Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Germany's proposed pathway to low carbon and nuclear free future

The conservative German government has published its draft strategy for closing all of its nuclear reactors by 2017. without building new coal fired power stations.

Chancellor Angela Merkel signed a bill last week committing the country to phasing out all nuclear power by the end of 2022. This eagerly awaited document, published by an agency of the German Environment Ministry, led by the conservative Norbert Röttgen, explains how it can do so - five years earlier than expected.

Defying those critics who said it couldn't be done, the study demonstrates how Germany can keep the lights on, avoid importing nuclear power from other countries, meet its carbon emission targets and avoid significant cost rises to consumers.

The question is, if Germany can do it, why can't the UK?

Currently, Germany relies on 23% nuclear and 17% renewables for its electricity.

The strategy proposed is almost the same as that proposed by the previous red-green coalition of social Democrats and Greens which Angela Merkel's conservative party originally opposed.

This strategy and policy reversal has potential worldwide significance, especially if adopted by Merkel and in a week when governments are meeting in Bonn to try and design what will succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

Switzerland has already decided to discontinue nuclear electricity (which provides about 40% of its current needs). Its five existing reactors will continue to operate until the end of their lifespans, the last one due to be decommissioned in 2034. They will be replaced by renewable energy.

Italy is to have a referendum on whether to build more nuclear power stations on June 12-13. Recent surveys show that most Italians are against nuclear power.

"A complete nuclear phase-out by 2017 will reduce the dangers and risks of nuclear power significantly," the summary in the German report concludes. "This will have substantial social benefits that outweigh the modest increases in electricity prices."

In brief, the strategy is to close Germany's 17 nuclear power plants (with a total net capacity of 20.5 GW) by faster development of renewable sources of energy, including biomass solar and wind, and constructing 5 GW of new natural gas combined cycle power generation.

Already, the German government has dropped its threat to impose a one-off cut to the solar feed-in tariff (FIT) in March 2012 a move welcomed by the PV sector for giving it genuine certainty over future policy. This should bring onto the market roughly 2.5GW-3.5GW of new PV capacity each year.

The investment in natural gas generation gives the grid the flexibility in meeting demand that it requires while also helping to meet Germany's targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and the plants can realistically be built within the next six years.

Natural gas is the 'cleanest' fossil fuel, with the lowest emissions per MW, but still it is a fossil fuel. The study does not say whether the gas-powered plants will be fitted with carbon capture and storage which will have implications for Germany's longer term emissions reduction targets, as the power stations will continue to operate for twenty to thirty years.

The IEA put out a report called Are We Entering a Golden Age of Gas? this week, which argued that if the world were to choose a high reliance on gas which seems likely given the current worldwide boom in shale gas then this could lock us into a path of carbon emissions "consistent with a long-term temperature rise of over 3.5ーC" - which would be disastrous [link is to a YouTube video based on Mark Lynas' Six Degrees book].

"A path towards 2ーC would still require a greater shift to low-carbon energy sources, increased energy efficiency and deployment of new technologies including carbon capture and storage (CCS), which could reduce emissions from gas-fired plants", it said.

In the last few years Germany has been a net exporter of electricity. Its recent status as a net importer has been temporary, and the study discovered that imports of electricity have been based on price, not shortage of supply and this will continue to be the motivating factor as the reactors are taken off-line.

Many commentators have predicted that the cost of the transition would be high, but the study estimates that consumers will pay just Euro 0.6 to 0.8 cents more per kilowatt-hour. This amount is less than the price swings of natural gas and coal anyway during the past year.

The higher market price for electricity will also cut the cost of the country's renewable energy programme because the differential between the market price of electricity and the average cost of feed-in tariffs for renewables will be decreased.

The oldest nuclear plants and the Krummel nuclear power plants with a capacity of 8.4 GW should go out of service as soon as possible. There is sufficient excess of reserve capacity - around 10 GW - to permit this.

Additionally, Germany today has an estimated 20 GW of emergency generators, most of which are grid-connected, particularly in the areas of trade and industry, and which can be activated for a few hours a year if necessary.

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