Since the removal of nuclear energy, we don't have many options left
As Britons fear (or look forward to) a return to three-day work weeks this winter, Germany too is staring down the barrel of an energy crisis. Neither country seems to have found a solution to supplying millions of their citizens with reliable, affordable and sustainable energy.
Boris Johnson has brushed off looming supply problems and rising prices as a ‘short-term problem’ for the UK. But as wholesale gas prices have soared (there has been a 70% increase since August alone), the industry has warned that many suppliers could go bust even with a record-level energy price cap of £1,227 from next Friday. While companies may be offered state-backed loans to keep them afloat, there are no plans to help families who are struggling to make ends meet, just a promise that ‘‘the market is going to start fixing it’.
But at least Britain has the option to scale up its own production of energy in the long run if it can find the political will to do so. There are 13 nuclear power plants in the UK, which supply around a fifth of the country’s electricity and public opinion is largely favourable. Even a section of hardline climate activists in Britain accept nuclear energy as an important element on the route to meeting zero emissions targets. Zion Lights, a former spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, last year called on her fellow activists to ‘embrace nuclear power’.
However, environmentalists are not so accepting of nuclear energy in Germany, leaving the country few options to find a way out of its energy crisis. When environmentalism emerged as a political movement in the late 1970s, the frontlines of the Cold War still ran right through the country and its capital city. This made many Germans deeply suspicious of nuclear technology. Both the Soviets and the U.S. had placed nuclear weapons on German soil, which created to a powerful political cocktail of pacificism and anti-nuclear environmentalism.
While this was initially a relatively small-scale movement, the Three-Mile-Island accident, a partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania in 1979, and the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986, reinforced German suspicions. The Green Party, created in West Germany in 1980 as a fringe party, became a serious political force, drawing votes. Under pressure, chancellor Helmut Kohl began the phasing out of nuclear energy in the early 1990s.
Then in 2011, when the Fukushima accident occurred in Japan, the German government came under renewed pressure through public opinion as well as opposition in the Bundestag to end nuclear power production on German soil for good. 513 out of 600 MPs voted to phase out nuclear power stations by the end of 2022.
One good outcome of this energy transition is that nearly half of Germany’s electricity consumption is now sourced from renewables. The rest is still fossil fuels and nuclear energy (the latter only making up 11.3%). Emissions have also gone down 42% from 1990 levels.
The huge drawback is that Germany is much more vulnerable. Renewables are weather dependent and can often put too little or too much electricity into the system. At half-and-half, this model works fine. There is always backup from coal, gas and nuclear sources when needed, and when there is too much, the surplus is sold at a handsome profit. Only 12 minutes of power outage is experienced by the average German each year, the the lowest rate in Europe.
But Germany will need to expand the proportion of renewables over the halfway line when nuclear stations close next year because it’s lights out in coal plants by 2038. Meanwhile, the construction of new wind turbines has gone into a steep decline as residents oppose the building of unaesthetic wind parks near their homes and wildlife protection often poses powerful obstacles. It’s an issue the Germany’s federal system finds difficult to tackle as each state will protect its own citizens’ interests over the national one.
If coal and nuclear energy are phased out as planned, Germany will rely entirely on unreliable renewables and imports. The latter will not in small part be supplied by Nord Stream 2, the giant pipeline from Russia to Germany, making the country dependent on collaboration with Moscow while alienating its allies in Europe and across the Atlantic.
In Britain, energy prices may rise and the feasibility of renewables might cause headaches, but the deep suspicion of nuclear energy in Germany is creating a longer-term supply crisis with serious geopolitical consequences. That is a question that Merkel’s successor will have to grapple with.