Are the Energiewende and the phasing out of the atom a big mistake? Germany failed (OPINION)

Luc Williams

German departure from nuclear power

We often look with envy at our neighbors across the Oder and their ability to implement long-term projects across political lines. He undoubtedly had this character nuclear withdrawal program. This success was achieved by several successive governments. The energy denuclearization program was introduced on the agenda by the red-green coalition led by Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer. After the Fukushima disaster The extinction of nuclear power was sealed by Angela Merkel. And the execution of the last acts of this plan was supervised by Olaf Scholz and Robert Habeck.

Exactly on April 15, 2023, less than four decades after launch and just 3.5 months after the date set in the schedule left by Merkel's government, the reactors in Emsland, Isar and Neckarwestheim ceased operation. Their total capacity exceeded 4 gigawatts, and last year they supplied over 30 terawatt hours of electricity to the grid. Obtaining the same volume of electricity from conventional coal or gas sources would mean from a dozen to over twenty million tons higher carbon dioxide emissions German economy.

Despite this, a year after the nuclear shutdown, there are many opinions that the project was a success. An analysis commissioned by the German Greenpeace shows that the development of renewable energy sources has more than filled the nuclear gap. As a result, the German carbon footprint has shrunk by almost a quarter in the last year energy prices they have not increased. The information portal Clean Energy Wire, published by the Mercator Foundation and the European Climate Foundation (entities co-creating the base of the German Energiewende strategy), also emphasizes, for example, that after the reactors were shut down, the most serious concerns expressed by opponents of this movement did not materialize. Continuity of supplies was maintained, prices were kept in check, and the decarbonization of the mix was progressing, as evidenced by the recently announced by the federal government of ending the operation of 15 coal units with a total capacity of approximately 4.4 gigawatts. The state-owned “Deutsche Welle” emphasizes that proposals for a return to nuclear power – recently formulated, among others, by the leader of the Christian Democrats, Friedrich Merz – they are not met with enthusiasm in the energy industry.

On some level, it is difficult to deny the validity of these arguments. The fact is that in the last year – according to data from German operators – low- and zero-emission sources were responsible for over 60%. German electricity production. Compared to the year preceding the final goodbye to nuclear power, this result improved by 5 percentage points, and the share of coal in electricity generation was reduced by 9 points. Despite the renewed importance of gas power plants, the share of which in generation was half as high last year as before the phasing out reactors, the progress of decarbonization of the German mix seems unthreatened. In 2023, according to the British think tank Ember, average carbon footprint megawatt-hours of energy amounted to approximately 380 kilograms of CO2. For comparison, in the same year 2023, the production of each megawatt hour of electricity in Poland was associated with the emission of over 660 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The elimination of the last nuclear power plants did not prevent wholesale energy prices from falling. Contracts on the spot market with next-day delivery were valued on average at approximately EUR 92 per MWh in 2023, and at the beginning of 2024 this indicator reached the ceiling of EUR 64. At that time, on the wholesale market in Poland, we recorded EUR 112 and EUR 81, respectively.

The apparent successes of the Energiewende

These apparent successes, especially eagerly described in the German media addressed to foreign recipients, are only a spoonful of honey in a barrel of tar that belongs to architects. Energiewende.

The role of the atom in the energy mixes of individual countries can be debated. It cannot be denied that investing in new nuclear capacities is decarbonization postponed and, in addition, a huge challenge in the field of political economy, fraught with many risks. Some countries – especially those with the most favorable conditions for the development of renewable energy – may therefore calculate that this is not the best path from the point of view of rational resource management. The situation is completely different in the case of existing power plants, which could provide energy without any major costs for the next decades.

Even if the basic indicators for assessing the progress of the transformation were improved, it was despite, not because of, the move away from nuclear power. And continued use of the reactors could likely have provided even better results. To prepare a balance of profits and benefits of phasing out nuclear power, it would be necessary to compare it with scenarios in which this decision is reversed. According to calculations by the pro-nuclear group Radiant, if it were not for the political decision to prematurely say goodbye to nuclear energy, the share of clean energy sources in the German production mix in 2022 could reach 74%. – almost half more than actually quoted.

