This article is part of a debate on the German plan to eliminate nuclear energy. To read Osha Gray Davidson’s response, click here.
Through much of 2012, the Energiewende, Germany’s pioneering effort to construct an energy system around renewables while simultaneously phasing out nuclear power and cutting carbon emissions, was on a roll. Plunging prices and eye-popping production figures for wind and solar power seemed to fulfill all the visionary prognostications. Germany shrugged off the shuttering of nearly half its nuclear plants without a backward glance: not only did it not suffer the predicted power shortages, it boosted electricity exports. Renewable power pushed market prices down and threatened to drive gas- and coal-burning power plants into bankruptcy. The press and the green blogosphere celebrated passed benchmark after shattered milepost, including the day in May when, according to Treehugger.com’s headline, “Half of Germany Was Running on Solar Power.”
But statistics on Germany’s electricity sector for the whole of 2012 are now in, and when you look beyond the cherry-picked hype, the results are dismal and disquieting. Despite massive construction of new capacity, electricity output from renewables, especially from wind and solar, grew at a sluggish rate. Germany is indeed avoiding blackouts—by opening new coal- and gas-fired plants. Renewable electricity is proving so unreliable and chaotic that it is starting to undermine the stability of the European grid and provoke international incidents. The spiraling cost of the renewables surge has sparked a backlash, including government proposals to slash subsidies and deployment rates. Worst of all, the Energiewende made no progress at all in clearing the German grid of fossil fuels or abating greenhouse emissions—nor is it likely to for at least a decade longer.
Germany has become the great green hope, promising to dispel the aura of impractical utopianism surrounding the renewable energy project by implementing it with fabled Prussian efficiency. And the Energiewende is doing so while repudiating nuclear power, the low-carbon cure for global warming that most supporters of renewable energy consider even worse than the disease. That adds a seemingly unanswerable pragmatic argument to anti-nuclear power advocates’ usual claims of apocalyptic danger: no need to build risky, expensive nuclear power plants when Germany’s example shows that renewables can do the job better.
I will focus here on that pragmatic argument, but first let me note that this argument is crucial to the case for a non-nuclear approach to carbon abatement precisely because claims about the unusual dangers of nuclear power are so weak. Indeed, the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident of 2011 has shown those risks to be more mythical than real. Contrary to panicked forecasts, the emerging scientific consensus is that the health effects of the Fukushima meltdowns will be modest to nil. The World Health Organization’s recent report estimates that, among the most radiologically vulnerable of the few thousand people who received the highest doses, about 1.2 percent will develop cancer over a lifetime from Fukushima radiation. (Normally about 35 percent of Japanese will get cancer at some point in their lives.) Total casualties will therefore be few. At the high end, Princeton physicist Frank von Hippel, writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, reckons an eventual one thousand fatal cancers arising from the accident. A peer-reviewed study by Stanford’s Mark Z. Jacobson, a renewables advocate, and John Ten Hoeve calculates a likely toll of just 130 fatal cancers in the whole world, with a low estimate of 15 to a high of 1,100. (Remarkably, Jacobson and Ten Hoeve’s model assumes no evacuations from the plant’s surroundings; in fact, they estimate that the evacuations themselves killed more people than the radiation would have.) While sensationalist media accounts portrayed the emergency response at the plant as a suicide mission, risks for Fukushima Daiichi workers were also tiny: the WHO report estimates that, among the 23,000 workers assigned to the plant after the tsunami, 51 may get cancer at some point in their lives because of the radiation exposure. All these casualty figures are calculated using the linear no-threshold model—the “no safe dose” theory of radiation risk—but they are really conjectural: the numbers are so low that in epidemiological studies they will probably not be discernible against the normal background incidence of cancer. Empirically speaking, the health effects of the Fukushima radiation will be too small to measure.
Moreover, these minuscule effects are dwarfed by the health benefits of replacing coal- and gas-fired power plants with nuclear reactors. Air pollution from fossil-fueled plants kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, orders of magnitude more than the worst once-a-generation nuclear accidents. An excellent case can be made for building nuclear power plants solely on the grounds of improving air quality, quite apart from their usefulness in abating greenhouse gases. A new study in Environmental Science and Technology, co-authored by NASA climate scientist James Hansen, estimates that commercial nuclear power plants have saved a net total of 1.8 million lives over the last few decades by reducing pollution, and could save a further 420,000 to seven million lives by mid-century depending on the mix of coal- and gas-fired generation they displace. Alarm over the immeasurably small risks of nuclear accidents thus get the cost-benefit equation of nuclear power backward.
