Germany is determined to take the lead in showing the world how abandoning nuclear energy can be done, betting billions on expanding the use of renewable energy to meet power demands instead.
It is a transition that was supposed to happen slowly over the next 25 years, but is now being accelerated in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant disaster, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called a “catastrophe of apocalyptic dimensions.”
Berlin’s decision to take seven of its 17 reactors offline for three months for new safety checks has provided a glimpse into how the world’s fourth-largest economy might wean itself from getting nearly a quarter of its power from atomic energy to none.
And experts say Germany’s phase-out provides a good map that countries such as the US, which use a similar amount of nuclear power, could follow. The German model would not work, however, in countries like France, which relies on nuclear energy for more than 70 percent of its power and has no intention of shifting.
“If we had the winds of Texas or the sun of California, the task here would be even easier,” said Felix Matthes of the Institute for Applied Ecology in Germany. “Given the great potential in the US, it would be feasible there in the long run too, even though it would necessitate huge infrastructure investments.”
Nuclear power has been very unpopular in Germany ever since radioactivity from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster drifted across the country. A center-left government a decade ago penned a plan to abandon the technology for good by 2021, but Merkel’s government last year amended it to extend the plants’ lifetime by an average of 12 years. That plan was put on hold after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami compromised nuclear power plants in Japan and is being re-evaluated as the safety of all of Germany’s nuclear reactors is being rechecked.
Germany gets 23 percent of its energy from nuclear power — about as much as the US. Its ambitious plan to shut down its reactors will require at least an investment of 150 billion euros (US$210 billion) in alternative energy sources, which experts say will likely lead to higher electricity prices.
Germany now gets 17 percent of its electricity from renewable energies, 13 percent from natural gas and more than 40 percent from coal. The environment ministry says in 10 years, renewable energy will contribute 40 percent of the country’s overall electricity generation.
The government has been vague on a total price tag for the transition, but it said last year about 20 billion euros a year will be needed, adding that 75 billion alone will be required through 2030 to install offshore wind farms.
Germany’s Renewable Energy Association president Dietmar Schuetz said the government should create a more favorable regulatory environment to help in bringing forward about 150 billion euros in investment in alternative energy sources this decade by businesses and homeowners.
Last year, German investment in renewable energy topped 26 billion euros and secured 370,000 jobs, the government said.
After taking seven reactors off the grid last week, officials hinted the oldest of them may remain switched off for good, but assured consumers there are no worries about electricity shortages as the country is a net exporter.
“We can guarantee that the lights won’t go off in Germany,” ministry spokeswoman Christiane Schwarte said.
Most of the country’s leaders now seem determined to swiftly abolish nuclear power, possibly by 2020, and several conservative politicians, including the chancellor, have made a complete U-turn on the issue.
German Vice Chancellor Guido Westerwelle said on Wednesday “we must learn from Japan” and check the safety of the country’s reactors, but also make sure viable alternatives are in place.
“It would be the wrong consequence if we turn off the safest atomic reactors in the world, and then buy electricity from less-safe reactors in foreign countries,” he told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper.
“We can replace nuclear energy even before 2020 with renewable energies, producing affordable and ecologically sound electricity,” he said.
But someone will have to foot the bill.
“Consumers must be prepared for significantly higher electricity prices in the future,” said Wolfgang Franz, head of the government’s independent economic advisory body.
Merkel last week also warned that tougher safety rules for the remaining nuclear power plants “would certainly mean that electricity gets more expensive.”
The German utilities’ BDEW lobby group said long-term price effects could not be determined until the government spells out its nuclear reduction plans. Matthes’ institute says phasing out nuclear power by 2020 is feasible by better capacity management and investment that would only lead to a price increase of US$0.005 per kilowatt-hour.
In Germany, the producers of renewable energy — be it solar panels on a homeowner’s rooftop or a farm of wind mills — are paid above-market prices to make sure their investment breaks even, financed by a US$0.035 cents per kilowatt-hour tax paid by all electricity customers.
For a typical family of four who pay about 1,000 euros a year to use about 4,500 kilowatt-hours, the tax amounts to 157 euros.
The tax produced 8.2 billion euros in Germany last year and it is expected to top 13.5 billion euros this year.
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