About Me

My photo
Chemical engineer working in the field of bulk chemicals for e.g. plastics and energy, specifically energy efficiency and renewables.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The German nuclear folly

There were many releases in the media regarding Germanys announcement that it would phase out nuclear power by 2022 a few months back. Indeed these stories have been around from at least 5 years ago (Ny times, Business week: Coal boom). Now that the dust has settled, three very disturbing facts seem to be coming to the fore. Germany will no longer be able to export electricity to other countries and may have to rely on imports. Germany may be facing blackouts as soon as this winter.  Meanwhile Germany will be destroying its environmental credentials as it will have to increase fossil fuel use.

Germany currently receives around 23% or approximately 31 GW of its electricity from nuclear production (CNBC: Germany dims nuclear). Its total electricity production is around 133 GW so stopping the electricity from nuclear power will leave 100GW. The demand for Germany is approximately 80-90GW. There are already calls to keep the availability of one or more of these reactors operational from the head of Germany’s federal network agency no less. (Spiegel: Calls for nuclear).  This is because variability in the solar and wind network could easily see that 10 GW safety margin disappear  (As a follow-up which came some time after I wrote the above we see that Germany will rely on dirty coal and imports to power itself (Platts: Nuclear not needed)). Germany is no longer an electricity exporter).

Indeed despite apparent success in the renewable energy sector (The renewable sources act),  the real story of the last five years is the boom in coal plant construction as indicated by the Business week: Coal boom report. This expansion under the new revised timeline for nuclear departure is likely to increase with increased reliance on coal and gas (Businessweek: Russian gas for Germany). Despite the promise of clean coal, the only major project in Germany is Vattenfall’s project and this pales in comparison to the size of typical plants (Vattenfall clean coal pilot plant, Clean coal). Not only that but initial estimates show that the process consumes nearly 30% of the energy that it generates leading to the use of even more raw material.

The politicians cannot guarantee that the climate goals that they have set for themselves can be meet while keeping electricity as cheap as it is now. However in a quote from the CNBC: Germany dims nuclear article, there is a much greater threat
This winter, Amprion predicts its grid will have 84,000 megawatts of electricity at its disposal, to provide 81,000 megawatts needed for consumption — an uncomfortably slim margin of safety, Vanzetta said. In prior years, electricity was readily available for purchase on the European grid if the price was right. But exported German power is what helped keep France glowing in winter.
There is the chance that there will be blackouts in both Germany and France due to the slim margins. Indeed considering that margin and that up to 6% of the electricity generated in a grid is lost (ABB: Efficiency in the power grid), one might even believe that meeting the demand is impossible without imports.

The poignant message is that German politicians are either lying to its electorate or are illiterate on energy issues. Increasing renewables will cause massive cost increases to the German taxpayer due to the high feed in tariffs needed to keep these energy sources competitive (competitive for the producer, not the consumer). Subsidies for solar and wind (see the renewable energy sector link) are approximately 10 times the industrial spot electricity price (EU industrial energy prices). As the share of renewable power increases, electricity prices will start to rise and meet the feed in tariff cost. Indeed change over to gas will also increase electricity prices to a certain extent.

My opinion on the issue is quite simple. Merkel has simply bowed to pressure from the ill-informed electorate to stop nuclear power due to fears after Fukishima. This was the incorrect choice and such issues should not be decided by political pressure. There is an easy choice that should have been offered to the German consumer. They could accept stability of supply by keeping a large part of the nuclear power online or they could have been shown that electricity production without nuclear is extremely fragile. In that light I think that the German consensus would have been to reduce rather than do away with. However that would have required some political will.