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Green Party Energy Expert Höhn: 'The Nuclear Industry Has Invented the Energy Shortfall'

Bärbel Höhn, 56, deputy leader of the German Green Party's parliamentary group, discusses her party's opposition to nuclear energy, the market power of the major energy companies, and why she rejects warnings of a shortfall in energy supplies.

A 40,000 square meter roof-based solar system in the southern German town of Buerstadt.
REUTERS

A 40,000 square meter roof-based solar system in the southern German town of Buerstadt.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Höhn, how much does a kilowatt-hour of electricity cost in Germany?

Bärbel Höhn: I pay 17 cents net for electricity from renewable sources.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That was about the national average in late 2007. In France, a country that gets 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, they pay only 10.4 cents. In Italy, which gets by without nuclear power, it was 21.6 cents -- more expensive than anywhere else in Europe.

Höhn: Within Germany, (the state of) Baden-Württemberg derives the largest share of its electricity from nuclear power, and also has among the highest electricity prices.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the price of electricity is set nationwide at the Leipzig electricity exchange. Other factors are behind the regional differences.

Höhn: Electricity from nuclear power is highly subsidized in France. Besides, the French have done virtually nothing for renewable energy, which means that they also haven't created any jobs in this industry. We, on the other hand, have more than 250,000 jobs in these areas. I don't think that this is a policy that makes sense.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nevertheless, you cannot ignore the fact that electricity is cheaper in countries with a stronger emphasis on nuclear power. In times of exploding energy prices, can the Green Party really expect consumers to pay the higher cost of electricity from renewable sources?

Höhn: But electricity from nuclear power isn't cheaper at all! According to studies by Greenpeace, about €80-100 billion ($124-155 billion) in subsidies have been pumped into nuclear power. In addition, the big corporations are still not required to pay taxes on their reserves for the permanent storage (of nuclear waste). That makes up around €800 million ($1.24 billion) a year. And if they had to insure their reactors, they wouldn't even be able to pay the premiums.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But in reality the federal government has only subsidized nuclear power research -- with about €36 billion ($56 billion), adjusted for inflation.

Höhn: There is a lot more than research. In any case, we are talking about a lot of money.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Renewable forms of energy are subsidized far more heavily, not by taxpayers, but by electricity customers.

Höhn: That isn't true. In 2006, the costs to the economy amounted to about €3 billion ($4.7 billion).

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And the number keeps growing. Solar panels installed by 2010 will cost consumers about €70 billion ($109 billion). And that doesn't even include wind, biofuel and geothermal energy. And if new installation continues at the current rate beyond 2010, subsidies for solar power alone will amount to €700 billion ($1.1 trillion).

Höhn: These numbers are wrong. There is no question that photovoltaics is still very expensive today. But reductions in subsidies will also make solar much cheaper in the future. And you've ignored wind power completely. On many days, it already contributes to a reduction in the price of electricity on the Leipzig electricity exchange. According to the Environment Ministry, this amounted to €5 billion in 2006. You have to look at these numbers from an economic view.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But wind energy is making the price of electricity more expensive overall, because conventional gas and coal power plants have to be kept up and running to guaranty supply at all times.

Höhn: The larger the renewable energy share, the less this applies. That's because the wind is always blowing somewhere, or the sun is shining. Besides, geothermal energy and gas power plants, as well as the large offshore plants, will bring us forward considerably. Of course, they are absolutely necessary if we intend to ensure supply.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The only problem is that they are behind schedule. Of 3,000 plants in the North Sea and Baltic Sea, 2,988 aren't funded yet.

Höhn: The numbers are constantly changing. The new renewable energy law is providing the necessary impetus. However, we need to get the large energy companies on board. If they are truly committed to renewable energy, as they constantly claim, it's time for them to finally step on the gas.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: We also need up to 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) of high-voltage power lines to distribute electricity from the coast across the country. There has been tremendous resistance to this everywhere. Is the green vision of clean energy gradually becoming a pipe dream?

Höhn: Who missed the expansion of the power grid? The four biggest energy companies. Besides, there is more than just sun and wind. In the future, we will also increase decentralized power generation, using cogeneration plants, for example. And energy storage in batteries is also developing…

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But all of that is still far away and expensive. Wouldn't it make more sense to extend the operating lives of our existing nuclear power plants, under the condition that the profits are invested in the expansion of renewable forms of energy? How else do you intend to prevent energy prices from going through the roof in the coming years?

Höhn: One of the reasons for the high prices is the market power of major corporations. They have an oligopoly and, as a result, can dictate prices. Here's one example: E.on, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall receive more than 80 percent of their pollution rights for free, and yet they pass on the cost of emissions certificates to the consumer. That amounts to €7 billion ($10.8 billion) a year! Instead of extending the lives of nuclear power plants, we should take steps to ensure that we recover this money, to which these companies aren't even entitled. If you keep the nuclear power plants up and running longer, you merely increase the market power of the four major players, thereby increasing prices.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In that case, rules will have to be developed to create more competition.

Höhn: But not with the current Economics Ministry, which has clearly sided with the utilities until now. Besides, a report by the Eco Institute also opposes extending the plants' operating lives. According to this report, an extension until 2010 would have virtually no effect on the price of electricity…

SPIEGEL ONLINE: …because only three or four reactors would have to be shut down by then.

Höhn: But after that, the nuclear power producers would make about €3 billion ($4.65 billion) a year in surplus profits if they could keep their plants operating further. Even if these companies were to return half of the profits to citizens, it would amount to only about €20 ($31) per citizen each year.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Try a different calculation: What happens with a nuclear phase-out? The electricity from nuclear power has to be replaced with coal or renewable energy. Both come at a high price, coal because of the emissions certificates, and renewables because of net metering. In the end, you pay a total of five to seven cents more per kilowatt-hour, an increase of more than 30 percent over today.

