Germany’s Nuclear Folly

lignite

In the aftermath of Fukushima, Germany took the decision to immediately shut down eight nuclear power plants, and announced that the rest would close by 2022. The pros and cons of this have been debated continually since, and often without any regard for the basic facts.

Shut down a nuclear power plant tomorrow, and your only choice is to burn more fossil fuels in its place. Renewables will not help you, it all just feeds into the grid and can’t be pushed up or down. Yet we still hear attempts to make it seem that Germany can shut nuclear power plants without more fossil fuels being burned.

Despite being debated for nearly two years, people have rarely discussed the actual increase in carbon emissions that have resulted from Germany not having those eight nuclear power plants on the grid. Let’s consider what these actually are.

Total emissions in 2011 were 917 million metric tonnes. How much lower would Germany’s emissions be if they had decided to keep those nuclear power plants running?

We need to know two things: How much power would those plants produce in a year, and what emissions would result from what is now generating that power?

There are two ways to work out the amount of power the plants would have generated: a) use historic load historical load factors to estimate power generation, or b) look at the drop in nuclear power output since the plants were shuttered, and assume that all of this is the result of the shut down.

A look at the IEA’s electricity statistics indicates that the reduction in nuclear generation since the shut down is between 30 and 35 TWh per year. This is about 10 TWh lower than the load factor approach. I don’t want to be accused of cherry picking to make the nuclear shut down seem worse than it is, so I’ll use 30 TWh as the amount of production that needs to be made up by other power sources.

Where has this 30 TWh of electricity come from? There is more or less nothing in Germany that could provide it other than fossil fuels. The real issue is how dark brown these fossil fuels happen to be. The rapid increase in coal use in Europe indicates that this lost nuclear generation is being replaced by one thing: coal.

What are the carbon emissions as a result of this? 30 million tonnes of CO2, or 3.3% of Germany’s annual emissions.

If it was all being displaced by gas the figure would be about 15 million tonnes, or 1.6% Germany’s annual emissions.

Now compare this increase in emissions with what has been achieved in Germany on renewables. The graph below shows total renewables output in the last decade.

wind solar

How long is Germany taking to increase renewable generation by 30 TWh? At its current rate of development this is about 5 years. So, lots of hard work to reduce emissions cast aside as a result of a quick fire political decision.

Let’s think more broadly. Germany still has about 100 TWh coming from nuclear each year. This is all coming offline by 2022. Can Germany replace this with wind and solar? As I outlined in an earlier post, Germany has to exceed its renewable energy targets if it simply wants to keep the emissions from electricity where they are today.

A note on rationality: Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power will cause more carbon dioxide to be pumped into the atmosphere. This is a simple question of arithmetic, and anyone who denies this should consider how seriously they treat climate change. However, could the events at Fukushima have justified Germany to phase out nuclear power. First, Germany does not have earthquakes. Fukushima did not change the safety equation in Germany at all.

Maybe there is a public health argument in the nuclear phase out’s favour. Consider the estimates of how many people die per kWh of electricity produced by different power sources (from a Lancet study):

deaths

By this measure nuclear power looks not too bad, at least compared to many things that will remain on Germany’s grid in 2022. However, we can see that Lignite in particular is particularly nasty stuff. What did Germany do less than a year after shuttering 8 nuclear plants? It opened a 2.2 GW lignite power plant. There are also over 10 GW of new coal power plants under construction in Germany.

Maybe I am wrong and nuclear power is worse than coal. Yet, what do the supporters of Germany’s nuclear phase out know that I do not know, and why they do not tell me what that is?

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74 thoughts on “Germany’s Nuclear Folly”

  1. The case against nuclear is simple risk management.

    There is a very small risk of a very large negative consequence (a nuclear accident consigning a swathe of the world into a dangerous-to-live zone for decades or more). That risk could be from an earthquake, or it could be a terroist attack – it could be human failings (nuclear power systems are, after all, inherently complex man-machine systems). All are quite plausible triggers for an accident.
    So it is entirely rational to seek to avoid that risk, even if it may entail increasing (slightly & temporarily) the consequences of climate change, by phasing out nulcear power plants.
    Renewables have no known risks of engendering such a large negative consequence in the event of failure. They will eventually displace any extra coal plants bought online. So while switching to them may be awkward, expensive and require changes in our relationship to energy, doing so is an entirely sensible action – a case of balancing relative risks of events that matter to society.

    1. Could you possibly assess whether sound risk management would result in closing nuclear plants while building lignite?

      And Germany does not have earthquakes, nor is a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant something that should be worried about.

      1. No,that’s a matter for the German people.

        And they seem to have decided that it’s not worth taking that small risk, with its alarmingly large negative footprint. My point is that this decision does not have to be cast only in the polarising light of climate change. All technological decisions have a cascade of potential negative (as well as positive) consequences. It’s down to society to decide which consequences to bear.

        As for triggers, it’s not so much identifying the risk probability – after all 9/11 had zero-probability, to most security organizations before the event – but the consequences of a systems failure. Nuclear power has unfortunately shown us those consequences – in the abandoned homes around Chernobyl and Fukushima.

      2. The “Germany does not have earthquakes” is a pretty bold statement. Australia sits wholly within a tectonic plate and had not had a significant earthquake in living memory, then there was one in Newcastle and it killed loads of people.

      3. > “nor is a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant something that should be worried about.”

        I really hope you are not in charge of security at a nuclear power plant.

        > “Germany’ [sic] nuclear shutdown only makes sense if nuclear is worse than coal.”