So the choice between nuclear power and renewables should hinge less on safety anxieties than on logistics, costs, and deployment rates. Many believe that the Energiewende shows that the economics and the practicalities of renewables are self-evidently superior. Yet instead of vindicating renewable energy, the mounting evidence from the German experiment spotlights its limitations: high costs, low and unreliable productivity, intractable problems with grid integration, a reliance on subsidies that impose bizarre and counterproductive distortions on energy markets, and an unbreakable dependency on the fossil fuels it is supposed to displace. Most of all, the Energiewende raises grave doubts about the wisdom of banishing nuclear power if we are serious about cleaning up our energy supply.
Energiewende by the Numbers
First, let’s take a statistical tour of the German electricity sector in 2012, one that reveals the poor performance and intrinsic shortcomings of the most popular renewable technologies. (Most of these figures come from Germany’s BdeW utility consortium, an industry source that gathers data from all of Germany’s electric utilities, here and here.)
Renewable power is growing, but too slowly to take up the slack from nuclear shutdowns and also reduce fossil-fueled generation. The portion of German electricity generated by renewables rose from 20.3 percent in 2011 to 21.9 percent in 2012. Unfortunately, that was largely offset by a drop in nuclear’s share of generation due to the post-Fukushima shutdowns of reactors, from 17.7 percent in 2011 to 16.1 percent in 2012. Fossil-fueled generation edged up from 352 to 356 terawatt-hours (trillion watt-hours, TWh) and its share of total electricity production barely budged: 57. 8 percent in 2011 compared to 57.6 percent in 2012.
Worse, that fossil-fueled electricity got dirtier because of the “merit-order effect”: renewable power preferentially displaces expensive natural gas from the grid rather than cheaper coal. Natural gas–fired generation decreased, but coal-fired plants, which generate more pollution and greenhouse gases, increased their output by 14.5 TWh—more than the increase in renewable generation—and coal’s share of electricity production rose from 43.1 percent to 44.7 percent. Germany’s greenhouse emissions therefore rose 1.6 percent in 2012, the increase mostly coming from CO2 emissions by coal-burning power plants—up 3.4 percent for anthracite and 5.1 percent for lignite.
Wind and solar are doing even worse. Wind turbines and solar panels get all the press, but half the 2012 rise in renewable generation came from less glamorous and sustainable sources—hydro, biomass, and trash incinerators, which together contributed 9.9 percent of Germany’s electricity. These are more reliable technologies than wind and solar, but they won’t increase much: Germany has maxed out its suitable sites for hydro power, and large-scale biomass burning would level its forests and cripple food production. The Energiewende, therefore, relies on wind and solar to meet its ambitious targets—and is duly racking up huge increases in nameplate capacity. (“Nameplate capacity” or “nameplate power” is the maximum power a generator produces under ideal conditions—perfect winds, cloudless noon, fully stoked boiler.)
On paper the buildup of wind and solar looks colossal. In 2012 Germany built 7.6 gigawatts (GW, or one billion watts) of photovoltaic nameplate capacity and 2.4 GW of wind. Added to existing capacity, that brought total German wind and solar nameplate power to about 32 GW each at the end of 2012. Since it came online gradually, figure the average nameplate power in 2012 at about 30 GW of wind and 29 GW of solar—an enormous amount of capacity.
Unfortunately, the nameplate capacity trumpeted in the media is a drastically misleading measure of the electricity added to the grid. While wind and solar nameplate capacity represented 84 percent of Germany’s average electric power generation of 70.4 GW, it ultimately generated only 11.9 percent of total electricity (up from 11.2 percent in 2011). There are simple reasons for that discrepancy: night, cloud, and calm. The output of wind and solar generators varies wildly with weather and the time of day; during most hours they produce a small fraction of their nameplate power—or nothing at all.
