Why Germany Is Phasing Out Nuclear Power
ENERGY, 2 April 2012
by David Roberts, grist – TRANSCEND Media Service
Germany is involved in a wildly ambitious overhaul of its power system. Its official targets are to hit 35 percent renewable power by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. The Green Party advocates for 100 percent by 2030.
The most controversial aspect of this power overhaul is Germany’s post-Fukushima decision to completely phase out nuclear power by 2020, which caused the heads of Very Serious People to explode on multiple continents. To many, passing ambitious low-carbon energy goals and then axing a good chunk of your low-carbon energy seems irrational and self-defeating.
There are good-faith debates to be had about the speed of the phaseout and its proximate effects. It will probably lead to a temporary increase in carbon pollution. The hope is that it will accelerate the transition to renewables.
Putting those questions aside, though, I want to focus on one of the deeper debates about Germany’s nuclear gambit. Nuclear power’s proponents frequently point out that it is one of the only low-carbon sources that can serve as “baseload” (always on) power. Baseload power is needed, they say, because renewable sources like solar are intermittent (the sun isn’t always shining) and non-dispatchable (the sun can’t be turned on and off at will). You need large, steady, predictable power plants if you’re going to have all those flighty renewables involved.
Believe it or not, Germans have heard this argument before. They just think it’s wrong. They don’t think renewables and baseload are complimentary; they think they’re incompatible. In 2010, Federal Minister of the Environment Norbert Röttgen said:
It is economically nonsensical to pursue two strategies at the same time, for both a centralized and a decentralized energy supply system, since both strategies would involve enormous investment requirements. I am convinced that the investment in renewable energies is the economically more promising project. But we will have to make up our minds. We can’t go down both paths at the same time.
I find that non-energy nerds have a little trouble wrapping their heads around this, so let’s walk through it with the help of this report by the German Renewable Energies Agency.
Here’s how things work in your standard 20th century power setup:
Since consumption is fairly easy to forecast, production has been planned accordingly: permanently operating base load power plants cover that part of the demand that exists around the clock. When that basic consumption level is exceeded, medium load power plants are additionally used. Peak load power plants are used for unforeseeable fluctuations, such as faulty consumption forecasts or power plant outages, and for certain consumption peaks, such as the “lunch peak” at noon. Their generators provide full service within a few minutes, and are therefore flexibly usable.
So: baseload, medium load, and peak load, like a pyramid.
This is what it looks like (when no renewables are involved):
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 3.0 United States License.