        It’s that kind of binary thinking that makes your commentary so flawed.

        The closure of Germany’s nuclear power plants was a result of many reasons, not least of which the German people’s desire to be rid of the potential for a huge area of their country to be made uninhabitable for decades or centuries. Unlike the rightwing, fascist states of the UK and USA, the Germans seem to live in a functioning democracy.

        With the renewed commitment to end the nuclear experiment, the Germans are now totally focused on moving towards 100% renewable energy. Every indicator to date shows that this energy revolution is succeeding, even if there is a small and temporary increased reliance on coal.

      4. Can’t reach the ball, play the man.

        Delete my comments, but you know it’s really because you have failed to answer the arguments and facts presented.

      5. You’re going round my blog misrepresenting what I say and wasting my time. You must be a pretty pathetic human being if you need to hide behind anonymity on a discussion forum.

    2. What your saying might be true if this was 1800 (or at least the atmosphere was at 1800’s levels anyway). Then we would have the luxury of time to allow market forces to reward our massive investment in renewables by “naturally” replacing coal. However all the evidence points to a need for action far faster than this if we are to avoid serious climate change.

      We simply have no choice, renewables aren’t ready and nuclear is. The miniscule risk of the failure scenario you describe (incidentally reactor designs as New as most of the renewable tech being discussed also have no known method of failing in this way) must be taken to avoid the overwhelming likelihood of terrible outcome.

    3. You’re right, it does come down to risk assessment, which humans are terrible at doing. Humans give inappropriate weight to big, scary things that they don’t understand (e.g. Nuclear), and disproportionately low risk to things that are slow, murky, and easy to ignore in the short-term (e.g. climate change).

      Even when factoring in nuclear accidents (as has been done in the plots in this story), the health affects are absurdly low for nuclear compared to any fossil fuel. Even in the “big scary” fukishima ZERO people died because it was a nuclear plant. Did you know an oil refinery blew up from the same tsunami and killed multiple people? No, i didn’t think so.

      It’s amazing how easily the flawed human risk assessment accepts things they are familiar with, e.g. “oh, deepwater horizon blew up and killed people. Meh, it happens, time to drive my Tahoe”, but an accident that harms no one can result in an effective 30-year moratorium on a great solution, e.g. Three Mile Island.

    4. Doing a reasonably complete and accurate job of risk management at this level is never simple.

      For example, I will argue that the public health impact of this decision is immediate, large and negative. Consider Figure 2 on page 4 of this document:

      http://ephtracking.cdc.gov/docs/Estimating_national_burden.pdf

      This is the small particulate (PM2.5) map of the eastern US. A significant fraction of that, somewhere between 20 and 35 percent, is due to fossil-fuel electric generation. In the abstract, the number of premature deaths is cited as 130,000 with life-years lost in the 65-and-over demographic alone greater than 1 million.
      By contrast, the expected long-term deaths from the Fukushima accident are on the order of 1000 (Frank Von Hippel, Princeton University), even if LNT is assumed. A more detailed assessment by Dr, Peter Caracappa, a professor and Certified Health Physicist at RPI, puts the risk at one-thousandth of one percent increase in cancer risk to the public, with “100s” of cases:

      http://fukushima.ans.org/inc/docs/FukushimaSpecialSession-Caracappa.pdf

      So the second-worst nuclear accident in history will cause around 3% of the deaths attributable to fossil power generation in normal operation in the eastern US! And we think shutting nuclear plants is an *improvement* in public health?
      Renewables are not emissions-free or risk-free. It’s just that the emissions are all front-loaded (as, indeed, they are with nuclear plants). The average capacity factor for, say, wind energy in Germany is approximately 20%. That means that even if we ignore the extra materials needed for storage and distribution, it is necessary to build 4.5 times as much wind capacity to wind up with equivalent electricity generation compared to a nuclear plant (92% capacity factor).
      As a result, the basic construction materials (concrete and steel) are significantly higher for an all-renewables grid than a nuclear grid such as France has. These materials have emissions (CO2, particulates from manufacturing, waste products) and consume energy.
      For a more detailed argument, with citations:

  2. Apologies Robert, I was attempting to answer the question you posed ‘ Yet, what do the supporters of Germany’s nuclear phase out know that I do not know, and why they do not tell me what that is?’

  3. A lot of this dread fear to which Martin Leggett refers surrounds the issue of whether there is such a thing as a safe level of radiation. There are two theories: the threshold, which holds that if the radiation release is less than background, then the chances of harm are basically zero; and the linear-no-threshold (LNT) which states that any release of radiation will cause cancer somewhere down the line. If you subscribe to LNT, then no nuke can ever be seen as safe.

    Whilst underatking a little background reading tonight, I came across this on Wikipedia which mat explain some more of Germany’s dread fear.

    A German study on childhood cancer in the vicinity of nuclear power plants, the KiKK study[142] was published in December 2007. According to Ian Fairlie, it “resulted in a public outcry and media debate in Germany which has received little attention elsewhere”. It has been established “partly as a result of an earlier study by Körblein and Hoffmann[143] which had found statistically significant increases in solid cancers (54%), and in leukemia (76%) in children aged less than 5 within 5 km of 15 German nuclear power plant sites. It reported a 2.2-fold increase in leukemias and a 1.6-fold increase in solid (mainly embryonal) cancers among children living within 5 km of all German nuclear power stations.”[144] In 2011 a new study of the KiKK data was incorporated into an assessment by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) of the incidence of childhood leukemia around British nuclear power plants. It found that the control sample of population used for comparison in the German study may have been incorrectly selected and other possible contributory factors, such as socio-economic ranking, were not taken into consideration. The committee concluded that there is no significant evidence of an association between risk of childhood leukemia (in under 5 year olds) and living in proximity to a nuclear power plant.[145]

    1. Mark

      Could you possibly provide a link for that? I may do a post in future on the radiation issue.

