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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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The Unexpected Consequences Of Germany’s Anti-Nuclear Push

Germany, the poster child for renewable energy, sourcing close to half of its electricity from renewable sources, plans to close all of its nuclear power plants by 2022. Its coal-fired plants, meanwhile, will be operating until 2038. According to a study from the U.S. non-profit National Bureau of Economic Research, Germany is paying dearly for this nuclear phase-out--with human lives.

The study looked at electricity generation data between 2011 and 2017 to assess the costs and benefits of the nuclear phase-out, which was triggered by the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and which to this day enjoys the support of all parliamentary powers in Europe’s largest economy. It just so happens that some costs may be higher than anticipated.

The shutting down of nuclear plants naturally requires the replacement of this capacity with something else. Despite its reputation as a leader in solar and wind, Germany has had to resort to more natural gas-powered generation and, quite importantly, more coal generation. As of mid-2019, coal accounted for almost 30 percent of Germany’s energy mix, with nuclear at 13.1 percent and gas at 9.3 percent.

The authors of the NBER study have calculated that “the social cost of the phase-out to German producers and consumers is $12 billion per year (2017 USD). The vast majority of these costs fall on consumers.” 

But what are these social costs--exactly?

“Specifically,” the authors wrote, “over 70% of the cost of the nuclear phase-out is due to the increased mortality risk from local air pollution exposure as a consequence of producing electricity by burning fossil fuels rather than utilizing nuclear sources.” Related: Is This The Start Of A New Offshore Oil & Gas Boom?

The culprit is coal. According to the study, some 1,100 people die because of the pollution from coal power generation every year. This, the authors say, is a lot worse than even the most pessimistic cost estimates of so-called “nuclear accident risk” and not just that: 1,100 deaths annually from coal-related pollution is worse even when you include the costs of nuclear waste disposal in the equation.

The results of the study, which used machine learning to analyze the data, surprised the authors. The cost of human lives had not been expected to be the largest cost associated with the nuclear phase-out.

“Despite this, most of the discussion of the phase-out, both at the time and since, has focused on electricity prices and carbon emissions – air pollution has been a second order consideration at best,” one of the authors, economist Steven Jarvis, told Forbes.

Just two decades ago, air pollution was a top concern for many environmentalists. Now, carbon emissions and their effect on climate seem to have taken over the environmental narrative and, as the research from NBER suggests, this is leading to neglecting important issues. Meanwhile, there are voices—and some of them are authoritative voices—that are warning a full transition to a zero-emission economy is impossible without nuclear power, which is virtually emission-free once a plant begins operating.

None other than the International Energy Agency—a staunch supporter of renewables—said in a report last year that the phase-out of nuclear capacity not just in Germany but everywhere could end up costing more than just increased carbon emissions as the shortfall in electricity output would need to be filled with fossil fuel generation capacity, just like it is filled in Germany. 

Why can't renewables fill the gap? Here’s what the IEA had to say:

“If other low-carbon sources, namely wind and solar PV, are to fill the shortfall in nuclear, their deployment would have to accelerate to an unprecedented level. In the past 20 years, wind and solar PV capacity has increased by about 580 gigawatts in advanced economies. But over the next 20 years, nearly five times that amount would need to be added. Such a drastic increase in renewable power generation would create serious challenges in integrating the new sources into the broader energy system.” Related: Are Oil Prices Still Too High?

Translation: we are not adding wind and solar fast enough and we can never add them fast enough without risking a grid meltdown.

Even Germany’s fellow EU members recognize the importance of nuclear power. Leaving aside France, where it is the single largest source of energy, accounting for 60 percent of electricity generation, the EU members agreed in December to include nuclear power in their comprehensive climate change fighting plan, which the union voted on at the end of the year.

“Nuclear energy is clean energy,” the Czech Prime Minister, Andrej Babis, said at the time. “I don’t know why people have a problem with this.”

The reason so many people have a problem with nuclear is, of course, obvious. Actually, there are two reasons: Chernobyl and Fukushima. One might reasonably argue that two accidents for all the years nuclear power has been used for peaceful purposes by dozens of nuclear plants make the risk of a full meltdown a small one, but statistics is one thing--fear is an entirely different matter.

The problem with nuclear plants, in most opponents’ minds, is that a meltdown may be rare, but when it does happen, it is far more disastrous than a blackout caused by a slump in solar energy production, for example. 

