Can Germany phase out nuclear power?

August 9 2012 - TI Staff

“Energiewende,” or energy transformation, is the catchword for the 2011 German energy law that aims to phase out nuclear power by 2022, replacing it primarily with renewables. The law and its possible consequences were the focus of Bernhard Fischer’s keynote address at the PowerGen Europe Conference & Exhibition last month in Cologne.

Fischer, CEO of E.On Generation GmbH, criticized Energiewende as a flawed policy that relies heavily on growing subsidies, abandons CO2-free nuclear power, raises energy prices, and requires increased dependency from the outside world. “Germany has always tried to be an energy pacemaker,” he said. But Energiewende is a political wish without a realistic view of what might be possible.

After Fukushima, everything that had been achieved with our nuclear fleet had been forgotten, said Fisher. No expert was contacted or heard and no assessment of the energy system was performed when the decision was made to shutdown eight nuclear power plants.

The result: Risk was not reduced. No new ideas or strategies were implemented. The only impact was that politicians proved that they were able to decide. And the public was satisfied.

“What is going on?” he asked. “Are we still on the right track?”

To be sure, Germany’s generation portfolio has been rapidly changing as a result of the Renewable Energy Sources Act enacted in 2000. At that time 6% of the nation’s energy was generated by renewables. In 2011, that increased to 20%. With the nuclear power phase out, the new goal is for renewables to make up 35% of the nation’s electricity consumption by 2020, and not less than 50% by 2030.

But Fischer points out that generation from renewables and demand “doesn’t fit together.” Conventional plants are challenged to compensate production when renewable energy is not available.

Moreover, much of this new generation - driven by policy rather than profitability - cannot be transported via existing transmission lines and has been difficult to integrate with the conventional fleet. Only 100 km of new lines have been constructed to date and 3,600 km are required by 2020. And in some cases electricity can have a negative price when production is locally higher than demand.

“Today, 20% of the electricity market in Germany is subsidized by law,” said Fischer. “And this will continue to 2030. Nobody will invest in new capacity as long as we have this uncertainty.”

Germany’s goals for climate protection have been be put on hold, as well. “In 2020, we will produce 50 million more tons of CO2 than with our nuclear fleet,” said Fischer. “And this will increase in the following years.”

Fischer stated, however, that Energiewende is not impossible to realize. But it has to be done “the right way.” It should focus on environmental protection, security of supply, efficiency and deregulation; not growing subsidies, the elimination of nuclear power, higher energy prices and greater dependence on the outside world. “It needs more than political decisions. It needs coordination, time, money and acceptance.

As an engineer in a big utility, the solution is clear, said Fischer. Bring all the interests and players together. Communicate openly and frankly about the consequences. Integrate experts, but also consider public acceptance. And choose and empower the right project leader to coordinate it. “Without this approach we can never be successful.”