      The more fundamental problem with the idea that living near a nuclear power plant causes cancer are the radiation levels. You can go and measure radiation near nuclear plants, and it is clearly insignificant in comparison to how much background radiation varies. Of course the overwhelming epidemiological evidence indicates that there is no increase in cancer near plants.

    2. It’s incredibly easy to disprove the rare and outlier claims that there is increased cancer around nuclear power plants. All you need is math and half a brain. Note that all vetted scientific studies will show no increases (because it’s impossible within the noise, even if there).

      The reason is simple. The radiation around nuclear power plants is always measured and monitored. It is EXTREMELY SMALL! In fact, you can get a bigger increase in your background (i.e. natural) levels of radiation by moving to a different neighborhood than living INSIDE a nuclear power plant. Now, if you could supposedly detect an increase in cancer due to the < 0.1% increase in radiation due to living near a nuclear facility, it should be VERY detectable somewhere with 1000% increase in radiation, right? Well, many people on earth do live in areas with 1000% higher radiation, purely due to natural sources, and there is no detectable increase in cancer.

      Fact is, natural levels of radiation can vary by 10, or even 100 times, depending on where you live. For example, people living in Denver get on average 3 times more background radiation than much of the rest of the U.S. In fact, the level is higher than some of the still evacuated areas around Fukushima! This exemplifies the ridiculousness of the LNT theory: If you subscribe to LNT, then Denver should be evacuated TODAY! Where are the protesters?

    3. Sorry if this is off-topic Robert, feel free to delete if so.

      The statement “no nuke can ever be seen as safe” if you use current textbook medical physics is not true at all. It’s like saying we can never safely go outside since there is always UV-radiation from the sun that risks giving us skin cancer. Even using LNT, in a proper manner as for example spelled out in the latest UNSCEAR report, we can expect perhaps a few extra cancers from the total population exposed to radiation from Fukushima. If that does not qualify as safe, that at most one or two people might die from when a last generation reactor with insufficient safety measures is hit by a natural disaster that in itself kills ~20000 people, then I do not know what does. LNT has problems, as most medical physicists will agree, but it’s a reasonable if conservative approximation based on current knowledge and does not in any way lead to the conclusion that nuclear power or nuclear waste are anything but orders of magnitude safer than fossil fuels.

    4. “If you subscribe to LNT, then no nuke can ever be seen as safe.”
      That’s not true as the risks are vanishingly small at low doses. So small in fact that they become unmeasurable outside of a massive population which are rarely evenly exposed. This is the reason the LNT question which is decades old hasn’t been settled once and for all.

      The point being whether you believe the balance of evidence supports LNT, a threshold or even low dose hyper sensitivity is almost irrelevant in this context.

      The shape of the low dose curve may be unknown but it is known that small doses do not cause a big effect. Low doses <100mSv have never been definitively shown to cause increases in any cancers in any population. But all this actually means is that the effect is much smaller than the control/natural-rate and statistical limits of the exposed population. So whilst we can't say whether low dose is very very slightly harmful or not harmful at all we can LNT or not clearly say it's not as harmful as other things as the article rightly does.

  4. Interesting analysis.
    Regarding your question “what do the supporters of Germany’s nuclear phase out know that I do not know, and why they do not tell me what that is?” the answer is: politics, especially the attempt of the government to pre-empt the anti-nuclear and pro-renewable agenda proposed by the Green Party. See the discussion here: http://klimazwiebel.blogspot.de/2013/01/is-germanys-energy-transformation-coal.html

    1. Reiner

      I agree that the actual phase out was driven by politics. Merkel’s change of stance was done for cynical political reasons, a simple pre-emption of the Green Party. The Green Party however, like the Green Party in the UK, exist in an alternative reality on nuclear power however. Politics doesn’t explain their opposition, but irrationality.

      1. Irrationality does not explain. It is just a laden word. In Germany there has been fierce popular opposition to nuclear since the 1970s and all parties have adapted to this reality. So one needs to ask Where did this opposition come from? Why did it persist? (or in your terminology: why do people refuse to accept ‘rational’ solutions?)

    1. Ignoring the fact that wind can never provide base load power, i’d be interested to know what you mean by long vs short term. Coal plants have a pretty large up front cost and you don’t build them unless you think they’ll be serviceable for their projected lifetime (many decades).

      And you talk about expense of nuclear displacement, the least expensive solution is not displacing nuclear at all! Especially for unfounded fear, political, and non-scientific reasons.

    1. Mark

      Another curious thing is that as far as I know you cannot build a nuclear power plant near Aberdeen because the background radiation levels are already “unsafe.”

      Increasing the “safe” level of radiation seems an obvious thing to do. A stupid move by the Japanese government after Fukushima was to reduce the legal levels of radiation for fish down to 20% of what it originally was. For some reason they thought this would reassure people. All it does is cripple some fisheries and make people think fish is unsafe to eat when it is.

    2. As I pointed out in my reply to your original point. The variations in background levels are far far too low to have a measurable effect in cancer occurrence.

