Wed Jun 1st, 2011 at 07:49:04 AM EST
Under the impression of three post-Fukushima regional elections that saw losses for their parties and big gains for the Greens, and undaunted by protests from all of Merkel's fellow G8 leaders, German chancellor Angela Merkel's federal government is moving ahead with its phaseout of the phaseout of the phaseout of nuclear power: over the weekend, after tough negotiations, the leaders of the CDU, CSU and FDP parties reached a framework agreement about shutting down all 17 reactors in Germany by 2022.
The devil is in the details, however. The terms of the nuclear phaseout themselves seem to include a number of back doors allowing for yet another 180-degree-turn in the future. As for replacement capacity, it is unclear what exactly the government wants beyond new power lines, though early signs are that instead of supporting accelerated expansion of renewables, they want to allow existing energy giants to expand coal and gas generating capacity. At the same time, whatever the government intends to do, lately the prospects of coal power aren't all that rosy.
The framework agreement
First the politics. This is an agreement of the governing parties only. Of those, previously,
- the Chancellor herself sought to maintain an impression of impartiality (and sought to avoid the impression of opportunistic political manoeuvring) by setting up a so-called 'ethics commission' made up of experts, who delivered a report advocating a nuclear phaseout by 2021;
- the Bavarian CSU already completed its 180-degree-turn and adopted a plan with 2022 as the date of exit;
- in Merkel's CDU, the voices for phaseout won overhand with the argument of election losses, but the old nuclear advocates, especially state PMs who criticised Merkel openly before the talks, sought to delay matters by questioning every detail;
- however, it was the FDP under its new leader who took up the mantle of the last pro-nuclear hero, and tried to prevent the setting of a specific date.
In the end, they agreed these key points:
- the seven oldest units and one more problematic reactor (that is the ones shut down after Fukushima) are phased out immediately;
- six more reactors will last up until 2021;
- in 2018, progress shall be checked, and the three most modern reactors may run until 2022;
- the fuel rod tax introduced alongside last year's (now dumped) 12-year extension of plant lifespans remains.
The dates seem essentially identical with those according to the Schröder government's original nuclear phaseout schedule, so SPD and Greens will supposedly have it difficult to refuse agreement. Then Merkel could pretend to have achieved consensus, although the opposition wasn't asked.
In their first reactions, SPD and Greens focus on the detail that not all plants will be dismantled. Even one of the eight plants 'phased out' now, supposedly for safety reasons, shall be maintained as 'cold reserve' for winter shortages until 2013. In practice, that should probably mean a plant status similar to maintenance shutdowns.
The federal parliamentary faction co-leader of the Greens, former Schröder government environment minister Jürgen Trittin, focused his criticism on another back door: the liberal rules on electricity generation credits. These were introduced by the original nuclear phaseout: plant owners were allowed to run plants until specific amounts of electricity are generated, and they could ask for a shift of small amounts between different plants. Now it seems practically all the electricity generation credits of shut-down plants can be shifted to those continuing running. So, potentially, the government plan could mean the status quo until 2021.
I think further: incidentally, 2021 is an election year – so a right-wing government returning in 2017 or 2021 after a defeat in 2013 would have the opportunity to execute another phaseout of the phaseout once Fukushima recedes from public memory.
The governing parties didn't detail how they imagine the replacement of nuclear power capacity, beyond vague references to renewables. Back when they extended nuclear plant lifespans, the rhetoric was that nuclear is necessary until renewables are ready – except they kept erecting roadblocks to the expansion of renewables (more later). Now, on one hand, the fact that the agreement included no change to renewables penetration targets has its message, too; on the other hand, the 'ethics commission' made its calculation with all the fossil fuel plants planned or proposed by the energy giants. Since new coal plants would need to operate 25 to 40 years to bring back the investment, of course, this scenario would fix the energy mix well beyond 2022.
Coal can count on key players in the SPD, too. You may remember how the federal environment minister in Merkel's first, Grand Coalition government advocated and approved lots of new coal power plants as something necessary until renewables are ready, a trend that foundered only in the wake of local protests and legal challenges aiming to enforce requirements that made the projects unprofitable (see Where is my coal renaissance?). That minister, Sigmar Gabriel, is now SPD chairman, and already a few weeks ago, he was back to the same argument: he spoke of coal as "bridge technology", borrowing the term the CDU invented for nuclear. This weekend, Hannelore Kraft, PM of Northrhine-Westphalia state, used a more veiled argument: she warned that an improperly prepared nuclear phaseout could lead to more expensive electricity which in turn could force energy-intensive industries (she is thinking of smelters in her state for example) to move abroad.
