Last month, the German government committed to phasing out its existing nuclear power plants – which currently provide 23 percent of the nation’s electricity – by 2022, joining several nations, including Japan, in limiting its reliance on nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.
Critics on both sides of the pond (including our old friends at the Breakthrough Institute) immediately assailed the move as likely to result in an increase in carbon dioxide emissions. In the short term, they may have a point: Germany is accelerating the construction of several fossil fuel-fired power plants to pick up the slack in the meantime, which will result in increased emissions (though Germany is also part of the European Union’s emission trading scheme, meaning that those increases will have to be made up for with emission cuts elsewhere in the continent).
But in the longer view, Germany is making a smart move. It is recognizing that when it comes to designing its energy systems for a low-carbon world, it faces an either-or choice: either commit to a future electricity system built on a foundation of safe, distributed renewable energy, or commit to a centralized power system built on a foundation of costly, risky nuclear plants.
Baseload power plants such as nuclear plants and intermittent renewables such as wind power occupy the same biological “niche” in the power system – they are resources with low operating costs that the electric system will always take whenever they are needed. Once you get to a certain level of renewable energy or baseload penetration, you will eventually arrive at situations when you don’t “need” both resources. And since nuclear power plants cannot be powered down in response to short-term fluctuations in demand, guess which resources are likely to get the boot?
The notion that nukes and renewables don’t mix is supported by this 2010 report from the German Renewable Energies Agency, which describes in depth why nuclear power plants become unnecessary (at best) or competitors with renewable energy (at worst) under a high renewable energy penetration scenario.
According to one study cited in the report, Germany's aggressive renewable energy development strategy will slice the need for "baseload" power plants in half by 2020. On some days, no baseload power will be needed at all.
German Federal Minister of the Environment Norbert Röttgen, quoted in the same report, summed up the dilemma this way:
"It is economically nonsensical to pursue two strategies at the same time, for both a centralized and a decentralized energy supply system, since both strategies would involve enormous investment requirements. I am convinced that the investment in renewable energies is the economically more promising project. But we will have to make up our minds. We can’t go down both paths at the same time."
Those who believe there is a place for nuclear power in a climate protection strategy often suggest that there is room for both nuclear power and renewables in the low-carbon electric system of the future. Unfortunately, there is not. By making a commitment to phase out its nuclear power plants – and, at the same time, dramatically increasing its production of renewable energy – Germany is taking a bold step to rebuild its economy for long-term sustainability. It’s time for the United States to do the same.