In Defense of Germany

Robert Wilson points out in this recent blog post that Germany won’t increase the share  of non-fossil fuel in the electricity generation mix for a decade, since the 40% expected for renewable in 2020 is about the same share nuclear and renewable together had before March 2011, and calls that “Germany’s lost decade”.

When reading this kind of attack on the German energy shift from foreigners who may or may not be well informed about what is going on in Germany, one impulse I have is that of a nationalistic reaction. I realize that this is not rational, as it is not rational to root for Germany winning the next FIFA world cup. But I dislike it on an emotional level when people hope Germany fails, or pretend it fails when it actually is wildly successful in its policy.

That said, Wilson is actually right in his blog post. Indeed, going from 40% to 40% in one decade is not impressive progress.

There are some mitigating circumstances, however.

For one, putting up with the nuclear risk and the adding of nuclear waste by keeping nuclear a couple of years longer is a fringe minority loser position in Germany. There was no party who opposed this decision last year. So getting rid of nuclear is what is expected in a democracy, and keeping it would have been not compatible with basic values of democracy. They require accepting majority decisions even if you don’t agree with them.

Next, Germany’s 23% share of nuclear in 2010 translates to 140.6 TWh, down from a peak in 1997 of 170.3 TWh. That’s a nice amount of low carbon electricity right there. But world electricity production in 2010 was 21,431 TWh, so those 140.6 TWh amount to about 0.66% of that.

Keeping German nuclear capacity for a couple of years longer (nuclear reactors have, in contrast to solar panels, only a limited useful life) clearly doesn’t have much influence on the big picture for climate change.

Even without nuclear, Germany is well on track to meet its ambitious climate goals. These are 40 percent reduction until 2020 and between 80 and 95% until 2050. Germany has nothing to be ashamed for with these kind of numbers. If all industrialized countries, especially the largest emitter America, aimed at the same reductions, the picture would be much brighter than it is right now.

Actually, getting there without nuclear is even more impressive than doing so while still  relying on the nuclear bailout. And it requires even more of an effort. Having decided without anyone opposing to get out of the nuclear business, the remaining option (renewable) needs to be pushed even more, full speed ahead, never mind the short term cost (in the long term, having to pay no fossil fuel cost will be a big saving factor for Germany).

And one final point. Germany has invested heavily in solar when doing so was hard because prices were high. As a consequence, prices are down massively in only about a decade (something not true for nuclear power). And that in turn makes it much easier to deploy solar at even larger scale elsewhere, especially where it counts the most. Solar is starting to eat at China’s use of coal already.

The ebbing tide lifts all boats.

Published by kflenz

Professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo. Author of Lenz Blog (since 2003, lenzblog.com).

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