      Lets say Edinburgh background rate is 7mSv and the population is half a million. Well the LNT would predict 350 extra cancers due to the background radiation. However the “natural” as in no radiation occurrence rate is estimate to be 33% (in the UK with current life spans). So in a radiation-free Edinburugh there would be 166,000 thousand cancers. Right away you can see this is only a 0.2% variation?

      Looking at this statistically. Lets say we followed every single person in Edinburgh till they died. We would have 500k measurements and the number of cancers would be 500k x the natural rate +/- the square root of 500k (ie 167k +/-707). you can see right away the error bar is bigger than the 350 extra cancers.

      Of course if you examine rare cancers you might be able to do a bit better. But rare cancers are, well rare so your are going to run into more statistical problems. Plus all of this is assuming a perfect population without attempting to control for other factors like smoking, diet, social economic, genetics, cultural etc.

      The reason LNT still continues to be used despite very valid questions about it is that no one can definitively show it to be wrong or right.

  5. Have you seen Dieter Helm’s – The Carbon Crunch – makes the same points about coal, Germany but particularly China and coal.

    He was at the IPPR with Bryony Worthington last night and he clearly believes the bad pr that climate sceptics has.

    little realizing, that I was in agreement with everything he said, most sceptics become skeptical because of mad economic/technological policies (as Dieter said most current gen renewable energy density to low) about the economics, politics and realities.. all those present from the IPPR could do was misrepresent him and his arguments, Bryony even slipped in your mates with Lord Lawson aren’t you.. When he made it absolutely clear, about his agreement with consensus climate science (as an economist he takes that on trust)

    he was clearly upset about that, guilt by association and thought crime /police, he said

    He might as well rename the book ‘The Sceptical Economist’ and send his photo off to a greenpeace, etc deniers hall of shame.

    IPPR in my opinion, full of empty, nice suits, – who cannot deal with inconvenient facts. ie like the coal reality in Gremany that this article presents (as Dieter did)

  6. I would like to reply to the question “Yet, what do the supporters of Germany’s nuclear phase out know that I do not know, and why they do not tell me what that is?”

    I found this article by Paul Hockenos, an American journalist (based in Berlin), explaining it best: “The fact that Germany, in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, redoubled its efforts to phase out nuclear energy has nothing to do with hysteria or postwar angst. On the contrary, a majority of Germans, including much of the political class, has been unconvinced of its merits since the early 1980s; the source of this anti-atom consensus lies not in emotional populism but rather in the persuasive, fact-based arguments of a powerful, grassroots social movement that has long included nuclear physicists and other bona fide experts.” (see full text here http://boell.org/web/139-Paul-Hockenos-Angst-or-Arithmetic-Why-Germans-are-so-Skeptical-about-Nuclear-Energy.html)

    In summary, most Germans are convinced there are better options for a safe, reliable, and cost effective electricity supply than nuclear power. Nuclear’s time is over. It’s basically a 1950s technology that is not getting safer with age, but more expensive. And most Germans realized with Fukushima that if a similar accident happens in their country – because of a failing cooling/backup power system that can be triggered by many different events- the economic impact would be disastrous. Take a look at the map: http://energytransition.de/files/GET_1A6_danger_of_nuclear_power_l.png

    Yes, the German Energiewende is about fighting climate change. But it is also about reducing and eventually eliminating the risks of nuclear power.

    1. ArneJJ

      My question was for an explanation of why nuclear is worse than coal. Where is this explanation? Do you, or do you not, think that a lignite power station is preferable to a nuclear power station? And if so, what are the reasons.

      1. Funny I answer the question and you don’t bother with the answer and just come up with the next question. Was my answer inconvenient to the cause you follow?

        To your new question: I think it is a false choice. For different, we should get out of coal, and we should get out of nuclear. Electricity generation from renewables is preferable over nuclear and coal. I wanted to say we probably all agree on that, but who knows, maybe you think nuclear is preferable over renewables?

        On the coal question in specific: If you add all climate and policies together that Germany is pursuing, it sums up to a coal phase-out. Just no one in Germany calls it like that. Best illustrated in this chart that brings together all short and long term targets of the government that parties across the political spectrum share: http://energytransition.de/files/GET_2A19_long_term_tariffs_l.png

      2. ArneJJ

        This simply will not do. Germany shut down nuclear power plants, while building coal power plants. Now, please explain to me the benefits of shutting nuclear power plants while opening lignite power plants. Stop acting like a politician, and give me a straight answer. Why is coal preferable to nuclear?

  7. There are a few issues/points that are being danced around here.

    1) Coal is not preferable to nuclear in terms of CO2 emissions. Period.
    2) Renewables are preferable to both. Over the course of the nuclear phaseout, more attention should have been given to efficiency, demand response, and grid management so that new renewables could constitute a greater portion of the market share opened up by taking nuclear offline.
    3) The reason nuclear went offline to begin with is because of the risk allocation. The central question for the Germans is whether the increased climate risk was worth the decreased nuclear risk (whatever the respective values of those two risks are). To sort this out, you have to know:

    a) what is the increased climate risk from taking nuclear offline? (note that this would be lower if more renewables came online as a result)

    b) what is the risk of nuclear?

    If you think nuclear is high risk, then taking nuclear offline (particularly if you can bring more renewables online instead of coal) may be worth it. If you think nuclear is low risk, taking nuclear offline when the climate risk stays equivalent is a bad idea.

    I don’t think that dodges any of the direct questions above. That all said, I am obviously a proponent of increasing the share of renewables in the event of a nuclear phaseout instead of adding more coal. I think that, from what I understand of this analysis, the margin of renewables added could be higher than it is currently.

