Day 6: Observations of the German Nuclear Phase Out

This week I conducted my first site visit to the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie – a post on that experience is on the way, but must be approved by the school so it will be a few more days until I can share it here. In the meantime, I wanted to share some of my observations of Germany and the nuclear phase out thus far.

To give some perspective, Germany is slightly smaller than the state of California (the 11th most densely populated state in the U.S.), but has more than twice the population (about 80 Million people). There is not a great deal of unoccupied space and power plants of all kinds tend to be in populated areas. It is also a country with a long, rich history and historical sites that have been carefully preserved for many generations. Seeing all of this in person has helped me grasp why the idea of a nuclear accident and potential exclusion zone are feared in a more dire way here in Germany than in other developed nations. Every piece of land is inhabited with places and history that are central to German cultural identity.

Most power plants are situated in relatively populated areas, like this coal plant.

Most power plants are situated in relatively populated areas, like this coal plant.

German culture is very precise, risk adverse and focused on safety and order. It represents quite the opposite of the American ideal of the “rugged individual.” For instance, when you board the train no one takes your ticket. From what I understand, there are ticket checkers in civilian clothes on the train who occasional will ask to see your ticket- but I haven’t encountered one yet. On longer train rides, they check your ticket mid-way through the trip, and if you didn’t have a chance to get a ticket they will allow you to purchase one on the train. There is an implicit sense of trust and dignity. But it takes a largely uniform cultural consensus to make a system like this work. And there is a great deal of consensus, especially when it comes to energy.

In talking to locals the feeling is that they have already succeeded in phasing out nuclear power; the decision was made and the transition was made to renewables. The attitude seems to be, “good riddance!” to all things nuclear.

However, the people I’ve talked to don’t seem aware that the hardest part of the transition is actually still ahead. So far Germany has shut down just less than half of their commercial nuclear plants and last year the remaining 9 plants provided the country with 100 billion kWh of electricity. That’s a lot of energy.

So even as the percentage of renewable energy has neared 20% of the mix (much of which is actually hydro and biofuels), reliance of fossil fuels and imports is also growing. General Electric has a really great graphic that illustrates how renewables are successfully displacing nuclear, but are having very little impact on fossil fuel consumption. Even in the best case scenario, if Germany successfully shutters all of it’s nuclear plants by 2022, they will still be getting over half of their electricity from fossils. So they are prioritizing the relatively small

Although this looks like a snowy field, it is actually solar panels covered in snow.

Although this looks like a snowy field, it is actually solar panels covered in snow.

risks associated with nuclear power over the considerably larger risk of climate change.

I have heard the word “controversy” in relation to this path numerous times despite the strong cultural consensus that it needs to be done. As it turns out most of the controversy is in the form of conflict with neighbors.

When Angela Merkel announced the phase out she also committed to reduce carbon emissions by 40% and for Germany to become a net exporter of energy and renewable energy technologies. So far, those goals seem to have been pushed to the back burner.

On days with a lot of snow and not much wind, Germany is turning to it’s neighbors to import electricity- sometimes even nuclear power. This inconsistency is troubling to large manufacturers who are central to the well being of the German economy (which is central to the well being of the entire EU). Neighboring France and Poland have been happy to export energy to Germany- however on the days when Germany produces too much energy from wind, they are dumping it on their neighbors, some of whom are now threatening to disconnect power lines from the German grid.

If any country can make this transition work, it’s probably Germany- they have an incredible culture that values engineering and problem solving. However I want to reiterate that the hardest part of the transition is just starting. And as it turns out, the weather is a very tough energy source to wrangle.