The standard measure of that shortfall in electricity production compared to nameplate capacity is the “capacity factor”: the amount of electricity a generator produces in a year divided by the amount it would produce if it ran at nameplate capacity for all 8,760 hours. In 2012, German solar electricity production rose to 28 TWh from the 2011 figure of 19.3 TWh. But those solar panels would have produced 254 TWh had they run at full power for all 8,760 hours in the year, so they had a capacity factor of just 11 percent. Production from wind power, despite all the new turbines, actually declined to 46 TWh from the 2011 figure of 48.9 TWh. (Sun and wind anti-correlate, so the solar surge came at the expense of wind.) That puts the capacity factor of German wind at 17 percent. By comparison, fossil-fueled plants can achieve capacity factors of 80 percent or more. And electricity production from Germany’s 12 GW of nuclear capacity in 2012 was 99 TWh, a capacity factor of 94 percent. Even though Germany’s nuclear nameplate capacity was just one-fifth the size of its solar and wind nameplate capacity, those few nuclear gigawatts produced 35 percent more watt-hours of electricity than did all the wind and solar generators put together.
To get a more realistic picture of the renewables build-out, we need to think in terms of “average capacity”—the nameplate capacity multiplied by the capacity factor. By that metric, the 10 GW of wind and solar nameplate capacity added in 2012 really amounted to a measly 1.24 GW of average capacity. Compare that with the average capacity of, say, the Brokdorf nuclear reactor, whose 1.37 GW nameplate capacity would have an average capacity of 1.28 GW, generating as much carbon-free electricity as all the wind turbines and solar panels commissioned in 2012. At the current installation rate, it would take the wind and solar generator fleets some sixteen years to muster enough new average capacity to replace the 20.3 GW of Germany’s 2010 nuclear fleet—with nothing to spare for the displacement of fossil-fueled electricity in the meantime.
Because of the terrible performance of solar and onshore wind, Germany plans to build offshore wind turbines, which could have twice the capacity factor of onshore turbines (at twice the cost). Angela Merkel’s government has targeted 10 GW of offshore wind by 2020, according to Reuters. But assuming very optimistic capacity factors of 40 percent for offshore turbines—which would be higher than the average capacity factors in Britain and Denmark, the only countries with appreciable offshore wind—that 10 GW would represent average capacity of just 4 GW, less than a quarter of the 2010 nuclear capacity that will be shut down by 2022.
The Energiewende is building as much coal and gas capacity as it is wind and solar capacity—more, in fact, by the proper metric of average capacity. In 2012 Germany commissioned new coal-fired generators with combined nameplate power of 2.9 GW, which can run at capacity factors of 80 percent or better. That’s an average capacity of perhaps 2.3 GW—nearly twice as much as all the solar and wind power added in 2012. According to utility consortium BdeW, another 4.6 GW of coal power will come on line this year. Of a planned 42.5 GW of major power plants to be built by 2020, including offshore wind, pumped storage, hydro, and biomass, fully two-thirds—28.5 GW—will be new coal and gas generators. Taking into account their high capacity factors, in 2020 these new fossil-fueled plants will have more average capacity than all of Germany’s wind and solar generators combined. Partly they will replace older, dirtier coal plants, but there will be an overall expansion; a study by the German Energy Agency forecasts a net rise in coal and gas capacity from 76 GW in 2010 to 83 GW in 2030.
If the point is to eliminate greenhouse gases, why is the Energiewende turning to fossil fuels? The reason is that, in a crucial respect, wind and solar can never fully replace nuclear power, because they can’t equal the reliability of nuclear reactors. The main job of the new fossil-fueled plants is not to retire grungy old coal boilers, but to replace nukes with grungy new coal boilers. To see why, we have to consider the distinction between dispatchable and intermittent generators.
So far we’ve looked at aggregate generation—the total amount of electricity churned out during a whole year. But aggregate generation doesn’t cut it when it comes to electricity. To avoid blackouts and overloads, the grid has to match generation with consumption on a moment-to-moment basis, not on a yearly basis. Since it’s difficult and expensive to store electricity on a significant scale, the grid can’t bank much excess electricity production to draw on later during shortfalls; it has to reliably produce all the power demanded each moment, largely from generators then on line.
