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The Dirty Bridge to a Green Future How Quickly Can Germany Abandon Nuclear Energy?

The new national energy plan unveiled by the German government last autumn is already obsolete in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Berlin now faces the challenge of devising a new mix of fossil and renewable energy sources to prevent the worst effects of climate change. But how quickly can Germany dispense with nuclear power and what will the phase-out really cost?
Von Frank Dohmen, Alexander Jung und Christian Schwägerl

Neckarwestheim, 43 kilometers (27 miles) north of Stuttgart in southwestern Germany, has a lot planned this year. The town of 3,500 people wants to build a new cultural center, install two traffic islands, break ground on a new 11-hectare (24-acre) development zone and beautify the square in front of its church. Neckarwestheim isn't exactly short on funds -- at least it hasn't been until now.

Since 1976, when a nearby nuclear power plant went into operation, Mayor Mario Dürr and his predecessors have come to expect a handsome sum of money flowing into the town's coffers almost every year. The tax revenues have transformed the provincial village into a dapper town, complete with gourmet restaurants and a new 18-hole golf course.

But since Chancellor Angela Merkel's sudden the sudden change of heart on nuclear energy -- and the decision it prompted by electric utility EnBW to shut down one of the plant's two reactors last week -- the mayor has been forced to rethink his spending plans. Dürr now expects Neckarwestheim to lose 250 jobs and to see its local business tax revenues shrink from €7 million ($9.9 million) to €3 million in only one year.

He insists that development plans are not in danger, because the town has sufficient reserves. "Things will get a little tighter, but we can still get by without EnBW," the mayor says defiantly.

A town in Germany's Swabia region is reluctantly bidding farewell to nuclear power, and the rest of the country could soon follow. Seven of Germany's oldest nuclear plants have been shut down and are now unlikely to be placed back online, while the remaining 10 are expected to become redundant. Just how quickly this occurs is a question that politicians and electric utilities will have to resolve in negotiations over the next three months. One thing is clear, however: The energy source that, until recently, seemed so clean, safe and inexpensive is suddenly being viewed as highly dispensable.

The shift in Germany's energy policy that was triggered by the catastrophe in Japan couldn't have been more abrupt. The about-face has rendered obsolete the new energy plan  the chancellor unveiled last fall and boldly touted as a revolution. Now that the government needs a new mix of fossil and renewable sources of energy, the consequences will be revolutionary. The energy industry needs a new business model, the government is revising its energy supply strategy and consumers will have to get used to the idea that none of this will be free.

Phasing Out Plants While Keeping the Lights On

How the sea change will affect companies, politicians and people depends mainly on how quickly the nuclear phase-out moves forward. Until now, nuclear power has constituted about 22 percent of the electricity mix. Now everything revolves around the question of how to devise a time frame for shutting down nuclear plants while keeping the lights on.

The utilities are able to handle the immediate shutdown of the seven older reactors relatively well, although the situation could become exacerbated in the next few days when an eighth nuclear power plant, located in the town of Grafenrheinfeld between Frankfurt and Nuremburg, is also shut down. Last year inspectors noticed abnormalities in the central cooling pipe in the heart of the plant in Bavaria, which is operated by E.on. The utility company now plans to replace the pipe in the context of costly repairs to the plant that will take several weeks to complete.

The remaining natural gas, coal-fired and nuclear power plants are still producing enough energy to make up for the roughly 8,000 megawatts Grafenrheinfeld and the other seven plants would normally provide. But what happens with the remaining nine nuclear plants, which currently supply Germany with about 13,500 megawatts of electricity? How quickly can the country plug the gap in the system if it dispenses with these plants? And, more importantly, what will it replace them with?

There are already growing calls for a comeback of natural gas and, in particular, coal, notwithstanding the myriad environmental concerns. Michael Vassiliadis, head of the Mining, Chemical and Energy Industrial Union (IG BCE), says Germany needs to engage in "a new social debate" over coal's contribution to the energy mix. A coal renaissance  would, of course, invalidate Germany's stated long-term goal of reducing the earth's temperature by 2 degrees Celsius compared with the pre-industrial age.

A Choice Between Two Evils

The government faces a tough decision over which goal should come first: reducing CO2 emissions or avoiding the hazards of radiation -- a choice between one of two necessary evils.

The environmentalists at Greenpeace, who have come up with their own calculations on how Germany could survive without nuclear power, are experiencing the same dilemma. In that energy scenario, which they call "Plan B," it would take six to seven years before Germany is ready for a complete phase-out. Even that, says expert Andree Böhling, would involve making some changes.

Germany would have to take a much bigger step toward expanding renewable energy, especially wind power. In addition, energy consumers, particularly industry, would have to improve efficiency even further. Currently about three dozen companies, such as aluminum and steel mills consume almost one-quarter of all electricity produced in Germany.

