May 11 2023

Germany and Nuclear Power

Germany has been thrown around a lot as an example of both what to do and what not to do in terms of addressing global warming by embracing green energy technology. It’s possible to look back now and review the numbers, to see what the effect was of its decision to embrace renewable technology and actively shut down their nuclear power plants. The numbers, I think, tell a pretty clear story.

First, some history. Germany has long had an environmentalist anti-nuclear bent, going back to the 1980s. In 2000 the coalition Green Party and Democratic decided to phase out nuclear power in Germany by 2022, making it an even higher priority than phasing out fossil fuels. This policy was reversed by the Christian Democratic Union, extending the timeline until 2034. After the Fukushima accident, however, public opinion shifted and the 2022 timeline was reinstated. This was delayed by a year because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but now the last German nuclear power plants have been shuttered. At the same time, Germany invested heavily in wind and solar.

What did this mean for Germany’s energy production and carbon footprint? Did it makes sense to phase out nuclear while building lots of wind and solar? I would argue an emphatic, no. It demonstrates, quite nicely, (I know, I need to be careful of confirmation bias, but hear me out) what I have been saying for years. For now the choice is not really between nuclear and renewables, but nuclear and fossil fuel. A Washington Post article summarizes the relevant numbers. In 2010 Germany’s energy mix was 60% fossil fuel, 23% nuclear, and 17% renewables. In 2022 (before the final shutdowns) it was 51%, 6%, 43% respectively. If in 2000 Germany had decided to prioritize shutting down coal-fired plants and other fossil fuel sources and just kept their existing nuclear power plants open for as long as possible, their mix today would be 32% fossil fuel, 24% nuclear, and 43% renewable.

Either way, they would have 43% renewable. They were building it as fast as they could. The only difference is that today (now that the last nuclear plants have closed) we have something like 57% fossil fuel instead of 32%. It really was the choice between nuclear and fossil fuel.¬†As a result of this policy Germany, despite investing heavily in renewables, has one of the dirtiest energy mixes in Europe, only behind Poland and the Czech Republic. Germany produces 385 gCO2 / kWh. Heavily nuclear France, by comparison, produces 85. This will also delay Germany’s ability to phase out coal, and it will be one of the last European countries to do so.

Because the world has mostly run out the clock on global warming, and now we are racing to minimize the damage (completely preventing it is essentially off the table), every choice we make has consequences. There are three main factors we need to consider in term of the ultimate climate consequences of further releasing greenhouse gases. The first is how close we can get to net zero carbon production. The second is how quickly we can get there. And the third is the path that we take to get there (we can’t assume a straight line, and the sooner we draw down fossil fuel use the better). Germany essentially chose the wrong path. They focused entirely on the first factor, imaging what they would like their future energy mix to look like (all renewable) and did not consider the best path to get there. As a result they will emit a lot more CO2 on their path to renewables, and this will matter.

There is general expert agreement that the #1 goal of minimizing climate change from CO2 release is to as quickly as possible phase out coal. Coal is by far the dirtiest source of energy, and it dominates our global energy carbon footprint. Moving from coal to anything else, even natural gas, is a good thing and will reduce our carbon footprint. Worlwide coal is still responsible for about 25% of energy production, with fossil fuel (including oil and gas) at about 75%. In absolute terms coal use is still increasing, even though it is dipping in terms of percentage of total energy. Let that sink in – the world is burning more coal than ever. Renewables are increasing, but so far are mostly covering the increase in total energy demand.

From a climate perspective it was absolute insanity to prioritize shutting down nuclear before coal and other fossil fuels. I understand that nuclear energy is a complicated option, mainly because of the high cost. But keeping existing nuclear power plants open as long as possible should be a no-brainer. That’s a win-win – you already spent the money on building the plants, keeping them open longer makes them more commercially viable. Keeping existing plants open for 10-20 years buys us time to build out more renewable, and allows us to prioritize shutting down coal plants. We can debate how much we should be investing in building new nuclear to replace existing plants in 10-20 years. I think we should, but I can see the argument for investing that money in renewables plus grid storage. That’s the debate we should be having.

But do not confuse the option of building new nuclear with keeping existing plants open. There was no rational reason to shut down nuclear plants and keep coal-fired plants open. Coal demonstrably kills more people, releases more radioactivity into the environment, and worsens global warming. Fukushima was a dramatic event, but it was caused by a tsunami and the bad decision not to follow recommendations in terms of putting backup generators on the roof where they would be safe from flooding. Neither of these factors had any relevance to Germany.

Germany really needs to be a cautionary tale. If we are serious about global warming, and we should be, getting rid of coal is job #1, then the rest of fossil fuels, then we can see what the best mix of low carbon footprint energy should and can be. Personally I think we need to hedge out bets with nuclear and keep pushing that technology forward. There are still unknowns when it comes to grid storage and the percentage of intermittent energy sources on the grid. Having some reliable on-demand energy in the mix seems like a good idea. For now we should be building what wind and solar we can, maximize hydroelectric and geothermal, keep nuclear plants open while planning their replacement, and explore grid storage options. Do it all, while phasing out fossil fuel as quickly as possible.

Also, keep in mind, over the next 20-30 years energy demand is going to dramatically increase, especially as we electrify our transportation and industrial sectors as much as possible. Energy demand will almost double between now and 2050. We need to decrease fossil fuel not just as a percentage of the energy mix but in absolute terms. We have not yet been able to do this. What this means is we can replace all existing energy production with renewables between now and 2050 and still not have any reduction in fossil fuel use in absolute terms, because we are just meeting new demand. Many experts doubt we can get rid of fossil fuels without nuclear, and I am not willing to bet that they are all wrong.

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