That’s an easy task with so-called “dispatchable” generators—nuclear, coal, gas, hydro, and biomass—that can ramp up and down on command to match their power output with current electricity demand. Unfortunately, wind turbines and photovoltaic panels can’t do that. They generate power when the wind and sun decree, often going dead when electricity is needed and then overproducing when it isn’t. These “intermittent” generators result in “common-mode failure”: night, winter, summer, and passing weather fronts cause swathes of generators to fizzle all at once, for weeks on end, on a continental and even hemispheric scale. Grid managers dread that kind of catastrophic unreliability, but it’s a daily reality for wind and solar.
Stats from the pro-renewables Fraunhofer Institute show how dire those common-mode failures can get. Had they been running constantly at nameplate capacity, solar and wind would have produced from 9 to 10.5 TWh each week. But during six separate weeks in 2012 they produced less than 9 percent of that nameplate generation for the entire week, and less than 7 percent during three of those weeks. During week 46, November 12 to 18, all the wind turbines and solar panels in Germany together produced just 0.51 TWh, generating a mere 3 GW of power on average out of their 63 GW of nameplate capacity—a weeklong capacity factor of just 4.8 percent. And these weekly aggregates leave out many two- and three-day periods when wind and solar slumped even further, generating essentially no electricity at all.
These numbers raise a sobering question: how will a Germany run largely on wind and solar generators survive the long periods when they shut down completely in the dead of winter?
Overbuilding capacity won’t solve the problem. To generate its total yearly electricity consumption of 594 TWh, Germany would need about 484 GW of wind and solar nameplate capacity, almost eight times as much as it has now. But even this gargantuan over-capacity would have been insufficient during that moribund week 46, when it would have produced just 34 percent of Germany’s 68 GW or so of electric-power demand. And capacity expansion runs into a wall of diminishing returns: as Germany builds über-redundant wind and solar capacity to cover common-mode slumps, more and more electricity will be wasted during common-mode surges of overproduction; construction and overhead costs per usable kilowatt-hour will therefore skyrocket. Dispatchable renewables won’t help much because they don’t go to scale: hydro and geothermal capacity will max out at about 5 GW each, biomass at perhaps 8 GW. Nor will storage save the day. Germany has about 5 GW of pumped-hydro storage stations, maybe rising to 10 GW over the next few decades, but even generating at full power their small reservoirs would run dry in a day at most. If nuclear is out of the picture, that leaves only dispatchable coal- and gas-fired generators to bridge the gap when wind and solar collapse.
To escape long blackouts many times a year, Germany is planning to back up every gigawatt of wind and solar average capacity with another gigawatt of gas or coal. As it builds its intermittent fleet it will not be able to shut down existing fossil-fueled plants; they will remain in service, complete with staff, maintenance, and overhead expenses and the infrastructure of transmission lines, coal mines, and gas pipelines. And because the dispatchable nuclear generators that could have backed up wind and solar are being shuttered, additional coal and gas plants must be built to take their place—as we see happening now. Those coal and gas plants will emit large quantities of greenhouse gases even when idling in standby mode. And because that dispatchable fleet is both necessary and sufficient, the expense of a redundant wind and solar fleet running on top of it is pure waste from an economic standpoint. That’s one reason why wind and solar are the highest-cost options available for generating power.
The real decision we face isn’t whether to choose wind and solar over nuclear and coal, but rather which kind of dispatchable generator fleet to build. Should we build a largely fossil-fueled dispatchable fleet whose greenhouse emissions are then slowly and only partially abated by adding in wind and solar? Or should we build a low-carbon dispatchable fleet of hydro, geothermal, and, mainly, nuclear—a generator fleet that can eliminate greenhouse emissions without the expense of a “second grid” of wind and solar? The Energiewende has chosen the first option, locking Germany into a perpetual dependence on fossil fuels.
Things won’t get better for a long, long time. If Germany keeps up with the 2012 pace—a big “if”—it will meet its current target of raising the renewable share of electricity production to 35 percent by 2020. Yet the really important target isn’t the share of renewables on the grid but the share of “low-carbon” generation—both renewable and nuclear generation. By that metric, Germany will be at a standstill for quite some time.