Finally, Böhling's calculations show that the utility industry would have to build roughly 10 large gas and steam turbine plants. Thanks to new discoveries and drilling technologies , gas is now available in abundance worldwide. The notion that nuclear power would lead mankind into the future was always a fairy tale, says Böhling. "Natural gas," the Greenpeace expert insists, "is a bridge we can rely on."

According to Böhling, this bridge would become passable even more quickly, namely within three to four years, if the utilities would increase capacity utilization at their coal-fired power plants, at least for a transitional period. Even environmentalist Böhling says he could accept this as a temporary solution.

Could it really be that easy? Can Germany achieve a complete nuclear phase-out by the middle of the decade by saving a little electricity, building a few more wind turbines and about a dozen gas power plants, and keeping coal-fired plants up and running for a while longer? The truth is that it won't happen as quickly as some predict -- or as easily and cheaply, either.

Can Power Grid Handle Shifts?

The town of Wustermark, in the eastern state of Brandenburg, is located about 30 kilometers west of Berlin. If all goes well, in four years one of Europe's most advanced gas-fired power plants will be standing on the edge of a thinly populated industrial area and generating electricity. It is a €640-milllion project that the Swiss company Advanced Power plans to build in collaboration with German engineering giant Siemens -- unless a local citizens' initiative manages to stop the venture.

Local residents are protesting against the planned power plant. They don't want to see a giant concrete building in their backyards, even if the project means higher tax revenues and new jobs for their debt-ridden community. Managing Director Folker Siegmund, who knows full well that opposition from citizens has killed similar projects in the past, is taking the local resistance seriously. "No major project is immune these days," says the executive.

It is practical obstacles like this that will make it so difficult for Germany to quickly bid farewell to the atom -- and make the Greenpeace scenario more of a theoretical possibility. Citizens' alliances and climate activists are trying to torpedo virtually every plan to build a new power plant, and they are often successful. The organization German Environmental Aid (DUH), which is coordinating the protests nationwide, prides itself for having halted the construction of 15 coal-fired power plants with a total output of more than 14,000 megawatts.

At least four other planned large plants are also about to be cancelled, including a power plant in Datteln in North Rhine-Westphalia in the west where construction is almost finished. Because of planning mistakes on the part of the plant operator E.on, work has come to a virtual standstill on the construction site. The 180-meter (590-foot) cooling tower, visible from many cities in the surrounding Ruhr region, already feels like a modern industrial memorial.

A Lack of Reliability

Experts say that by 2020, Germany will have to add highly efficient coal and gas reactors with a total output of 10 gigawatts to the grid, the equivalent of about 12 large power plants. Because so many new projects have been thwarted, the country lacks key capacities to guarantee a supply of energy in the post-nuclear age.

Operators also cannot simply reactivate old power plants that have already been shut down. "In most cases," according to electric utility RWE, "operating licenses have expired or are limited in time." To get the old power plants up to speed, operators would have to install new environmental technology, an investment that rarely pays off.

The expansion of renewable energy sources, no matter how rapid, can hardly offset these deficits among conventional power plants. Today about 17 percent of electricity in Germany comes from renewable sources, and the government predicts that the number will go up to between 35 and 38 percent by 2020. While this would undoubtedly represent tremendous growth, wind and solar power will hardly be capable of satisfying significant portions of demand for electricity. The problem is that they lack a key characteristic: reliability.

The available wind energy on some autumn days is enough to eliminate the need for all nuclear power plants. But this is far from the case on most days of the year. Solar power is equally inconsistent. There are summer hours when solar panels feed more power into the grid than the Germans need, but their contribution on the whole is not significant.

Germany gets an average of 1,600 hours of sunshine a year. Solar panel performance declines rapidly during the remaining 7,000 hours, and at night they generate no electricity at all.

Troubles with Offshore Wind Farms

Generating power in large offshore wind farms would be much more predictable, because the wind blows much more powerfully and consistently at sea than on land. This is why electric utilities plan to invest billions in offshore projects in the coming years. They are promising that offshore turbines will provide 10,000 megawatts of permanent and reliable electricity by 2020 -- enough to cover about one-eighth of peak demand in Germany.

But the major utilities have hardly followed up their announcements with actions. They have constructed a pilot project, Alpha Ventus, but the giant turbines, each as tall as Cologne Cathedral, have proved to be extremely trouble-prone. Utilities E.on, EWE and Vattenfall have already had to replace six of the 12 turbines. The entire project was delayed by months  as a result, say the operators. According to Environment Ministry officials in Berlin, the expansion of offshore wind farms could even be years behind schedule.

For this reason, the industry has recently refocused its efforts on the mainland. According to Hermann Albers, president of the German Wind Energy Association, repowering, or the replacement of old turbines with significantly taller and more powerful ones, will provide additional capacity. The industry estimates that three to four nuclear reactors can be replaced in this manner, but only if the infrastructure necessary to transmit the generated electricity is available. And that is precisely the stumbling block.

