A German police officer uses a Geiger counter to measure the radiation of a Castor container on a transport train, during a stop in Neunkirchen near Saarbruecken November 25, 2011. REUTERS/Alex Domanski
Blackouts! Astronomical heating bills! Imports from France and the Czech Republic!
These were the dire predictions of Germany’s energy companies and grid operators when in the spring of 2011, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Germany shut down seven of its sixteen operational nuclear power plants, which at the time accounted for about 10 percent of the country’s electricity production. Their parent companies fought tooth and nail to reverse, postpone or moderate Berlin’s new course. Just wait until the winter, they cried; Germans will either be freezing—or keeping toasty, thanks to imports from French and Czech nuclear reactors.
Well, it’s winter and, au contraire, Germany is not only keeping perfectly warm despite the icy weather from the Bodensee to the Baltic coast; it’s exporting electricity—to France. And prices haven’t skyrocketed either. It’s true that immediately after the reactors were taken offline, Germany had to compensate by buying electricity from its nuclear-fueled neighbors. It went from energy exporter to energy importer during the summer, relying on the Czech Republic, Austria and France. And prices went up, too, by about 10 percent. But they started falling by August, and now, in the dead of winter, they’re about the same as they were last year, and much lower than in November 2007. In fact, they are lower than prices in France, which is experiencing shortfalls (this is largely because the French primarily heat with electricity, Germans with gas).
All this has happened against the backdrop of an abrupt U-turn on energy policy. The pre-Fukushima policies of Angela Merkel’s center-right government had expected nuclear power to play a key role for the foreseeable future. This flew in the face of the 1998–2005 “red-green” government of the left, which had wanted to phase out nukes completely by 2021.
But Fukushima (on top of four decades of fierce grassroots antinuclear opposition) changed everything. In addition to shutting down seven reactors immediately, the government agreed to close the remaining nine between now and 2022 and begin the transition to an economy run on low-carbon renewables.
The goals of Germany’s Energiewende, or energy transition, are extraordinarily ambitious: at least 35 percent of its electric power should be generated by renewables by 2020, when energy consumption will be shaved by a fifth, with greenhouse gases cut by 40 percent and a million electric cars on the road. By 2050 the world’s fourth-biggest economy plans to get 80 percent of the fuel for its factories—and most of the heat for its homes—from wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, tidal power and other renewable sources. Currently, about 20 percent of Germany’s electricity comes from renewables.
A new study shows that at least two-thirds of the energy compensating for the nuclear plants taken offline is from renewables, a significant share of it from solar sources in southern Germany. It’s been colder than a witch’s toe, but sunny too. Despite the recent cold snap, there hasn’t been a single blackout, say grid operators, unlike the bottlenecks in neighboring countries. The bad news is that renewables don’t cover all the missing nukes’ deficit; coal-generated power accounts for the rest.
For 2011 Germany’s overall energy trade balance was positive, although only about a third of what it had been in 2010, according to the think tank AG Energiebilanzen. But because of new wind and solar facilities that will kick in this year, 2012 could well build on that surplus. In 2011, for the first time, renewable energy sources in Germany provided more electricity than either nuclear power or black coal (Steinkohle), second overall only to brown coal (Braunkohle, a high-carbon pollutant that the government continues to subsidize). Germany leads Europe in wind power capacity and in 2011 doubled its solar capacity, which is now nearly as high as the rest of the world combined.