Höhn: You can't calculate that way. The price of electricity is developed differently on the exchange. Even the pro-nuclear economics ministry concludes that the additional cost would be only 1.2 cents per kilowatt-hour after a nuclear phase-out. Besides, you have to consider the problems you could run into if the operating lives of nuclear power plants are extended.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Such as?

Höhn: They would intervene massively in the market. Depending on the share of electricity derived from nuclear power, some energy companies would benefit more while others would benefit less from an extension. In other words, E.on would derive a 40-percent profit, Vattenfall would get almost nothing at all, and RWE and EnBW would divide up the rest. Then you would have a regulated market, together with all of the problems that go with it. And experience has shown that voluntary commitments, such as those the energy companies have proposed for handing over the profits, don't work, especially when they are tied to distribution issues. And how do we expect to ensure that the companies don't recoup their profits from the consumer through their oligopoly?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Lawmakers would have to take steps to prevent that from happening. As it happens, the nuclear phase-out was also a massive intervention in the market. So was the renewable energy law.

Höhn: If you want to require the energy companies to give the profits back to consumers, you're dealing with true price regulation, which is a whole different story. And another issue that's not even being addressed at the moment, for reasons I find incomprehensible, is safety.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: German nuclear power plants are among the world's safest. Do you disagree?

Höhn: That's what I used to think about Sweden. Two years ago, we barely managed to avoid a major, Chernobyl-like disaster. It was a matter of 20 minutes. And then there are the recent incidents in France. The fifth incident in only a month happened last Tuesday. And since Sep. 11, the risk of terrorist attacks has already grown considerably. I'm worried to death when I consider that our older nuclear power plants, in particular, aren't even protected against crashes by smaller aircraft.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You can't be serious.

Höhn: Then take a look at the Environment Ministry's Web site, where you can read all about it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But that only applies to the old nuclear power plants. They could be shut down. Why shouldn't the newer plants not only maintain their residual electricity volume, as provided by the nuclear safety law, but also add volume that would in fact guarantee a longer total life?

Höhn: Even the new plants aren't protected against passenger plane crashes. Besides, it still isn't clear where the highly radioactive waste will be placed into final storage.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If the operating lives are extended by 10 years, we would end up having 9,000 tons of nuclear waste more than we have today.

Höhn: Which is still twice as much as what we would have without this extension of operating lives!

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It is critical that a final storage site be found. Does it make any difference whether we store the 17,000 tons that would be generated anyway or add another 4,000? In the end, doesn't it matter how well you are able to explain to people, in times of rapidly increasing energy prices, that you want to get out of both nuclear power and coal-based generation of electricity?

Höhn: But we don't want to get out of electricity from coal.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Greens, at any rate, usually do their utmost to block new coal power plants.

Höhn: That's true. Anything else would be lunacy. Twenty-five coal power plants are currently planned. They'll run for 40 or 50 years, emitting more than 100 million tons of CO2 each year. And that will still be the case in 2050, when Germany will only be permitted to emit 160 million tons of the greenhouse gas. That leaves less than 60 million tons for the remainder of electricity generation, industry, households and transportation. It's absurd.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That's why the electricity producers are working on methods to filter out CO2.

Höhn: Which don't work yet. We can't simply force the carbon dioxide into depleted underground gas reservoirs, as the Norwegians are doing. But if the technology were ready to be marketed, we would clearly have no objection to building coal power plants. I don't see that happening in Germany before 2020. And then there are many who say that coal-based electricity production with CO2 sequestration is more expensive than, for example, wind power.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: With whom do you want to be running the country after 2009: the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which favors coal, or the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which supports extending the lives of nuclear power plants?

Höhn: We will fight for our positions and, in doing so, for majorities within the population. And I'm convinced that once we have captured majorities we will get a coalition partner.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So what do you prefer today: coal or nuclear?

Höhn: (laughing) Well, we'll still have both of them in 2020, anyway.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The German energy agency DENA warns of a possible power shortfall if we stick to the current plans for a nuclear phase-out. In that case, only three nuclear reactors will still be in operation in 2020, and we will lack the output of 15 major power plants.

Höhn: I took a very close look at that study. This isn't quite right. To arrive at its conclusions, DENA used significantly shorter operating lives for its coal power plants than those reported to the Federal Network Agency. And if you take the second set of numbers, the power shortfall is substantially reduced. Besides, DENA came up with a lower estimate for the share coming from renewable forms of energy than the federal government. Combine all of these factors and the shortfall doesn't even exist.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Most experts consider the DENA report to be credible. Do you think it's fixed?

Höhn: You do have to ask yourself who benefits from this supposed power shortfall. And when it is precisely the person who benefits from it who happens to commission a study that uncovers this power shortfall…

SPIEGEL ONLINE: …Hold on, the Environment Ministry was the one that commissioned it.

Höhn: But the big energy companies paid for it. Here, take a look at this, it's an ad I brought along. I'll be happy to give it to you. It's from the nuclear industry. Its share of power generation used to be 34 percent. Today it's 22. They say that renewable energy from wind, water and the sun cannot cover more than 4 percent of our power needs in the long term.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: When was the ad printed?

Höhn: In 1993.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So it's a little on the old side.

Höhn: Of course. But what it says there is "in the long term." We're at above 15 percent today, and it increases by 2 percent every year. Back then, the nuclear power plant operators tried to preserve their market power by portraying alternative energy as unrealistic to begin with. Today they have invented the electricity shortfall "in the long term." They don't want renewable energy -- no more today than back then.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Höhn, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Rafaela von Bredow and Wolfgang Reuter

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