These low-key moves were countered further left. Also from the SPD's left wing: for example, the SPD boss in Hessen state called for the share of coal to be cut below 10% by 2030. Greenpeace thinks nuclear phaseout by 2015 and a coal phaseout by 2040 is feasible. As for the Greens, already last year, they had a plan including a fossil fuel phaseout on the electricity market by 2030. In the present debate, the first I noticed was Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit in a taz interview two weeks ago, who emphasized that an energy sector shift is only credible if the replacement capacity is renewables, and climate protection should not be forgotten. On Monday morning, it was federal Greens co-chairman Claudia Roth who repeated the same arguments, and said: "It cannot be that the devil nuclear is exorcised with the Beelzebub coal".
Unintended lack of success
Yet another handy German word without precise English equivalent is Zweckoptimismus. Literally, it is "optimism with/for a goal". "Calculated optimism" is close but not quite as strong. Sometimes it is translated as "wishful thinking", except the latter is understood as self-deception, while the German is meant as something designed to bring about the desired outcome by creating a positive buzz. That's what the previous attempt at a coal renaissance was about, and we have it now, too.
Take, for example, the Deutsche Welle article Coal's future suddenly looks brighter in Germany, which is based in its entirety on the claims of a lobbyist. In spite of the title, the lobbyist is in truth listing a string of problems and challenges for coal, and asking for state help.
For a start, there is the price of the fuel. Germany's well-known coal subsidies are subsidies for domestically mined hard coal, which are phased out until 2018 under an EU agreement. Back when coal subsidy lobbyists fought their last-ditch battle, once the argument of securing jobs (there aren't that many miners any more) and industry faltered, one semi-environmentalist argument was added: the end of German hard coal mining is not the end of German hard coal burning power plants, just a switch to cheaper imports, originating from even dirtier mines abroad and transported thousands of miles with coal dust and sludge spewing, fossil fuel burning ships. However, China's hunger for coal changed that situation:
A few years ago, Wodopia said, imported coal in the harbors of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp cost 40 euros per ton. "Now we pay over 100 per ton," he added. "A lot has happened."
...Coal imports, he said, will not always be available at reasonable prices. Australia won't always be able to supply the massive amounts of coal it currently exports.
"There are no more countries like Indonesia, which a short while ago was a kind of insider tip and has since emerged as a major player on the world market," Wodopia said. While some new deposits have been found in Africa, the political situation in some countries there has made exploitation difficult.
He estimated that in the next 10 years, prices for imported coal could rise dramatically.
While Mr. Wodopia the coal lobbyist interprets the above, with calculated optimism, as an argument for the future viability of subsidy-free coal mining in Germany, it also means that coal-fired power generation gets a lot more expensive. Meanwhile, the previous attempt at a coal renaissance showed that regulation makes plants more expensive, too. And there comes the pleading – hidden behind nice words about higher efficiency plants:
Technological developments in the area of coal-fired electricity generation have made efficiency rates of 46 percent possible. Plans for the next generation of power plants, with an efficiency rate of over 50 percent, are already on the drawing board. What is missing, according to Wodopia, is political support. In other words, regulations need to be loosened.
(In fact, later on, he also asks for subsidies for a domestic 'model mine' to test new mining methods to be used abroad...)
Over the last five years, photovoltaic solar power experienced an unprecedented boom in Germany, while module prices dropped more than 50%. So right after the 2009 elections, the current Merkel government sought strong reductions in the feed-in rate. I argued earlier that the intent was to choke the market, but due to the bumbling way the rate reductions were brought about, the effect was the opposite: the creation of massive bubbles at the rate change dates (see Turbulent times for solar power for details).
The trend is still the same: prices continue to drop and installations remain strong. So in March 2011, it was agreed to make up to 24% annual rate reductions a permanent feature. (Can you think of any industry that would accept such a challenge?) But for some solar opponents, even that is clearly not enough: last week, an FDP leader called for even stronger rate reductions, now taz reports that a coalition working group is preparing a proposal with up to 34% annual rate reductions.
At any rate, the new solar capacity, combined with sunny late spring days, was also credited with smoothing the supply situation after the shutdown of the oldest nuclear plants. What's more, for a week now, there is a practical simulation of nuclear phaseout: five more plants are down for scheduled maintenance, leaving only four operating.