Andreas Späth

Let’s drop the nukes

2013-05-27 15:23

Andreas Späth

If Germany can do without nuclear energy, why can’t we?

The South African government seems to have made up its mind when it comes to nuclear energy: we’ll have more of it (so-called public consultation notwithstanding).

But I wonder if they’ve honestly and objectively considered the alternatives to establishing a nuclear industry that will take decades to build, use non-renewable fuel (uranium), present very significant environmental and safety issues (from uranium mining and processing to nuclear accidents, nuclear proliferation and terrorist threats), and generate long-lived toxic waste that nobody anywhere in the world has found an acceptable way of dealing with?

And, yes, you’ve guessed it, the alternatives I’m thinking of don’t involve coal, shale gas or any other fossil fuels.

How difficult would it be, really, to shut down Koeberg and build a distributed national electricity supply network based on renewable energy sources, initially to make up for new demand and then, gradually, to replace our dirty coal-fired power plants as well?

It won’t be easy, but it’s far from impossible. Germany is demonstrating that it can be done.

The country is going through a self-imposed ‘Energiewende’ – an energy turn-around. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, eight of its 17 nuclear reactors were switched off in 2011. The remaining plants will be shut down by 2022.

Germany is already a world-leader in photovoltaic solar power – remarkable for a country that’s not exactly renowned for its sunny weather – and in 2012, it generated 22% of its electricity requirements using renewable resources (mostly wind, solar and biomass). The federal government has pledged to increase that percentage to 35% by 2020 and to 80% by 2050. A report by its environment agency suggests that a 100% renewable electricity supply is technically feasible by 2050.

On a sunny summer Friday and Saturday last year, German solar panels, many of them installed on private houses and farmers’ barns, generated a world record 22 gigawatts of electricity per hour (comparable to 20 nuclear reactors running at full capacity) – enough to satisfy a third of national demand on the Friday and nearly half on the Saturday.

Progressive feed-in-tariffs mean that even small private producers of renewable electricity can sell their “product” on the market. Massive investments are going into developing smart grid solutions that optimise the electricity supply from intermittent and geographically distributed renewable energy sources, establishing improved energy storage options (from pumped storage schemes to grid-scale batteries and ways of converting renewable energy into hydrogen and synthetic gas for later use), as well as building new power lines.

The push for clean electricity has resulted in a large, indigenous renewable energy industry, created jobs and led to massive investments in research and innovation. Of course it’s also benefitted the environment: in 2012, German greenhouse gas emissions were down 25.5% from 1990 levels (ahead of the Kyoto target of 21%) and by 2020, they are expected to be reduced by 40%.

The country’s industrial juggernaut did not come to a grinding halt without the decommissioned nuclear plants, even in the least sunny winter on record. According to the German weather service, the country received a depression-inducing grand total of just 22.5 hours of sunshine during all of January, making this the darkest winter since measurements started over 60 years ago.

Contrary to popular belief, Germany didn’t survive last year by importing electricity from elsewhere in Europe. Quite the opposite, the country remains a net exporter of electricity. The Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) reports that while in 2012, 43.8 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity were imported via European grids, a whopping 66.6TWh were exported – a surplus of 22.8 TWh.

Jochen Flasbarth, president of the German Federal Environment Agency, says: “When a highly industrialised country such as Germany can cut a third of its nuclear capacity at the flick of a switch and still export more electricity than it imports, the pursuit of a nuclear renaissance elsewhere is puzzling.”

Puzzling indeed!


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