    Best,

    Adam (@adam_s_james)

    1. Thanks Adam

      The more fundamental problem here is how you deal with climate change without nuclear power. Scaling up renewables to do the full job in Europe seems close to impossible. Look in the UK, wind power generates less than 5% of electricity. Yet already onshore wind farm development is close to finished due to public opposition to wind farms. Scaling renewables up appears to be a non-starter.

      There’s also a simple stat that David MacKay uses to show the problem. If you covered half of the UK in wind turbines they would provide all of the UK’s energy needs. Germany has almost identical population density, and per capita energy needs. It’s also a lot less wind then the UK.

      Unfortunately the barriers to all renewable future in Europe seem insurmountable, unless you believe that covering at least a quarter of European countries wind turbines is going to happen.

      I can’t see this happening, so we’ll nuclear or CCS. CCS though is completely bogged down, and opposition to it is a very serious problem in countries including Germany.

      The choice here seems to be the real risks of climate change or the trumped up fears around radiation. I know where I lay my hat on this one.

    2. Well put, Adam. I assume most enviros, (Green and other) politicians, farmers, municipalities and much more folks in Germany would agree with that observation, risk assessment, and priority setting as you have described it.

      After all, there seems to be more common ground on issues of more renewables and less coal in the discussion than the loud disagreement on the role of nuclear makes it look. Craig Morris has a thoughtful piece on it today http://www.renewablesinternational.net/a-lot-of-common-ground-despite-criticism/150/537/59765/

      Robert, I am interested how you see the increase in coal in Europe in general. Other European countries are not moving as quickly away from nuclear like Germany, and still their coal use is increasing. If it was only happening in Germany, I would see the connection to the nuclear phase-out. But given that even in the UK (“even” because of ambitious nuclear plans) there is an increasing generation of coal capacity and there are plans for new coal plants, I expect the reasons somewhere else: in the EU emission trading system, in upcoming clean air regulation.

      1. Do you think I am a fool who can be spun a line and fall for it?

        Germany’ nuclear shutdown only makes sense if nuclear is worse than coal. Yet you can’t give me one good reason for thinking it is.

  8. Yep. Full disclosure, I do not know as much about European energy policy as US, so this whole conversation is a little out of my wheelhouse. But I have a few thoughts on this:
    Central point: There is a difference between political feasibility and technical feasibility. In other words, “will they implement policies to scale up renewable energy” is a different question then “can renewables power the country.” Now, obviously those two matters relate to each other- but the distinction between them is important to answering the objections.
    1) Political Feasibility: I know that political feasibility is what guides policy. However, at the end of the day- countries have to keep their lights on and meet commitments and that may lead to a U-Turn in policy direction despite public opinion because it is necessary. We will probably see this re: Indian coal and Japanese nuclear in coming years. This cuts both ways, though. If the UK or Germany needs to meet targets (carbon caps, whatever), they may go ahead with renewable developments in a more aggressive way.

    2) Technical Feasibility: So I read and respect the MacKay stuff, but I do have a few points of contention about the way that data is used to infer conclusions about the technical feasibility of renewables. First, per capita energy needs are a result of aggregated, and then averaged energy needs. Those numbers don’t necessarily reflect the high level of differentiation between both different consumers, and different times. I just don’t think the per capita energy needs number is super persuasive. Second, I think a lot of arguments against renewables are premised on existing grid infrastructure (which are reasonable complaints!). But, as storage, grid management, and DR come into play more and more- that shaves off peak demand and decreases the need for “dispatchable” resources, which in turn increases the viability of renewables. So, we are used to thinking about these questions in terms of “what you really need is an energy system that can deliver 100% of the electricity needed at the point of highest demand (plus the reserve margin).” But I think that decentralization and new tech may change the way we conceptualize these questions a bit. Instead of driving a super-high horsepower truck around in the city all the time because one day a year you tow someone, it would be more like having one car with more gears and differentiation.
    The reason this is so important to the risk assessment question you pose at the end is obvious, we agree that renewables are lower risk than nuclear- so increasing their market share is a good idea. We agree coal is higher risk than renewables, so scaling them up is a bad idea. Whether nuclear is low or high risk, if we can bring more renewables on line- it is less of a stupid idea to phase it out.

    Adam (@adam_s_james)

    1. Adam

      When did I say renewables are “lower risk than nuclear”?

      On storage, grid management and DR. These things should be invested in definitely. But why do we want to be in a position where our ability to de-carbonize electricity requires new technology to come along, that may not come along?

      I also don’t understand your argument against using per capita energy. Even if you got storage, and all of these other things working you still need to generate the energy somehow. Yes, it’s possible to reduce energy use. But there is absolutely no get away from the fact that 100% renewables will require vast amounts of land to be covered in wind farms. Energy supply must equal energy use. A simple equation. Unless people can show how this can be done realistically then they should stop promoting 100% renewables.

    2. The economic return on renewables is so low that they can not perpetuate themselves, even when subsidized by non-renewables. They are not ever going to be a practical replacement for fossil fuels, so we need to focus on what will. Remember, we are facing threats from global warming that can jeopardize a significant portion of the global food supply, and many who otherwise may care about carbon emissions are dangerously misplacing their confidence in what is essentially snake oil.

