On the face of it, Germany’s recent closure of its final nuclear power stations is completely irrational. At a time of existential crisis and potential energy shortages in Europe, Germany has gone out of its way to make its life a lot more difficult.
Following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the German people were very clear in their desire that Germany’s remaining nuclear power stations should be shut down and the government has finally delivered on that promise. They could have delayed the shutdown until the Ukraine situation stabilised but, after a brief hiatus, they elected not to.
The result is that Germany has now replaced the energy that was being provided by nuclear energy with energy from fossil fuels, which is hardly a progressive example to set for the rest of the world. It’s difficult to see the South African government, for example, taking kindly to lectures from German politicians and diplomats around the need to decarbonise their economy and move on from coal when Germany’s carbon emissions are increasing.
This is all true – up to a point. But only up to a point. It’s always irritating to concede that a politician from the Green party has a point but Steffi Lemke, Germany’s Green Party environment minister, is right that nuclear energy is problematic. Her fears around safety and terrorism are overblown but concerns around the long-term treatment of waste and nuclear power’s rapacious need for water for cooling are too often ignored.
Nuclear is not, as is often argued, a consequence-free choice of energy. If it were, Germany would have followed France’s example a long time ago. Furthermore, Germany’s recent reliance on nuclear power is low: it’s been gradually declining from a high of around 30% in the late 1990s to three power stations providing 6% of the country’s power. And 6% is not an enormous hole to fill, not least because Germans have shown since the start of the Ukraine-Russia war that they are perfectly capable of reducing energy demand if circumstances require it.
It is also the case that Germany is setting an exceptional example around the use of renewable power. In 2022, 44% of electricity generated in Germany came from renewable sources. When we think of the scale of the German economy and population, this is a remarkable statistic and well ahead of the UK – no slouch itself – which produced around 35% of energy from renewable sources over the past year.
This track record is what should give critics of Germany pause for thought when scoffing at Germany’s claim that they can replace nuclear with renewables: since 2019, they have increased their renewable output from 241.6 billion KwH to 254 billion KwH in a market that has got smaller as efficiencies increase and demand levels out. They have set themselves a target of 80% renewable power by 2030 and it would be foolish to wager against them given what they have achieved so far. They need to get a shift on though: the government wants to see 4 to 5 new turbines erected every day; last year they put up 551 turbines which is not enough to meet that 80% target by 2030. On the other hand, no one ever made money betting against German industrial capability, did they? If any country can make a virtue out of necessity, it’s Germany.
Even better, the recent construction – in record time (that industrial capability, you see) – of an LNG terminal at Wilmshaven brings greater flexibility to their energy mix so that they can burn lower emission natural gas instead of lignite and hard coal when the wind fails to blow.
Furthermore, Germany produces more energy than it needs, exporting power to France last year during the summer when their nuclear reactors were undergoing extensive maintenance. Conversely, France also over-produces when its nuclear fleet is up and running but, because it’s hard to turn output from nuclear power up or down, this means they need to export electricity at certain points of the year and, because they need to export that energy, it is subsequently very cheap indeed.
This is a bargain that the UK benefits from too and demonstrates the most critical point: to see Germany’s energy security in isolation is a mistake. Germany, just like the UK, is part of a vast, interconnected, sophisticated European electricity market: in the end switching off 6% of their supply to keep an important political promise was hardly a decision at all. It’s not as if it’s been a mistake either: since those power stations were shut down, the price of natural gas in Europe has continued to fall to lows we haven’t seen since January 2022 and, consequently, the German decision to end its nuclear era has barely troubled news desks since.
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