No coal, no nukes: Germany’s future energy mix

Germany, nuclear energy, energy efficiency, coal, renewable energies, energy mix

©Alexandre Prévot

70% of Germans agree to move away from civilian nuclear energy, according to Klaus Töpfer, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party member, former executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and, last but not least, Germany’s former environment minister. Angela Merkel first decided to carry on with nuclear plants but changed her mind following the regional elections that took place in early 2011. Although this sudden shift is rather based on a political U-turn than a sound energy analysis, a sustainable though costly and time-consuming project seems to emerge.

A more varied and balanced energy mix than in France

In 2008, Germany’s energy mix was as follows: 44% of national electricity production came from coal, 19% from renewable sources (hydropower, wind power and solar energy), 13% from natural gas and 24% from nuclear energy (i.e. 20 out of the 75GW Germany actually consumes). By way of comparison, France gets 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy and 12% from renewable sources, among which 10% from hydropower. Germany is less dependent on nuclear energy than France; as a consequence, it relies massively on coal, which is still a very polluting energy source.

In order to get nukes out of its energy mix, Germany invested 150 million € on research on renewable energies in 2008. Such investments have had a major impact. In 2009, 20,000 windmills produced 8% of electricity, powering 10 million households. Besides, today solar energy represents an estimated 17,000 MW, a great leap forward from 2008 when it provided only 5300 MW!

Change is not only driven by sheer political will, but also by a broader shift in behaviours. The industry in Germany is bigger than in France, which is why Germany always consumes more energy than its neighbour. However, households use up less energy on the eastern side of the Rhine: energy use per square-metre in Germany is inferior by an estimated 23%. The reasons are that on the one hand, the French use more electric heating, and on the other hand Germans have more responsible consumption patterns and carry out more efficient building insulation policies. Finally, the German system works better: in order to produce 1 kWH of available final electricity, you need 2.97 kWH of primary energy in Germany, whereas 3.31 kWH are required in France; this is due to losses and to the relatively low efficiency of nuclear plants, as the production and reprocessing of nuclear fuel take up a lot of energy. As Germany moves away from nukes, the efficiency of its electric chain is expected to increase.

The way forward

As Klaus Töpfer told, “We can phase out nuclear energy within ten years because only 22% of our electricity comes from it. We wouldn’t have this idea if we relied on nukes for 80% of our power, as France does.” Germany has been preparing for a long time to leave nuclear energy behind in order to move towards 100% renewable energy. Already in 2000, Gerhard Schröder’s government planned to abandon nuclear energy by 2021. Merkel’s government took up most of the ideas in that plan. For example, the eight oldest reactors, which were phased out in March 2011, will never be in use again. Those still in use today will successively close by 2022.

However, leaving nukes behind cannot be achieved by dealing with nukes only. The bill adopted on June 6th 2011 should be followed by other laws aiming at prioritizing renewable energies over fossil fuels as part of the energy mix. These new bills should encourage the creation of more efficient power grids, promote on-shore wind farms and foster renewable power through a new energy pricing system. The construction of off-shore wind farms in the North and Baltic seas shall be supported by a five billion-euro grant, which should raise annual production from 180 MW today to 25,000 MW in 2030. Building a more efficient high-voltage grid will also require support, so as to convey the electricity produced in the North to power southern industrial regions such as Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria. If everything goes according to the German government’s plan, Germany’s energy mix should evolve as follows:

  • 2020: 30% of electricity production coming from coal, 35% from natural gas, 35% from renewable energies and 0% from nuclear energy
  • 2030: 15% of electricity production coming from coal, 35% from natural gas and 50% from renewable energies
  • 2050: 0% of electricity production coming from coal, 20% from natural gas and 80% from renewable energies.

A risky and expensive undertaking

However, not everyone seems happy with the government plan. According to experts from the German company Siemens, phasing out nuclear energy will cost an estimated 1,700 billion € in 2030. According to the electricity company RWE, it would be “only” 250 to 300 billion €. Such figures are extremely high, knowing that the Cap Gemini European Energy Markets Observatory predicts that necessary energy investments in Europe will amount to 1,000 billion € by 2020. In the low hypothesis, this ambitious energy transition would cost at least 70€ per German every year.

Critics of the plan have another significant concern. Raising gas consumption from 13% to 35% of the overall energy use in 2020 may impair Germany’s energy independence as most of the gas it needs comes from Russia. What would happen if Germans could no longer rely on one third of the energy they need?

Klaus Töpfer remains confident: « Truth be told, we have embarked on a massive undertaking. But it has to be done. And I am convinced we will succeed.” His optimism is based on encouraging employment forecasts. In 2010, 370,000 people worked in the renewable energy sector. At least another 120,000 to 150,000 “green workers” could soon join them.

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Picture : ©Alexandre Prévot

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