By Clive Wakley. Germany has announced its intention to phase out nuclear energy and phase in renewables; Britain would do well to watch and learn from the German experience as it could well decide the future of nuclear power worldwide.
The Social Democratic and Green coalition that governed Germany from 1998 to 2005 instigated an ambitious plan to ramp up the supply of energy from renewables, whilst reducing dependence upon nuclear energy.
Last year the current German government coalition modified the country’s energy policy so as to concentrate on two main elements.
The first element was to continue with the phasing out of nuclear energy but over a longer time frame.
To be precise they decided to extend the operational lifetimes of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants by eight to twelve years.
The second element was investment in a programme having the objective of a massive expansion in all forms of renewable energy.
In actual fact the plan called for an increase in electricity from renewable energy sources from 17% in 2010 to 35% in 2020 and 80% in 2050.
Coupled with this is an equally ambitious target to reduce energy consumption from buildings by 20% by 2020 and 80% by 2050, and a target to reduce energy consumption from transportation by 10% in 2020 and 25% in 2050.
They also backed up their astonishingly ambitious plans by allocating some 26 billion euros for renewable energy source research and investment.
Then came Fukushima.
In the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima incident German politicians decided to revert back to the original phase-out schedule for nuclear, while keeping in place the climate and energy targets set the year before.
A large majority supported this initiative, with eighty-five percent of German parliamentary representatives voting for both a more rapid phase-out of nuclear power and a number of additional measures related to the expansion of alternative energy.
However, whereas Germany has the political will to continue its move away from the generation of electricity from nuclear power and phase in alternative energy as its successor, there appears less certainty over whether targets are actually achievable.
Whereas it is true that buildings, both domestic and commercial, can be made far more energy efficient and that fossil fuel usage in transport and heating can be reduced (easily but painfully) through pricing, just how Germany will ramp up its current and already extensive renewable energy sector to meet the new challenge is a matter of global interest.
Let’s not forget that Germany is second only to the US in terms of wind turbine numbers, it having well over 20,000 in operation, which currently accounts for some 40% of its energy generation from renewables.
In addition Germany, unlike the UK, has a world beating wind turbine manufacturing sector – employing tens of thousands of workers and responsible for 50% of global production of these high-tech devices.
Germany has also invested heavily in photovoltaic solar energy generation and has built the world’s largest photovoltaic system in Arnstein, in Bavaria; electricity from solar systems now accounts for around 7% of that country’s total energy output from renewables.
Germany has invested considerably in geothermal and hydroelectric energy generation, energy from the latter source currently responsible for around 20% of energy from all renewable sources.
Furthermore energy from biomass and biogas has also been particularly well exploited in Germany and energy output from such sources constitutes around 30% of all energy derived from renewable.
Without a doubt Germany has the best-developed renewable energy sector on the planet and the economic might to support and further develop that sector.
But – and it’s a big but – are renewable technologies scalable, at least to the extent that German politicians and energy experts appear to believe they are?
Put another way; is it technically possible and economically viable for the world’s fourth largest economy to achieve its stated target of 80% of demand from renewables by 2050?
Who knows? But that’s the point surely.
Britain should be observing the German experience very carefully and learning from it.
If it proves impossible for the Germans to successfully phase out nuclear energy and phase in renewables to the extent they want, with all their technical, industrial and financial muscle, then it is all but certain that the UK will fail in its attempt too.
The answer to the nuclear power question in this country may well be decided by the success or failure of our German cousins across the North Sea; watch and learn!