Thu Mar 17th, 2011 at 09:26:22 AM EST
The crisis at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant in Japan after the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami is sure to have an impact on the public perception of nuclear power similar to Chernobyl or Three Miles Island. The consequences on energy policy around the world are harder to see – as Migeru wrote here on ET, any costy safety conclusions might eventually get waved off for economic reasons.
However, there have been major consequences in one country already: in Germany. After the federal government and regional governments jointly decided to suspend last year's law on the extension of nuclear power plant lifespans, in a runaway series of events reminiscent of the way the Berlin Wall fell, it was also decided to shut down the seven oldest plants for at least three months. Below the fold, a short analysis.
Phaseout of phaseout
Back in 2002, then chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrat (SPD)–Greens coalition government made nuclear phaseout a law: no new plant construction, and the closure of all existing plants after a specified running time, so that their owners get their investment back. Under the law, the last plant would come off-line in 2022.
Established energy giants and the right-wing parties in chancellor Angela Merkel's current government, the Christian Democrats (CDU), the Bavarian Christian Socialists (CSU) and the (neo)liberal Free Democrats (FDP), long sought to phase out the phaseout. This was not possible under Merkel's first government, the CDU/CSU–SPD "Grand Coalition", when the industry hatched Plan B for market share protection: dozens of new coal-fired power plants. Which didn't work out that well, in the face of public protests (see Where is my coal renaissance?).
Following the 2009 elections, the situation changed. However, by then, the CDU had its own nuclear sceptics, above all new federal environment minister Röttgen (see Quo vadis, German energy policy?). The end result of intense fights was a 12-year extension of nuclear plant lifespans, with the official justification that the plants are needed as "bridge technology" until renewables can take over.
The 'phaseout of the phaseout' law was adopted last year by the lower house of the German parliament only. The upper house, which consists of representatives of Germany's 16 state governments, was expected to block it, so it was bypassed. Five states with SPD-led governments (but no nuclear plants) decided to sue at the constitutional court.
Phaseout of the phaseout of phaseout
In first reactions after the Fukushima crisis, representatives of the German federal government sought to forestall a domestic debate, but that couldn't be held up. So two days after the earthquake, on Sunday, Merkel went on TV defending the safety of German plants, but called all state PMs for a meeting, including those without nuclear plants in their states. By the next evening, events moved further: Merkel & co announced that the nuclear plant extension law will be suspended for three months, and the plants will be subjected to another safety check. This was a high-stakes decision for three reasons: the legal, the political and the practical.
- First, how can you suspend a law merely by government decision, rather than a new vote in parliament? The 'phaseout of the phaseout' law contains a possibility to suspend it in case of an immediate emergency, which the government relied on – but this interpretation is questionable. So far no company sought to contest the decision, leading the leader of the SPD to voice concerns about a background deal. However, it was a nuclear advocate of the CDU itself, the present speaker of the lower house of the federal parliament, who initiated a legal check.
- The decision was widely commented and derided as a transparent electioneering measure. There will be regional elections in three states this month, including CDU bastion Baden-Württenberg where nuclear power was already a campaign issue. So the three months suspension only serves to get the issue out of the way until after elections, said critics.
- What the government didn't think about was practical consequences. If the 'phaseout of the phaseout' is phased out, what about the plants that would have already been closed under the original phaseout law? Already on Monday evening, they realised that the two oldest reactors will have to be shut down. However, if the suspension of extended lifespans is justified with safety concerns, then it follows logically that the safety of all older reactors is in doubt. By Tuesday, the government followed this criticism, too, and the number of plants to be shut down grew to seven.
This cascade of events reminded commenters of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989: back then, people stormed the Wall after the East German government speaker mis-spoke during the announcement of an easing of travel restrictions.
What this means for the energy mix
The seven reactors add up to 7.076 GW. However, one of them, Brunsbüttel near Hamburg, was already off-line for years after an accident (see Brunsbüttel, Krümmel (German nuclear controversy)), leaving 6.105 GW.
According to Spiegel, the highest peak load in Germany was reached on a Wednesday at 11h in 2008, at 82.2 GW. To supply this demand, at the end of 2009, the following mix was available:
- 20.3 GW nuclear
- 71.3 GW thermal (coal, gas, oil)
- 10.4 GW hydro
- 37.5 GW other renewables (mostly intermittent wind & solar, and biofuels)
As can be seen, non-intermittent sources add up to at least 102 GW, so there is no danger to domestic supply. Indeed Germany is a net exporter of electricity (17.0 TWh last year). Those export markets will now probably be taken up by France and the Czech Republic on the short term.
The reason Germany became a net exporter: the spread of renewables, while established energy giants were slow in cutting back their old baseload plants. Before I show this on a graph, I stress again what I argued in The 3-part view of power generation, for example: intermittent renewables (especially when supported by feed-in laws) should be seen as part of the same load regime as traditional baseload plants, like nuclear and lower quality coal: that is, plants operated continuously at the maximum possible. Scheduled variable load or "intermediate load" (meant to balance expected variation in both consumption and baseload) and unscheduled load-following peak load are needed whatever is in the first bin, and those in the first bin block each other.
The sequence of generating types in the diagram below (based on data from AG Energiebilanzen) reflects the above consideration (renewables are marked by a *):
The diagram shows annual generated electricity as a percentage of total consumption. As you can see,
- the increase in wind and solar over the past decade paralleled decreases in nuclear and "brown coal" (literal translation of Braunkohle, which is often mis-translated as lignite, although it corresponds to high-grade sub-bituminous or low-grade bituminous coal in English terminology);
- the increase in generation from gas and biofuel paralleled a decrease in that from high-grade coal (typically used for intermediate load in Germany),
- net exports (the part above the 100% line) increased during this time.
Note the increase in photovoltaic power: generation jumped from 6.6 TWh in 2009 to 12.0 TWh 2010. A rapid expansion that keeps following the curve for wind with a 10-to-11-year lag. As I argued in Turbulent times for solar power
, last year's giant increase (when 7 GW of new capacity was added, which should generate about just as many TWh a year) included an unplanned bubble effect of the federal government's haphazard attempt at a strong cut in feed-in rates. However, this insane process continues: photovoltaics prices are still dropping rapidly, making up for the rate cuts, ensuring continued multi-gigawatt annual new installations.
Meanwhile, off-shore wind is starting to take up in Germany. So a rapid replacement of the rest of baseload is not impossible.