Thousands of kilometers of high-voltage lines  are needed to transmit wind-generated electricity from the north to major markets in central and southern Germany. The surprising plan to shut down nuclear power plants only exacerbates this imbalance, grid operators warn. "The (electricity) grids are not designed to handle such a serious redistribution of loads," E.On CEO Johannes Teyssen told SPIEGEL in an interview  published this week. In other words, there will be a growing threat of blackouts.

According to calculations by the German Energy Agency (Dena), up to 3,600 kilometers of additional 380,000-volt lines are needed in the coming years to maintain grid stability. "An accelerated expansion of renewable energy, which the government proposes, is useless if we lack the grid capacity to absorb the electricity," warns Dena Managing Director Stephan Kohler. And if the expansion fails, Kohler adds, it will not be possible to reach the 38-percent target for renewable energy.

There are even bigger bottlenecks when it comes to the supply of power storage devices. They are indispensable to bridge periods when there is little wind or sun, and to offset fluctuations. So-called pumped storage hydroelectric plants are considered ideal.

Too Little Storage, an Insufficient Grid and a Lack of Output Capacity

At times when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining but demand is low, the excess electricity is used to pump water into elevated reservoirs. When electricity is needed, the stored water is released, driving massive turbines that can generate large amounts of electric energy within seconds.

Pumped storage hydroelectric plants with a total capacity of about 7,200 megawatts are currently installed in Germany. However, an additional 14,000 megawatts would be needed by 2020 -- at a minimum. RWE Innogy CEO Fritz Vahrenholt describes a hypothetical scenario in which the wind stops blowing for 10 days. To offset the loss, Germany would need 313 times as much pumped storage capacity as exists today. A windless period lasting that long, says Vahrenholt, is by no means uncommon.

German topography, however, offers little room for additional water storage facilities without a massive reshaping of the landscape. And in the few places where it would be possible, companies are encountering resistance.

For decades, water has been used for pumped storage at Schluchsee Lake in the Black Forest, where an artificial reservoir is positioned 600 meters above the turbines in the valley. Now the Schluchsee plant operators want to expand the system in the town of Atdorf, but the environmental organization Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND), opposes the project, which is slated to cost billions.

According to BUND, the planned expansion would interfere with water protection zones, endanger the habitats of protected species and put "too much strain" on the region. BUND officials are quick to point out that they are not fundamentally opposed to building pumped storage hydroelectric plants, just not in Atdorf.

Underperforming Green Energy Sources

A lack of storage capacity, insufficient grid strength and too little output capacity: The expansion of renewable energy is encountering roadblocks, particularly given that other green energy sources are also underperforming.

Geothermal energy, or energy produced by terrestrial heat, could cause seismic reactions and even small earthquakes. Biomass grown to produce energy competes with food production. And since the turmoil began in the Arab world, it has become clear that the massive Desertec solar project , which would supply electricity tapped from the sunny region and transport it across the Mediterranean, could also be facing problems. In addition to technological challenges, some fear it has the potential to be used by North African despots as an electricity weapon against Europe.

And if the expansion of gas-fired power plants is also delayed, suppliers will have no choice but to quickly upgrade aging coal plants, despite the cost. The consequences will include higher CO2 emissions and greater costs.

"If we continue to depend on old plants, the price of CO2 certificates will rise significantly and make electricity more expensive," says Dena head Kohler. This tendency already made itself felt last week on the EEX energy exchange in Leipzig, Germany, where prices in the futures trading market shot up as a result of the foreseeable shortage of CO2-free nuclear energy. Meanwhile, the price of coal went up by eight percent and the price of natural gas by 11 percent within a week.

There will be a price to be paid -- financially, at first -- for speeding up the nuclear phase-out. The expansion of the extra high-voltage grid alone is expected to cost about €10 billion by 2020. But the use of natural gas and, most of all, coal, will also exact an environmental cost if these sources are to make up for at least some of the lost nuclear power, because renewable energy sources alone will be incapable of satisfying demand.

The road to our energy future is dirtier than the dawn of the renewable age would suggest. Most of all, it leads away from centralized units, like massive power plants, that generate large amounts of electric energy at relatively low efficiency levels and distribute it throughout the country.

The future energy system will be more compartmentalized, decentralized and regional. It will be a blend of regenerative forms of energy, co-generation plants, flexible gas turbines and storage systems, all of which will be controlled by intelligent grids. The business of energy giants like RWE and EnBW is not designed for this type of system.

Even the old nuclear town of Neckarwestheim has recognized the signs of the times. The town government has budgeted €50,000 to mount solar panels on its new cultural center. It also plans to generate electricity with gas collected from the digesting tank in its sewage treatment plants. Neckarwestheim's new mantra could very well read: Small, flexible and with no radiation risk whatsoever.

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