There is no way to remove the risk of a nuclear reactor meltdown entirely. Reactor makers are perfecting their technology, enhancing safety features, and making sure the risk will be minimal, but the risk remains, deterring politicians--those in the ultimate decision-making position--to make a pragmatic decision that, as the NBER research suggests, could actually save lives.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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  • Ronald Wagner on January 14 2020 said:
    A nice article but it mainly overlooks the fact that natural gas is readily available and is the only economical solution that will meet the need. You can use the nuclear plants you have but should not build any more since they take many years to build, cost too much and are not popular to have around.

    Nuclear plant costs are never cost evaluated from the African mines to the tear down and disposal of the plant and the radioactive material, then the ages long problem of guarding the radioactive material. Mankind is not likely to follow up on that problem.

    The mystery is why coal plants are to be allowed as long as proposed. They could quickly be replaced by natural gas plants which are the very best solution for economics and health.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on January 14 2020 said:
    Germany’s decision to phase out all of its nuclear power plants by 2022 may have been taken prematurely.

    In hindsight German decision makers could have synchronized the phasing-out of nuclear plants with the growth of renewable energy’s contribution to electricity generation. This may have taken a few years longer for renewables’ contribution to grow from the current 50% to 80%. However, it would have been worth the waiting given the rise in mortality rate from local air pollution exposure as a consequence of producing electricity by burning coal rather than utilizing nuclear sources.

    Still, natural gas and LNG could emerge the real winners in Germany’s energy transition. Germany is the biggest gas market in Europe and it will become even bigger after the country shuts all its remaining nuclear power plants by 2022. Germany imported $14.6 billion worth of natural gas in the first half of 2019. That was 14.8% higher than a year earlier with most of the imported gas coming from Russia. This explains Angela Merkel’s stubborn defence of Nord Stream 2 in the face of threats of sanctions against her country by President Trump which she rightly ignored.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Frank Foley on January 14 2020 said:
    Of course the IEA would say it's impossible to go from 40% to 70& renewables, they said the same thing about going from 10% to 40%......because they're an oil&gas PR firm.

    Now that grid and distributed battery storage is so cheap, Germany will go on another rampage of renewables installation like 2010-2012. In December of 2011 they installed 2GW of solar.....in one month! It's all a matter of political will.
  • Bert Walker on January 15 2020 said:
    Zeiss happens. The same country that brought the world the diesel engine likely has enough in house engineering talent to make petroleum obsolete. German engineers don't play with their food, and if they decide it's time to go big with alternatives, I have every faith they will put the world back on its' heels. If/when they decide to be energy independent, the magic will happen.

    There's lots of ways to get a job done, and electrical power production is a 'known quantity' type situation, and I have every faith that they will solve all related problems. I very much look to Germany as a source for inspiration and innovation.
  • James Hopf on January 15 2020 said:
    This article, and the referenced study, are right about how phasing out nuclear while leaving fossil generation (esp. coal) in operation causes large amounts of deaths and hampers the reduction of CO2 emissions. That should be an obvious point though. It's well known that the public health and climate impacts of fossil power generation (esp. coal) are orders of magnitude worse than nuclear.

    But later on, the article has some misconceptions.

    It says that the reason Germany's nuclear phase out is having these negative environmental impacts (thousands of deaths, etc..) is because renewables can't be scaled up fast enough to replace it. That logic is flawed. Even if you could scale it up fast enough to replace nuclear, using that renewable generation to replace nuclear instead of having it replace coal amounts to an indefensible choice of coal over nuclear. No matter how fast renewables can be built, a decision to close a given amount of nuclear results in exactly that much more coal generation (that continues to operate when it could have been replaced with renewables). Replacing nuclear with renewables while leaving fossil generation intact is indefensible, even if you can replace all the nuclear with renewables. No matter how quickly renewable generation is scaled up, the only defensible policy is to not close ANY nuclear plants until all the coal generation is gone.

