Somehow, Germany, a country where the government is firmly committed to “green” energy, is preparing to fire up coal-burning power plants. The move is even more remarkable given that officials stubbornly refuse to restart mothballed nuclear facilities, or even reconsider the timeline for retiring those that remain online. It’s an astonishing situation for a country that very recently boasted that it would soon satisfy all its energy needs with sunshine and cool summer breezes.
“A bill providing the legal basis to burn more coal for power generation is now making its way through parliament, aiming to boost the output of so-called reserve power plants that are irregularly used for grid stabilization and were scheduled to go offline over the next few years,” Deutsche Welle noted this week. “German Economy Minister Robert Habeck recently described his current energy policy as ‘a sort of an arm wrestling match’ with Russian President Vladimir Putin” the story added in reference to Russia reducing natural gas flows to countries that imposed sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine.
No doubt, Putin’s retaliation against Western Europe hiked the price of energy and raised worries about dark months to come followed by a cold winter. But, like American gas price woes, Germany’s problems predate the war in Ukraine and are closely linked to the goals the country’s political class made about their energy future in the absence of a realistic plan for getting there. In 2011, after an earthquake and tsunami triggered a disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the German government recommitted itself to closing all of its nuclear plants and getting its electricity from solar and wind. The decision was motivated by public fears of nuclear power, but also by loud insistence that the energy source had no place in a sustainable future.
“Germany is going to be ahead of the game on that and it is going to make a lot of money, so the message to Germany’s industrial competitors is that you can base your energy policy not on nuclear, not on coal, but on renewables,” Greenpeace’s Shaun Burnie told the BBC at the time.
But “nuclear power is very close to the same shade of green as that of most renewables” when you compare mining and manufacturing inputs to each approach, energy expert Gail H. Marcus wrote for Physics World in 2017. And nuclear is reliable—the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow, which means electricity produced by those sources ebbs and flows. That’s a big problem for electrical grids that require steady supplies of energy.
“Large amounts of intermittent electricity create huge swings in supply which the grid has to be able to cope with,” Bloomberg reported in January 2021. “The issue isn’t confined to Europe. Australia has had teething problems in the transition to a cleaner network. Wind power was blamed for a blackout in 2016 that cut supply to 850,000 homes. The nation is looking to storage as a solution and was the first country to install a 100 megawatt megabattery in 2017.”
Months later, the challenge for renewable energy grew even worse when Europe suffered a “wind drought” that left turbines idled.
“Through summer and early autumn 2021, Europe experienced a long period of dry conditions and low wind speeds,” Hannah Bloomfield, a climate researcher at the University of Bristol, wrote in October 2021. “The beautifully bright and still weather may have been a welcome reason to hold off reaching for our winter coats, but the lack of wind can be a serious issue when we consider where our electricity might be coming from.” Bloomfield emphasized that a reliable flow of energy required “other renewable resources such as solar, hydropower and the ability to smartly manage our electricity demand.”
Of course, until you have sufficient diverse sources of renewable and reliable energy on which to draw, you’re going to keep the lights on through now-disfavored but reliable means such as coal, nuclear, and natural gas. But if you’re Germany and in a revived cold war with Russia, which is the major source of your natural gas, your options are limited when that country closes the valves on the pipelines.
“Europe’s biggest economy is now officially running short of natural gas and is escalating a crisis plan to preserve supplies as Russia turns off the taps,” CNN noted June 23. “Germany on Thursday activated the second phase of its three-stage gas emergency program, taking it one step closer to rationing supplies to industry — a step that would deliver a huge blow to the manufacturing heart of its economy.”
You’re in even more of a bind if you’ve just closed half of your nuclear power plants and insist on closing the rest within months even as your energy problems escalate.
“Currently, only three nuclear power plants are still connected to the grid in Germany,” Deutsche Welle reports. “As things stand, they will be shut down by the end of 2022 as part of the country’s complete withdrawal from the controversial energy source.”
The classical-liberal FDP, the smallest party in the coalition government, disagrees with this policy along with much else its partners do. But its officials have largely been reduced to a Cassandra role—ignored even as their prophecies come true. And that is how a country long committed to 100 percent renewable energy is getting ready to fire up the coal furnaces. Oh, and also for power rationing, colder homes, and less production.
“Whatever path Germany takes, the [German Institute for Economic Research], the scientific research center Forschungszentrum Jülich and the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW) all agree that a loss of Russian natural gas cannot be entirely replaced by other energy sources,” Deutsche Welle adds. “They say less energy must be consumed overall.”
Germany’s plight is disturbing testimony of where you can end up if you commit yourself to a vision of a “green” future that has no place in it for the most reliable source of clean-ish electricity. By contrast, neighboring France plans to build as many as 14 new nuclear reactors because of, not despite, its environmental goals. That attitude reflects energy analyst Marcus’s assessment and is shared by the inter-governmental International Energy Agency (IEA). “Long-term operation of the existing nuclear fleet and a near-doubling of the annual rate of capacity additions are required” to meet clean-energy goals by 2050, the organization specifies.
Visons of a cleaner future based on technologies that are more efficient and less polluting are praiseworthy and shared by just about everybody. But to get from here to there requires planning and realistic decisions. Unfortunately for the German people, most of their political leaders relied on strongly held wishes and pixie dust to bring a green utopia and are instead delivering literal lumps of coal.