At the planned and current rate of expansion, when the last German nuclear plants shut down in 2022, renewables will be generating about 38 percent of the electricity; with no more nukes in operation, that will be the total share of low-carbon electricity. But that’s almost exactly the same share of low-carbon electricity Germany produced in 2010, when the share was 38.8 percent—22.4 percent nuclear and 16.4 percent renewable. The next ten years will be a lost decade for German decarbonization efforts. Meanwhile, Germany’s coal and gas plants will spew as much pollution, methane, and carbon dioxide as ever.
But the German policy of favoring renewables over nuclear has been in effect for thirteen years now, so it’s more like a lost generation. In 1999, a peak year for nuclear power, the low-carbon share of electricity was 36 percent, with nuclear contributing 31 percent. Thus, during a twenty-three-year period of shuttering nukes and subsidizing renewables, from 1999 to 2022, Germany will have managed to decarbonize all of 2 additional percentage points of its electricity. The 2030 target is 50 percent low-carbon electricity (all renewables), an improvement of just 14 percent over the 1999 figure.
Cost of Renewable Electricity
Despite declining relative costs for wind and solar generators, the electricity they produce is still much more expensive than fossil-fueled and nuclear power. The German government therefore supports renewables with a web of subsidies and preferments designed to entice businesses and households to invest in them. The main subsidy is the feed-in tariff (FIT), which gives guarantees for renewable electricity at above-market-rate prices. The FITs generally last twenty years and are assessed according to a complex rate schedule. Onshore wind is currently guaranteed at least €89.3 per megawatt-hour (MWh) for the first five years of operation, after which the tariff resets to about €49, a little above market rate. Offshore wind will get €150 per MWh for the first twelve years before a downward reset, with long extensions if the facility is located more than twelve miles from shore or where water is at least twenty meters deep. Photovoltaic solar gets roughly €120-180 per MWh, depending on the size of the rig, for a full twenty years.
The tariffs are funded by a “renewable energy surcharge” added to electricity bills. A utility will pay a FIT of, say, €180 for a megawatt-hour of solar power; it will then sell that electricity on the wholesale market for perhaps €45 and charge the difference to the renewables surcharge. (Some energy-intensive businesses are exempted from most of the surcharge.) The tariff-surcharge mechanism seemed unobtrusive and benign when renewables were a sliver of electricity production, but swelling bolts of pricey wind and solar electricity have turned it into a Frankenstein’s monster. The FITs will cost €20.4 billion this year, according to the Financial Times, and to fund that the 2013 surcharge jumped 47 percent to 5.3 euro-cents per kilowatt-hour. The surcharge alone is 60 percent of the average total U.S. residential electricity rate.
The exploding subsidies have stirred political opposition and moves to retrench. Merkel’s environment minister, Peter Altmaier, has put forward a plan to cap surcharge hikes at 2.5 percent per year, while expanding their base by removing business exemptions. Der Spiegel has reported that he also wants to levy a new tax on renewable electricity itself (including rooftop solar for home use), reduce or eliminate FIT schedules entirely for some new renewable installations, and occasionally delay or suspend FIT payments.
The renewables industry and the Social Democratic-Green opposition have denounced Altmaier’s proposals, saying they will cripple investment in the sector. And indeed, that’s the idea—to hold back the renewables build-out that’s pumping up subsidies to insupportable levels (and out-running transmission capacity). New government targets cut the rate of photovoltaic installation in half to 2.5 to 3.5 GW per year (just a third of a gigawatt per year of average capacity.) Feed-in-tariffs for new solar are to end entirely after a total of 52 GW nameplate capacity has been installed, which will enlarge solar capacity by just 2 additional gigawatts of average capacity.
A bit schizophrenically, Altmaier also said recently that he wants to raise the renewables target to 40 percent of electricity production by 2020. Unfortunately, his new program of caps, cuts, and slowdowns make even the current 35 percent target look iffy. The current €20.4 billion yearly renewable surcharge is largely needed just to pay FITs already grandfathered in for existing generators. Enlarging the surcharge base by ending business exemptions can increase the revenue stream somewhat, but Germany’s almighty export sector will fight those rate hikes. (High electricity prices and spreading power outages that damage industrial machinery are prompting German manufacturers to shift production elsewhere.) Additional huge infrastructure expenses will have to be added into general electricity rates, including €20 billion to pay for new power lines to offshore wind farms by 2020. Subsidy cuts have been blocked in the Bundesrat by the Greens and Social Democrats and will stay blocked at least until the September election. But if they go through—and it’s hard to see how they can be avoided—they will likely burst Germany’s green-investment bubble and bring the Energiewende to a screeching halt.
