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.
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):
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?