In Germany’s nuclear phase-out, renewable energy plans are clear

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Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in the United States yesterday to be presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, coming shortly after her announcement that Germany plans to phase out nuclear energy by 2022 and accelerate the transition to a clean energy system largely built on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Jennifer Morgan analyzes the steps the country is taking to move to a low-carbon, non-nuclear future.

Chancellor Merkel’s announcement last week that her conservative government planned to accelerate the phase-out of nuclear power seemed to catch many around the world by surprise and create a fair amount of skepticism. Some painted it as a “panicked overreaction” and a “knee-jerk reaction” to the nuclear meltdown in Japan.

With the focus on the nuclear phase-out, there has been less attention paid to the fact that Germany’s new energy plan is also an accelerated phase-in of renewable energy and energy efficiency. It is wise to take a closer look at the decision to understand how the world’s fourth largest economy plans to succeed with this new energy plan while at the same time sticking to its ambitious climate change goals and laws.

Far from a short-sighted political reaction to the nuclear crisis, Germany has put in place the laws, infrastructure and has the public support to make this transition happen.

The Roots of Germany’s Energy Transition

Yesterday, Merkel’s Cabinet agreed on a package of energy laws to implement the Chancellor’s announcements, and sent the package to the Parliament for a vote by the 8th of July. After some negotiation, the governors of Germany’s sixteen states unanimously approved the package last Friday. Given that the governors represent a broad consensus of all political parties, it is likely that the proposed acts will move quickly through the parliament and be implemented. The Cabinet decision also stresses that Germany remains committed to its ambitious climate change targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% in 2020, compared to 1990 levels.

The German decision should be viewed in the context of an energy transition that began two decades ago. The first version of Germany’s feed-in law to encourage renewable electricity generation entered into force in 1991 and was expanded into a more comprehensive Renewable Energy Act in 2000. The initial decision to phase out nuclear power was taken in 2000 by the then Social Democrat/Green Party governing coalition. Last autumn, the new conservative government decided to continue with the phase-out, but modified the schedule in order to extend the lifetime of nuclear plants. The latest decision by Chancellor Merkel’s government accelerates the timeline for phase-out again, and builds on a transition that had already been agreed upon in principle and was well underway over the previous years.

Studying the Feasibility and Setting Ambitious Goals

Over the last two decades, there has been significant study and discussion in Germany about how to achieve such a transition and just how achievable its ambitious energy transition goals are. In the last year alone, a number of studies considered scenarios for Germany’s energy future:

  • A detailed scenario developed by Germany’s Federal Environment Agency found that a 100 percent renewable energy system by 2050 was technically feasible and outlined the necessary steps to create this energy system. In a report released last week, the Agency also found that a nuclear phase-out by 2017, even faster than the current government plans, would be feasible without negative climate impacts.
  • An expert advisory panel to the German government, the German Advisory Council on the Environment, also studied “Pathways to a 100% Renewable Electricity System”. According to the different scenarios analyzed, that goal would be reached by 2050, while in 2020 renewables would already account for around 50 percent of electricity consumption. The Advisory Council also looked at the environmental, economic and energy security impacts of a fully renewable energy system and characterized it as “climate-friendly, reliable, [and] affordable”.
  • A number of leading academic research institutes as well as NGOs have also been assessing long-term and short-term energy and climate scenarios that phase out nuclear power soon, while meeting ambitious climate change goals.
  • The German government also commissioned feasibility studies when it prepared for a new long-term energy concept in the fall of 2010. After the accidents in Japan, the government asked a high-level panel of independent experts, chaired by Klaus Toepfer, former head of the United Nations Environment Program, to assess the ethics of energy technology choices. In its final report, the commission made recommendation for Germany’s energy situation post-Fukushima and recommended to focus on the transition to renewable energy sources, while phasing out nuclear energy by 2021.

Against this background of detailed feasibility studies for different energy futures, the German government approved an energy concept in the fall of 2010. It set Germany on the track to achieve 40 percent greenhouse gas reductions and a share of 35 percent renewable energy by 2020 and 80 percent greenhouse gas reductions with 80 percent renewable energy in 2050. The accelerated nuclear phase-out modifies this energy concept, but keeps these targets intact.

Smart Energy Policy, Smart Economic Policy

Germany’s decision to phase out what it sees as a less-desirable technology, while continuing to tackle climate change, can provide important lessons for other countries. Due to the success of renewable energy and energy efficiency in the country, it is in a strong position to choose this pathway. Germany has almost tripled its share of renewables in its final energy consumption from 3.8 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2010. Renewables have even been growing faster than most studies predicted in the past.

This has also been an economic success story: In the last five years, investments in Germany’s clean energy sector grew by over 75 percent, creating a dynamic industry that supports 367,000 jobs. In 2009, Germany was third in installed renewable energy capacity and has invested more in future capacity than any other country.

A recent IPCC report finds that by 2050, nearly 80 percent of the world’s energy could come from renewable sources. This is not science fiction, but smart energy and climate policy that also creates jobs, exports and economic growth.

A Global Shift Towards Clean Energy

Germany is not the only country making these kinds of decisions. The government of Japan, still reeling from the tsunami and nuclear disasters, has signaled that it plans to increase its share of renewable energy. The United Kingdom recently announced a 50% GHG reduction target by 2025. China as well has been developing impressive renewable energy and efficiency targets and policies. The decisions to shift to clean energy in these cases emerges in part from a desire to move from what is understood by society to be more risky energy sources, be they nuclear, coal, or oil, towards new possibilities in renewable energy instead.

Countries that are either skeptical of the effectiveness of renewable energy and efficiency to meet energy needs – and thus are doing little to move in this direction – or are planning large-scale investments in new energy sources may learn from these examples.

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