But even taking a closer look at the supposedly optimistic data from recent years as to whether this is indeed the case Energiewende is still running smoothly, one may have considerable doubts. The German economy is struggling with major problems, which are reflected in the reduced demand for electricity. At the same time, despite this, our neighbors are forced to rely on imports. Last year, the net balance of cross-border trade amounted to nearly 12 terawatt hours – which can be compared to the annual electricity consumption in the Greater Poland Voivodeship. And just a few years ago, the standard for our neighbor was the status of a net exporter – and at a level of 50-60 terawatt hours per year.

Complications such as rising electricity costs are easy to blame energy crisis, but the fact remains that while a decade ago Germany could boast of some of the lowest prices in Europe, now compared to other large markets in the western part of the continent – e.g. France or Spain – it is quite expensive there. According to Veronika Grimm from the German Council of Economic Experts, if only the last three reactors were to be shut down, the average electricity prices on the stock exchanges could be 8-12% lower in Germany. It is also hard to doubt that the scale of Germany's demand for gas – and the related economic costs of the crisis – could have been smaller if it had not opted for a development model in which it is the basic complement to renewable sources.

A devastating critique of German politics

This diagnosis is confirmed by words Fatih Biroldirector International Energy Agency and a respected authority in the industry, who a few days ago subjected Germany's policy to withering criticism in the Financial Times, talking about two “monumental mistakes”: relying on Russian gas and turning away from nuclear energy. And mistakes are paid for. In this case, it is paid – according to Birol – not only by Germany, but by the entire European industry, which has lagged behind the more dynamic competition from the USA and China.

It is not without reason that the iron anti-nuclear front is crumbling more and more in the EU arena. It postponed plans to shut down existing reactors Belgium. They want to develop their nuclear energy Netherlands and Sweden, until recently assuming a 100% mix in their strategies. Renewable energy. They are analyzing the possibility of returning to the atom as one of the elements of the energy transformation Italians, who shut down their reactors three and a half decades ago in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. The discussion about changing the policy takes place in Denmark. And last month, Luc Frieden, the prime minister, spoke in favor of a less ideological approach to nuclear technologies Luxembourg traditionally one of the most virulently anti-nuclear EU countries. He added that in the future, nuclear power plants will replace a significant part of sources based on fossil fuels.

Pro-nuclear society

The fact that nuclear energy should be maintained is also supported by the public mood in Germany itself. While a few years ago, the fight against nuclear shutdown was fought alone by small organizations of pro-nuclear enthusiasts and part of the ecological community – e.g. the Polish foundation FOTA4Climate – energy crisis tipped the scales in favor of nuclear supporters, also in Germany. Last year's polls indicate that approximately two out of three German respondents were in favor of abandoning plans to denuclearize the energy sector. This trend has also been followed in Germany since then the Fukushima disaster political consensus. Both the opposition Christian Democrats and the coalition Liberals from FDP. Today CDU/CSU not only does he consider their extinguishment to be a mistake, but he also more and more boldly advocates the renaissance of the atom, including the re-launch of the already deactivated units.

The Radiant group argued in last year's analysis that it is possible to resume operation of some German nuclear capacity even in the case of eight reactors. The Isar-2 block was to be particularly promising in this respect, supported not only by its technical condition, but also by the legal and political situation.

At the end of March, this scenario was averted as the owner of the unit received consent to start dismantling the reactor. Earlier, the authorities of Bavaria supported a temporary extension of the exploitation of the latter nuclear power plants, calling nuclear energy a “bridge” technology on the way to climate neutrality. Nuclear enthusiasts argue that even today, reversing the decisions of Schröder, Merkel and Scholz, at least to some extent, remains possible. They argue that even in the case of units where demolition works have started, they are not very advanced and in practice the only barrier is political will. However, among decision-makers and in the mainstream of the German commentariat, the otherwise familiar “non-Dasism” is gaining ground. Just like the Bavarian Minister of the Environment, who finally agreed to the request to allow the dismantling of the power plant.

On this occasion, however, he made one of the strongest accusations against the architects of the nuclear Energiewende. – Isar 2 could produce affordable and zero-emission electricity for Bavaria. It is incomprehensible why the federal government does not want to acknowledge this and has decided to rely more on coal instead, said Thorsten Glauber. He emphasized that the unit scheduled for demolition was one of the safest and most reliable in the world, and at the time of shutdown it had only 35 years of operation behind it. “It's like retiring a 50-year-old in perfect health,” he added.


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