  9. Do you think renewables are higher risk than nuclear? In terms of the health risk? I agree (if you are a bird).

    I half-kid. Your point is well taken, I just don’t see storage, grid management, and DR as technologies we are waiting on. They are commercially available- and while they can be improved on, increasing deployment rates of technology drives down costs (generally). This helps a lot of the troubles with storage, in particular. Microgrids also sidestep some of the glaring problems with large scale storage.

    Maybe I was unclear on the per capita energy point. It’s not that I don’t think it makes sense, I just don’t think it is a good reference point for what level of supply is neccesary. This is just because the per capita energy needs number is aggregated and then averaged, which gives you a neat reference point for comparison to other countries- but doesn’t tell you a lot about how much supply is needed and when. This is important since if (for some reason) an entire population needed energy only at night, solar power would be basically useless. You can’t glean that kind of information from the per capita number.

    That is a little bit tangental though, to the main point that you are getting at and that we are actually discussing- which is the technical feasibility of renewables to power a country’s economy. Your equation is dead on: energy supply must equal energy use. But when that supply and use occur has real implication for what sources of energy are viable. I think we agree on that idea? From my readings of what you write- your big critique is that most people don’t take that into consideration (like telling the difference between supply and capacity, capacity factors and output, etc).

    As someone who does understand those variables, though, I may just have settled on a different opinion of what is possible. I don’t know about 100% RE, but we certainly can get much higher penetrations of renewables if we implement changes to load management, harness efficiency and DR, and deploy small AND large scale storage. How much higher? Thats up for debate, and I am probably not technically savvy enough to pin it down. In the U.S., I believe the 80% by 2050 number though.

    Great points, as usual Rob.

    Adam (@adam_s_james)

    1. You don’t need to be a bird to be killed by renewables. You could just live downstream from a hydroelectric dam. Hydro may be the biggest killer of all if you include its mega disasters… This New Scientist article and graphic summarise IEA research.

      http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20928053.600-fossil-fuels-are-far-deadlier-than-nuclear-power.html

      Hydro is the largest source of commercial renewable energy – around four times all other renewables combined. See BP statistical review of world energy http://bit.ly/S96JG3

      1. Very true Clive

        Revealing as well that Western commentators don’t write scary articles about China’s new hydro plants. They are clearly far more high risk than nuclear power plants, both to humans and wildlife.

        Hydro of course dwarfed by non-commercial biomass. Often anti-nuclear greens will say renewables are far higher than nuclear, but don’t point out the inclusion of hydro and biomass. Large scale hydro is something they mostly oppose. And biomass in many places is dreadful resulting in large numbers of deaths due to air pollution. If there was a choice between nuclear and those two then nuclear is by far the better option.

  10. > “A note on rationality: Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power will cause more carbon dioxide to be pumped into the atmosphere.”

    And yet Germany’s CO2 emissions went down last year. However, even if they do go up one year, it’s really quite silly to draw a conclusion from just that. It’s no different to climate science deniers claiming the planet is cooling because 1998 was hotter than 1999.

    Could it be that the problem is not with the available facts but with your lack of understanding of them?

  11. It seems you have not had too much success getting answers to your end question.
    Before I try my luck, maybe it’s worth saying that in Germany, EU anti-pollution regulations have drastically reduced atmospheric pollution from coal. As an example, particulate matter and SO2 pollution are down 80%+ since 1990 in Germany, the UK, etc., if I’m not wrong.

    Coal is preferable to nuclear because no one has ever been evacuated from his home without hope of a quick return because of coal. I know it is the result of a misperception of risk, but there it is: you can continue to live in places horrendously polluted by coal, while authorities will try very hard to dissuade you to live in places with artificially high radioactivity.

  12. Robert,

    On your final points concerning rationality.

    I am never quite sure what people mean by rationality, so I will give a plausible one sentence outline.

    The logical application of abilities to circumstances towards the achievements of goals by a course of action.

    Apparently paradoxical behaviour could be rational. That you find yourself rushing into a situation whilst the majority are rushing out doesn’t imply that anyone is behaving irrationally. Perhaps you are a fire-fighter.

    With the hopeful exception of logic, my key terms are a matter of perception and opinion, e.g. abilitiy, circumstance, goals. A decision as to whether the resultant actions will be rational or irrational depends on knowing what those perceptions are.

    Nuclear technology in its widest sense is almost invisible in the domestic sphere. We have some practical notion of chemical combustion, but little knowledge regarding any personal exposure to nuclear and radiative processes in domestic circumstances. That was not always the case, in my time xray visualisation was once a feature in shoe shops, and radium (later tritium) was the active component of luminous coatings, go back further and it gets quite bizarre. My perceptions will differ from those of others.

    I suspect there may be an important historical difference between the cultural perceptions of nuclear technology between those of Germany and Japan, and those of the US, former USSR, France and the UK. The technology being more alien and alienable in the former than the latter. There may be a similar split in our notions of our abilites in nuclear technology, and certainly our historical goals. I do not know if Germany feels more akin with Japan on such matters than is does with the nuclear powers. E.G. that it views those with bomb programmes as having historically deluded themselves as to the dangers.

    I do not know what Germany’s national goals are. They are a major industrialised nation so I may tend to think of them as sharing the same goals as we do. That may not be the case. We tend to view their position as exceptional compared with ours, but not I think compared to the majority of nations. How do we feel about the use of nuclear technology as a global solution. It is my prejudice that the last great battles each more perplexing will be the provision of energy to central and southern america, central southern asia, the new middle east, and finally in Africa. Where does nuclear technology figure in the global vision for those nations?

    Given the circumstance that Germany wishes to go down a different route, we should ask as to how that could play into the bigger picture, in a rational manner.