Even as the Energiewende staggers under exorbitant costs, renewables boosters tout its success in lowering electricity prices. The strange truth is, they’re not wrong. Tides of wind and solar electricity are forcing down prices on European wholesale markets and eroding the profits of conventional plants. French business leaders have complained about the competitive advantage their German rivals get because their renewable power is now cheaper than France’s nuclear electricity.
Is renewable power winning a price war with Big Fossil and Nuclear? Not really. Germany’s feed-in tariffs disguise the fact that intermittent wind and solar power isn’t cheap at all—although it is often worthless. German grid operators are legally required to buy all the electricity wind turbines and solar panels produce, demand or no demand, at prices far above market rates. Having bought it, they then have to get rid of it, because an excess of electricity supply will crash the grid. So they dump it on the wholesale electricity market at bargain-basement rates. Midday solar dumps in sunny weather particularly eat into the profits of conventional plants by pushing down prices during times of elevated demand.
These subsidies and market distortions do not yield a systemic lowering of electricity costs. They are simply transfers from German households that drastically overpay on surcharges to renewable generators—and to electricity-hogging industries that are exempt from surcharges but benefit from lower wholesale electricity prices when wind and solar flood the market. Also benefiting are foreigners who buy German electricity and energy-intensive products. Germany’s subsidized electricity exports jumped from 6 TWh in 2011 to 23 TWh in 2012. Eventually someone will bring a World Trade Organization anti-dumping case against the Energiewende; Poland and the Czech Republic are already threatening to block transmission from Germany to prevent wind power surges from crashing their grids.
Although renewables subsidies may wreck the margins of conventional power plants, they won’t necessarily cut emissions. Utilities don’t like to make way for intermittent renewable surges by turning off coal, nuclear, and combined-cycle gas plants; firing up the boilers after a shut-down takes time and wastes fuel and money, and they will need those generators back on line, quickly, when wind and solar cut out. To cope with the oversupply during surges, increasingly they are resorting to “negative pricing”—which simply means that utilities pay customers to waste renewable electricity instead of using it to abate greenhouse gases. And as subsidized and even “negative” renewables prices push conventional plants into the red, the subsidy regime will need to expand to embrace fossil fuels, the necessary back-up for intermittent generators in the absence of nuclear. “Capacity markets” that pay fossil-fueled plants to remain on standby are now being debated in Germany and France.
The Energiewende will come to this: corporate welfare for coal-burners in the name of clean energy.
The Alternative to Alternative Energy
Germany is phasing out its nuclear power plants because of safety concerns and is unlikely to reverse course anytime soon. And the nuclear renaissance has bogged down in the rest of the West, too, with massive delays and cost overruns on every new reactor. The obstacles are many: first-of-a-kind costs for new models; the rustiness of an atrophied construction industry and supply chain; neoliberal electricity markets and financing mechanisms that favor natural gas over everything; strangling red tape. Acknowledging all these problems, let’s do a thought experiment: how much low-carbon energy could Germany get by 2030 if it diverted its renewables surcharge into a nuclear Energiewende?
For this exercise I’ll use as a cost model the poster-child of nuclear boondoggles: the French Evolutionary Pressurized Reactor project at Flamanville. Now limping toward a 2016 finish line, the reactor is four years behind schedule and, at €8.5 billion, more than twice over budget. For revenue I’ll assume that a nuclear Energiewende can spend no more than the €20.4 billion per year that the 2013 renewable surcharge will bring in (only a portion of the funds slated for renewables). I’ll also assume that Germany uses as much power in 2030 as it does now, although targets call for trimming electricity consumption. Finally, I’ll insist on the obvious—turning all of Germany’s 2010 reactors back on and leaving them on.
