Andreas Späth

How Germany will thrive without nukes

2011-07-20 09:13

The only debate about nuclear energy in Germany these days is exactly how quickly it can be abandoned altogether. When the members of the German parliament, the Bundestag, recently voted 513 to 79 in favour of supporting Angela Merkel’s plans to shut down all of the country’s 17 nuclear plants by 2022, many of those who voted against the proposal did so because they didn’t think it was radical enough. They want the rejection of nuclear power to be enshrined in the German constitution and the phase-out to happen quicker - as early as 2017.

But how is the world’s fourth largest economy going to cope sans the energy source that our own government, which wants to build six new nuclear reactors, is telling us we cannot be without?

Forward planning

Contrary to claims that Germany’s auf wiedersehen to atomic power is an irrationally panicked response to the disaster at Fukushima, the country’s so-called Energiewende - or transition to a low carbon economy - has been in the making for over two decades during which federal agencies, NGOs, panels of experts and academic research institutions demonstrated that a conversion to an economy powered largely or even exclusively by green energy sources was possible by 2050 and that nuclear energy was not required, even as a temporary bridging solution.

Legislation

Germany has some of the most progressive laws when it comes to promoting renewable energy. Favourable feed-in tariffs allow independent companies, farmers and individual citizens to generate electricity using solar panels and wind turbines and sell it to the national grid. The Renewable Energy Sources Act, which has been in place since 1991, provides that every unit of green electricity generated this way must be purchased and transmitted through the grid. The nuclear phase-out is accompanied by seven new federal laws aimed at facilitating the transition.

More renewable energy

Germany is set to vastly accelerate its renewable energy capacity. In a country that’s already a global leader in the field, future forecasts are nothing short of astounding. Between 2000 and 2010, the contribution of renewable energy to electricity generation increased from 5% to 17%. With more than 17 000 MW of installed capacity, Germany boasts more than half the world’s operating photovoltaic solar energy panels. More than 21 000 wind turbines, most of them onshore, provide another 27 000 MW, while offshore development of a further 25 000 MW in the North Sea is planned by 2030. By 2050, the country expects to generate 80% of its electricity using renewable sources.

Energy efficiency and a better grid

The government is aggressively promoting increased energy efficiency, for example by retrofitting existing buildings and improving electricity grid infrastructure. Existing energy storage options are being maximised and new battery technologies rolled-out. Also on the cards is the introduction of smart meters and smart grid innovations, as well as über-efficient electricity transmission super-highways connecting the windy north of the country with the sunnier south. Flexible biomass, biogass and natural gas power plants will be used to balance more intermittent solar and wind generation.

Investment, research and development

Germany is throwing considerable fiscal and administrative resources at promoting a green energy economy and funding high priority research and development programmes into everything from new forms of renewable energy and electricity storage options to electric vehicles. It won’t be cheap. Estimates for the cost of the transition range from 1 to 3 billion euros per year, but then subsidies to the German nuclear industry amounted to some €200bn during the last 40 years. The clean energy sector already employs over 360 000 workers and is set to grow further. According to Matthias Kleiner, who heads the German Research Foundation, the country’s largest scientific funding agency, the nuclear phase-out “will be an arduous process, but” one that “will truly pay off”.

We’re being left behind

If an economic powerhouse like Germany can do without atomic energy, surely we in South Africa, being much more generously endowed with renewable energy resources, should be able to do the same! Considering the intransigent problems posed by nuclear power – among them the security, environmental and human health risks, the high cost of new build and the radioactive waste nobody knows what to do with – we owe it to ourselves and future generations.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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