    I doubt, but cannot exclude the possibility, that Germany is being irrational in my terms. I.E. that its actions are a foolish, inapprpriate, illogical, counter-productive application of their abilities to their circumstance, towards achieving their goals. I can understand that they might be irked by any accusation that they are being irrational that doesn’t address the ways in which their situation differs. Many would regard such a charge as being both deeply insulting and ignorant.

    If Germany can square the nuclear circle, perhaps by fundamentally changing how they as a nation interact with energy, they will do the world a favour, if they cannot it will teach the world a lessen. What I do hope for is that they do so in time to influence how the final stages of decarbonisation plays out.

    Alex

    1. Alex

      Can you please make some effort to make your comments understandable? I have read this twice, and don’t get your point.

      If you are saying that rationality is about figuring out the best way to do something then you should spend a few minutes googling the word rational.

      1. Hi,

        First hit from Google:

        “In philosophy, rationality is the characteristic of any action, belief, or desire, that makes their choice a necessity.[1] It is a normative concept of reasoning in the sense that rational people should derive conclusions in a consistent way given the information at disposal. It refers to the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe, or with one’s actions with one’s reasons for action. However, the term “rationality” tends to be used differently in different disciplines, including specialized discussions of economics, sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology and political science. A rational decision is one that is not just reasoned, but is also optimal for achieving a goal or solving a problem.

        from:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationality

        I have picked just the opening paragraph.

        That seems to be in keeping with my view, I respect that others may use the word differently, and that there is some ambiquity, so I attempted to boil something of the concept down to a single sentence. Hence the emphasis on an explicit separation between goals, logic (reasoning), circumstance etc..

        Without some such undertanding of the component parts, actions cannot be characterised as being either rational or irrational.

        Alex

      2. Alex

        I still have no real idea what point you were trying to make.

        You seem to be suggesting that Germany’s goal to phase to pull out of nuclear was rational because their goal was to pull out of nuclear. If this is your point then it is nonsense on stilts. However please try to make your points clearly.

        And keep them on topic, as you seem to never make comments fully relevant to the posts.

      3. HI,

        I am saying that without understanding their perceptions, their beliefs, or worse after superimposing another set of beliefs, one cannot make a judgment as to their rationality.

        I think that given their histroy and interest in rationality, in reason, e.g. Weber, Kant, one would give them the benefit of first asking as to what is it that makes their actions rational.

        What do they perceive that perhaps I don’t?

        If the Germans say the goals can be achieved without nuclear, I prick up my ears and want to know more. I don’t assume they are being irrational at the risk of dismissing them. I should rather ask.

        What is their plan, how can that work, what complementary adjustments are being considered, how do they view the workings of society and its relationship to power in 2050 and at intervening periods?

        If they are rational and share the same decarbonisation goals, I do wonder how they will cope with intermittency. Perhaps they intend to acknowledge it, embrace it. Sounds impossible but Steve Holliday (National Grid) has indicated that he thinks that the UK will have to. It is in his thinking and he has expressed it in his official capacity.

        When Germany acts like this, some may assume they are being irrational, I tend to assume that they have a rational plan of action that is not yet spelled out, and I wish to know more.

        Alex

      4. Alex

        Once again you are incapable of making a clear point, if a point at all.

        I run this blog in my spare time. Moderating comments takes time, and frankly your comments are self indulgent and normally incoherent. Either make an effort to make it clear what you mean or I will have to pre-moderate your comments. These lengthy comments are derailing attempts at on topic and clear discussions of these issues.

        Robert

  13. ‘ Yet, what do the supporters of Germany’s nuclear phase out know that I do not know, and why they do not tell me what that is?’- An article you linked to gives the clue. Coal generates jobs and revenues for local government. Atomic energy never generated the same sort of boondoggle or pork barrel for local politicians, Trade Unionists etc. In any case, the Germans want to signal continued dependency to the Russians so the Federal Govt has an incentive to get behind this. One other point, if the Germans are battening down the hatches for a decade in the economic doldrums (a reasonable move) than ‘Social Compact’ type thinking based on bogus nativism is going to have some sort of transparently nonsensical Environmental tinge.
    It seems reasonable to think that a lot of support for Green parties comes from ‘preference falsification’ (I want to be seen as more caring than I actually am so pretend to care about trees and bunny rabbits) or from scare story ‘availability cascades’. But Economists who look at this phenomena notice that the market for ‘second order public goods’ (i.e. campaigning for the provision of public goods) works in a peculiar way such that a transparently false product drives out something with an alethic base. So by having as stupid as possible an Environmental policy, people get used to the notion that anyone talking about the subject is either a fool or a knave or both. In this way the market for the second order good turns into a ‘repugnancy market’- a good thing because second order public goods crowd out the first order public good they pertain to.

    So, to answer your question-
    1) The Germans understand that very few people care about the environment but pretend to do so because, currently, this second order public good is not yet an out and out ‘repugnancy market’. It will become so thanks to such wonderfully Green policies as the one you have drawn our attention to.
    Renewables, especially Wind, really are horrible. Don Quixote had the right idea when he tilted at windmills. More and more people are going to see this for themselves- smog permitting.
    The Scientists will be marginalized while ‘Philosophers’ take over- no one can really destroy the intellectual and moral worth of a cause who does not have a PhD in Philosophy.
    2) The Germans probably are telling you about this- but in a very German way. They have very few, or zero, world class Economists. Which is why their Economy isn’t totally in the toilet. On the other hand they have a lot of Ecological thinkers- so that’s where they are bound to fuck up..