Given these parameters, let’s see what a nuclear Energiewende could accomplish by 2030, with a total budget of €367 billion (€20.4 a year for eighteen years). At €8.5 billion a pop, Germany could buy forty-three EPRs, each with a nameplate capacity of 1.65 GW. Add the 20.3 GW Germany had in 2010 and that’s 91 GW of low-carbon nuclear power. Let’s assume a nuclear capacity factor of 75 percent. (Why so low? Because they will “load-follow”—raise and lower their output to follow electricity demand—instead of running at maximum power 24/7 in “baseload” as they do now.) That’s an average capacity of 68 GW, exactly equal to Germany’s average power consumption in 2012 (based on total consumption of 594 TWh), and a peak capacity of 91 GW, a comfortable margin over the peak electricity demand of 82 GW.
In other words, a dispatchable nuclear grid could supply all of Germany’s electricity in 2030, not just the 50 percent target for renewables in the Energiewende. By comparison, Altmaier’s latest prediction estimates a price tag for renewables of €1 trillion by the end of the 2030s, for a grid that would still be roughly 35 percent fossil-fueled. A nuclear build-out could completely decarbonize the German grid by 2030 at less than one-third the cost of a renewables Energiewende that would still produce massive greenhouse emissions.
Wind and solar have lower nameplate prices than nuclear, but they seem cheap only if we ignore capacity factors and don’t count the systemic costs of chaotic intermittency: redundant transmission lines strung in from deserts, prairies, and oceans; redundant pumped-hydro storage stations; dispatchable generators to balance the intermittency; end users who have to rearrange their electricity consumption around “demand management” schemes geared to the whims of the weather; grid operators who graciously serve as buyers of last resort for surplus renewable electricity and then dump it on Poland or pay people to waste it. Nuclear power plants, by contrast, generate a prodigious amount of electricity per gigawatt of capacity and stabilize the grid rather than imposing fickleness costs. With nuclear power, there’s no need to build redundant capacity, storage, and transmission; subsidize back-up coal plants; or annoy the public with electricity-rationing meters.
The nuclear build-out I outline above would be ambitious. (The worst bottleneck would be training a skilled work force.) On the other hand, the economies of scale from a systematic deployment would substantially lower costs. China is building two EPRs at Taishan; the first is due to start up next year after a five-year build, at half the cost of the Flamanville reactor. If Germany managed to crank out EPRs on China’s timetable, it could save immensely on unit costs and build many more nuclear plants for the money than I estimated.
And thanks to the example of France, we know these goals can be met. During the twenty years after its decision in 1974 to decarbonize its grid, France managed to convert 90 percent of its electricity generation to low-carbon nuclear—about 80 percent—and hydro. Germany is bravely planning to hit 80 percent low-carbon electricity by 2050.
Unfortunately, France is now following Germany’s lead on energy policy under a Socialist Party that has forgotten its own stewardship of the nuclear project and caved to its Green coalition partners. François Hollande’s government intends to cut nuclear’s share of electricity production to 50 percent in 2025, according to Businessweek, by shuttering reactors and canceling new builds, while increasing renewables’ share from their present 16 percent to 23 percent in 2020. If renewables reach 30 percent by 2025, then in that year France will be generating 80 percent of its electricity from low-carbon sources; its current share is 91 percent. So rather than making more progress in decarbonizing France’s energy supply, Hollande’s proposals take a long stride backward. They will also raise electricity prices, damage the economy, and exacerbate austerity policies by diverting funds away from social spending. Unions at the Fessenheim nuclear plant are fighting Hollande’s plan to close the facility by the end of 2016. That 1.8 GW plant alone can produce nearly three times as much low-carbon electricity as the combined output of all the solar panels in France.
That Germany has become the bellwether for energy policy in Europe and the world is one of the more demoralizing ironies of our day. The Energiewende is not the swift, bold advance that greens imagine but a slow, timid, and inadequate response to the crisis of climate change. It represents a failure of nerve, a failure of imagination, and a failure of arithmetic. It is visibly failing now, and if it succeeds in all its stated goals it will still fail. It is failing for a simple reason: the environmental movement, whose signal triumph is its influence over energy policy, has rejected nuclear power—the best source of clean energy we have.
Click here to read Osha Gray Davidson’s response to this article.
Will Boisvert is a writer who lives in New York.
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