Editor’s note: Catherine Cheney is reporting on German policymaking this week as part of the German-American Fulbright Commission’s Berlin Capital Program, which is funded by the German Foreign Office.
BERLIN -- Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Germany announced an expensive and accelerated departure away from nuclear technology and toward renewable sources such as wind and solar. The latest step in that transition came yesterday, when the German parliament passed legislation to help prevent blackouts as the country’s reliance on renewables grows.
Experts told Trend Lines that Fukushima confirmed Germans’ worries about nuclear energy, forcing the government to rapidly begin a challenging transition, the complications from which are now becoming apparent.
"After the Fukushima incident in Japan, public opinion shifted dramatically, and the German government decided to get out of nuclear power faster than before, pledging to close all 17 nuclear reactors within a decade,” said Julian Willms, head of political communication at the National Academy of Science and Engineering, told Trend Lines.
Claudia Kemfert, head of the Department of Energy, Transportation and Environment at the German Institute for Economic Research, explained that the government had already decided to phase out nuclear power prior to Fukushima, but over an extended timeline rather than as an abrupt switch. "Both public opinion and political motivation played an important role" in the acceleration, she said.
Matthew Hulbert, lead analyst at the European Energy Review, agreed that the Japanese disaster prompted an expensive acceleration of existing plans. “Fukushima was indeed the trigger, but [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel was already looking for a smoking gun," he said. "The entire decision can only be understood as a political move, he added, as "it defies any economic rationality."
The decision to phase out nuclear power has created controversy and a seemingly endless list of costs and complications.
Germany must now rely on renewable energy, and, to ensure access to stable energy sources, the country needs research in new technology, international coordination and public acceptance of the transition.
"The people are in favor of renewable energy, and they want to get out of nuclear power. But on the other hand, a lot of people are saying, 'Not in my backyard,'" Willms said.
"Renewables are very volatile. You only get energy when the wind is blowing and when the sun is shining," he continued, drawing on the difficulty of ensuring energy stability during the transition.
Germany has been forced to import nuclear power from France to meet demand. But Kemfert said Germany still produces large amounts of renewable energy, noting that the country was a net exporter in 2011 and 2012.
"In winter, Germany exports green electricity to France," she said. But she acknowledged that before the reactor shutdowns began, Germany had an abundance of energy. Now that excess capacity is shrinking.
Germany’s expansion of green power sources will place strains on the energy grid, which may lead to the blackouts the government is now working to prevent.
"In order to stabilize the grid, more effort and attention is necessary. We need an improvement of the grid, grid optimization, intelligent grids and a better match of supply and demand," Kemfert said, explaining that Germany needs to strengthen backup energy sources to compensate for intermittent wind and solar power.
Hulbert said he does not expect Germany to meet its deadlines for abandoning nuclear energy.
"All Germany has done so far is mothball the plants that were already due to be decommissioned,” he said. “It's whether they now follow through with more closures that's the acid test."
Kemfert said Germany’s energy transition will set a precedent for the region and the world. "If it works well, it will be a positive example, and I am sure that other nations will follow," she said. "If it fails, it will be great disaster."
Photo: Nuclear power plant cooling towers, Stendal, Germany (licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2).
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