    The other problematic notion alluded to in the article is that the risk of a meltdown must be zero in order for keeping nuclear plants open to be an acceptable decision (even if fossil generation would be used in its place). Worldwide fossil power generation causes ~1000 deaths every single day, while this report suggests that even in Germany alone, ~1000 deaths occur every year (along with increased CO2 emissions), just due to the additional fossil power generation that is operating *due to* the nuclear phase out. By contrast, even the most pessimistic estimates of Fukushima's total eventual death toll top out at ~100. The consequences are so severe that even a vanishingly small probability of one ever occurring is unacceptable?? Hardly! Basically, would you rather have ~1000 deaths per year plus global warming impact, or have an event which may cause ~100 deaths occur once every ~100 years (over 1000 years, actually) with no global warming impact?
  • James Hopf on January 15 2020 said:
    Some quick responses to some other comments.

    The environmental impacts of fuel extraction for natural gas are far higher than those associated with nuclear. And that's just the fuel extraction (ground water impacts from fracking, etc..). The public health and climate impacts from the air pollution and CO2 emissions from gas plants are vastly larger than any environmental impacts from operating nuclear plants. The mining impacts associated with solar and wind's (far larger) raw materials inputs are also much larger than those associated with nuclear.

    Nuclear accounts for its external costs (e.g., plant decom, waste management, etc..) to a far greater extent than competing sources, especially fossil generation sources like natural gas. Those things are included in nuclear's costs. The public health and environmental impacts from air pollution and CO2 emissions are NOT included in fossil generators' costs. Nuclear is the only industry that has a viable plan for containing its waste stream and demonstrating that it will remain contained for as long as it remains hazardous. It is the wastes from other energy sources that "mankind will not follow up on".

    Renewables DO have fundamental limitations that will prevent them from providing most or all of our power. It's called intermittentcy. Germany has only been able to get its penetration level of such intermittent sources as high as it is because it is using neighboring nations' as a buffer/backup. Storage (batteries, etc..) on the scale that would be required to get most of our power from solar and wind is nowhere on the horizon. As the fraction from solar and wind increases, the amount of electricity storage capacity that is needed escalates dramatically. According to this MIT study, getting most of our power from renewables would result in far higher power costs, even assuming significant battery cost reductions.

    The most honest statements from the above commenters are about how natural gas will be the big winner in all this. No argument there. Many of us believe that gas interests played a significant role in Germany's nuclear phaseout decision. Gas will play a huge role in backing up intermittent solar and wind generation. Shame about all the resulting air pollution and CO2 emissions, not to mention Germany being dependent on foreign gas sources.
  • Peter Farley on January 16 2020 said:
    Frank is right and given the larger capacity, 1500 V technology and much smarter mounting systems if they did 2 GW in one month in 2011 when panels were about 170-200 W, they could probably do 5-6 GW a month with the latest 400-500 W panels. In fact according to energy charts.de it was 2,980 MW in December 2011
    Over the whole year of 2011 they installed about 35 m solar panels. If they do that next year, that would add 14 GW of solar per year. In the best year they have installed 6.1 GW of wind. If that is split 50/50 onshore/offshore that will add three nuclear plants worth of energy per year.

    In sum if they add 450 MW of wind and only 900 MW of solar per month, in two years that would add 76 TWh to their generation. Last year nuclear only provided 72 TWh. The best part is that in terms of cost to the economy, because of the fall in costs for wind and solar, the investment would be less than half what it was 10 years ago.

    What is even better is that if they expanded the wind installation by an extra three turbines a week, they could take down about 20-25 of the noisy old units every week and still generate more power. If they took down all 14-15,000 remaining pre 2005 turbines and replaced them with 1,000 3.4-5.8 MW machines annual generation would be the same

    As you
  • Tilakkumar Manubhai Amin on January 16 2020 said:
    This is excellent article on wrong decision Germany's wrong decision of stopping nuclear power plant and increase the use of coal plants to mitigate energy deficiency arise of that while migrate to less polluted way of generating electricity from current way of generating electricity.

    They could have waited to have enough energy generation from renewable option instead increasing coal capacity. There could be some limitation from renewable for German government to instead increase coal capacity. So Germany is a small (compare to USA and Canada) but the richest country and if there is some limitation for them to adapt completely renewable energy in short span of time. It looks impossible to adapt poor or developing country in another 100 years. People are just mad behind renewable sources but they don't talk think about how to resolve fundamental pollution issue. Why don't we have a UN funded gigantic campaign to grow more and more tree's which will inhale extra co2 from the earth climate and grow very fast. Which will solve the problem faster then impossible renewable option. Remember renewable have many flaw like availability of land , wind, sun rays, transmission of energy to require places. We should think reasonably and with some sense here.

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