  14. > “A note on rationality: Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power will cause more carbon dioxide to be pumped into the atmosphere. This is a simple question of arithmetic”

    But “arithmetic” you fail to reveal. Your argument is based on the assumption that every kWh of nuke electricity is replaced by fossil fuels. That is obviously false.

    Germany is predicted to exceed 50% of electricity from renewables by 2020. It is curious that some people, such as this blogger, claims to be very concerned about climate change but spends so much energy trying to attack the one country that is making huge progress towards mitigation.

    Perhaps the priority is not climate change but protecting the nuke industry? For this reason we can see this blog is not a source of serious analysis.

    1. MarcoMC: 50% by 2020? Even Germany’s own environmental minister doesn’t seem to believe that:

      http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/doubts-increasing-about-germany-s-switch-to-renewable-energy-a-844844.html

      And the US Energy Information Agency pegs Germany as the world’s 4th largest coal consumer in 2011, presumably prior to the shutdown plans.

      http://www.eia.gov/countries/country-data.cfm?fips=gm#coal

      It should be clear that coal burning is much worse for public health, even if we ignore CO2, than either nuclear or renewables. Consider this 2007 publication in the Lancet:

      http://www.bigthunderwindpower.ca/files/resources/Electricity_generation_and_health_%28The_Lancet_2007%29.pdf

      Table 2 and Figure 3 show the health consequences of nuclear power, including accidents, to be far lower than coal or even natural gas. What is perhaps less obvious is that they are lower than or at least comparable to renewables.

      The reason for that is the massive quantities of basic construction materials (concrete, steel) needed to power a modern economy from a distributed energy source. For instance, the average capacity factor of Germany’s wind power is around 20%. For nuclear, it’s about 92% for US plants. That means 4.6 times as much nominal wind capacity must be installed to equal the electricity generated by a nuclear plant, even if we ignore the need for backup capacity and/or energy storage.

      So making a terawatt of electricity takes 60-80% more concrete and steel by wind than by nuclear, and both are energy and carbon intensive with significant health consequences from their manufacture. No energy source is completely without risk.

      In reality,

  15. Do not confuse official targets with credible estimates of what will actually happen. Germany has been beating targets for deployment since the beginning.

    * The production of renewable energies in Germany is expected to grow faster than the government’s forecast and account for almost half of the country’s electricity within a decade. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/german-official-renewable-energy-beats-forecasts

    Your belief is quite wrong. The Energy Returned on Energy Invested for wind power is much higher than nukes. This includes materials needed for construction. You can understand this here:

    EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) of electricity generation. Solar is higher than coal, gas and nuclear. Wind is much higher. http://oco-carbon.com/2010/05/19/eroei-of-electricity-generation/

    Germany has just hit record output from wind power @ 24 GW. Record output for solar if 23 GW. Germany needs 40 to 70 GW. It is easy to the massive success if you choose to look.

    1. Oh my what a biased review, or did you actually took the time to read the link your provided ?
      Only thermal solar as a marginaly higher EROEI than nuclear, that’s exactly the opposite of PV solar.
      But most importantly, this blog is saying EXACTLY what Robert is writing on this blog except on the standpoint of the EROEI: That the best solution is to have a mix of nuclear and renewable but certainly not to use coal, obviously if you want to find some rational justification to Germany’s energy policy you picked up the wrong source..

    2. For EROI of renewable systems, analysis must consider delivered power vs overall system cost, not merely one piece of representative equipment. Renewable systems require significant redundancy to counter intermittency, and this is just one of several factors that destroy overall EROI.

      Even excessive amounts of redundancy will not counter a prolonged attenuation of irradiance by the inevitable northern hemispheric VEI 6 or 7 event. Such a reduction can last for years.

  16. The bottom line is that germans fear much more an the possibility of nuclear meltdown than climate change. The facts make one wonder if Germany takes Climate Change seriously at all. The risk of a nuclear meltdown is taken very seriously and exagerated in an irrational manner. You only have to compare the effords done to phase out nuclear and the (non existant) effords done to phase out coal to see this.
    In my opinion that is being irrational.
    The other question is a moral one, Germans (as the rest of the developed world) does little to fight a Climate Change that is causing hundrets of thousand of deaths every year because they don’t see them, they are people dying in flods or famines in the developing world but they fear irrationally the possibility of having to suffer the consequences of their way of life in the form of a nuclear meltdown because it could happen in their neighborhood.
    They are making a huge efford to eliminate a minimal risk of limited local consequences instead of making that same efford to prevent a global change event that will happen with catastrophic consequences for the poor.
    Well in my opinion that is also inmoral…

  17. An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment.
    I think that you need to publish more on this subject matter, it may not be a taboo subject but typically folks don’t discuss such topics. To the next! Many thanks!!

  18. It seems to me that another aspect of Germany’s nuclear folly is to categorically treat all nuclear power as unacceptable. Many other nation’s may also be committing folly by permitting China to potentially reap the rewards of leadership in developing Gen IV nuclear technology.

  19. When it comes to certain energy expenditures such as automobiles the idea of using hydrogen has become a
    very common topic in this collective conversation.
    Go ahead & continue on as I further discuss Solar Power.
    The slurry from the outlet chamber flows to the pit made especially
    for this purpose. Once the demand in Germany weakened,
    while the United States and China market is not really
    to start, then, China will be a huge photovoltaic manufacturers may
    face big trouble.

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