efforts to retain and advance its market share.

    It is very good to see Merkel’s decision to terminate nuclear plants since that will of itself unlock greater rates of non-fossil development, which in turn will raise its export capacities significantly for ‘displacing’ both hydro-carbon fossil and nuclear fossil capacity abroad.

    The fact that Germany has been meeting its commitments to cutting its GHG outputs and will continue to do so should make it very plain that terminating nuclear will not raise its intended GHG outputs by a single ton – Peter Wood at #6. is correct on this – the emissions are constrained by formal commitments across the EU, not by any particular technology.

    On two aspects the figures are somewhat misleading.
    First, the EU (and other regions) have yet to formally acknowledge and account the methane and CO2 outputs generated by mega-hydro reservoirs, which can be substantial. Research reported some years ago in New Scientist showed that for some Amazon plants the CO2e output per Kw yield was actually worse than for conventional coal power.

    Second, Biomass provides massively much more energy to German society than the 19.8% shown, but the addition is in the form of heat rather than electricity, and it still offers very substantial potential for growth of that provision. This is not merely in traditional log fires or even efficient wood stoves, but increasingly in very high efficiency wood-gasification boilers as well, offering both several days of heat-storage and integration with solar hot water systems.



  15. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Dear Lewis:

    Many thanks for your update on Renewable Energy in Germany. I stand corrected.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  16. Theodore says:

    Good mothers do not let their babies play with the cleaning supplies under the kitchen sink. Good policy does not allow humans to play with uranium. We do not blame the baby for drinking the drain cleaner, we blame the parents who allowed the baby to play with the bottle. Neither babies nor adults should be trusted with such dangerous toys. When a future war is over and the damage has been done, facilitated by universal easy access to nuclear materials, it will not benefit us to blame the situation on the poor judgment of the individuals who gave the orders to launch the missiles. The blame will lie with those who advocated the growth and proliferation of the commercial nuclear power industry.

  17. José A. de Souza Jr. says:

    Germans have already figured out how to power their country with 100% renewable. They just needed a little push, which the disaster of Fukushima-Daiichi has provided. Please see:

  18. Noah Quastel says:

    There seems to be an emerging conflict (one of many!) between engineers concerning integration of renewables and future supply. North American’s, it seems, are going for two approaches– using dams as grid balancing (as in British Columbia and under the Bonneville system)–or simply trying to mimick central station baseload–as suggested by California’s battery storage law, DOE’s funding of concentrated solar, and Florida Light and Power’s integrated solar/natural gas plant. But in Germany–as the article discusses–there seems much more emphasis on sophisticated balancing of diverse and geographical dispersed renewables– much in line with thekinds of thinking we see in ENGO 100% renewable reports (such as Greenpeace’s Energy [R]evolution). Me thinks the North American situation is likely due to a lack of government planning for a deeper long term process of decarbonization–so engineers are just looking for ways to add on to the current transmission and balancing backbones. But perhaps– maybe you have answers or could investigate– there are different theories of power system design at play here.