The Impending Power Gap Where Will Germany's Energy Come From?


Part 4: Selling Nuclear to Pay for Solar?

Recently, even Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has attempted to downplay the fear of Russia among Bavarians and other concerned conservatives with his concept of an "energy foreign policy."

Steinmeier insists that Germany's energy supply is "well-protected by international standards." "We owe our current success to decisions made in the last 35 years," he says. Nevertheless, the country faces a series of tough restrictions and, according to Steinmeier, it can only preserve the status quo if a series of investments are made. "New pipelines have to be built, the country will need new power lines and more efficient coal power plants have to be brought online." All of this, says Steinmeier, must be accomplished quickly "if we are to prevent a return to nuclear energy" and "attain our climate goals."

Steinmeier's main concern is to drum up a sufficient supply of natural gas. With the exception of political hotspots like Iran, Iraq and Venezuela, he has visited almost every serious supplier of oil and natural gas in a move to assert German interests. Officials expect natural gas to be the source of one quarter of German electricity in the future, or about twice the current level.

Steinmeier has spent a lot of time in places from which liquefied natural gas (LNG) could be shipped to Europe in large tankers, as an alternative to the gas transported by pipeline from Russia. But Moscow has done its best to thwart efforts by Berlin and other European nations to secure alternative gas suppliers.

Nevertheless, Steinmeier says that warnings against excessive dependency are "as common as they are inconsequential." "As long as we lack realistic alternatives which are available at short notice, we are only pulling the wool over people's eyes," he says. Referring to the conservative CDU and CSU, Steinmeier says that they are "frivolously fostering public anxiety over Russia."

Chancellor Merkel, for her part, has shown little interest in pushing forward with the Baltic Sea pipeline project, which will make it easier to transport Russian gas to Germany and which Steinmeier considers critical to the German and European energy supply.

The uncertainties and problems across the entire spectrum of energy policy, from nuclear to gas to biofuel, also trigger substantial fears within industry. If electricity becomes even more expensive than is foreseeable today, energy-intensive industries could migrate to cheaper locations even more quickly than they are already doing. "By doing nothing, Germany is sealing the fate of its gradual deindustrialization," says Eggert Voscherau, the deputy chairman of German chemical giant BASF. The major industry associations are also calling for a "new energy consensus."

The problem is that up until now the Germans have been too passive in working towards achieving an energy supply that satisfies all requirements; in other words, one that is environmentally friendly, safe and cost-efficient at the same time. They have chosen to fritter away the fruits of their prosperity on day-to-day problems instead of investing them in intelligent preparations for the future -- in other words, in energy research.

In fact, Germany actually offers the ideal conditions to achieve even more impressive technological advances than in the past. The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), with its 7,500 staff, is a perfect illustration of this potential.

Engineers on the campus of the KIT are testing, for example, a prototype system that converts straw into fuel. In another lab, engineers are developing a highly efficient geothermal power plant, and in yet another, physicists are building giant magnets for the experimental ITER fusion reactor to be based in France.

Everywhere at KIT, solutions are being developed which will not only help Germany, but also the rest of the world, to overcome the most serious energy problems. But the engineers and scientists at the Karlsruhe technology park sense -- precisely because they are so ambitious -- the limits of what they can do. Peter Fritz, the institute's head of research, says that the threat of an energy gap in Germany is not the only reason that "a great deal of know-how and money needs to be mobilized very quickly."

In comparison to the size of the problem, energy research in Germany has tended until now to be somewhat relegated to the sidelines. But it is also a decisive weak point, including in the debate over the expected power shortfall. This is because cutting-edge research offers the best way to limit the costs associated with a massive expansion of renewable energy.

From a global perspective, government research expenditures have hardly increased since the early 1970s, and the situation is especially bleak in Germany. After the 1973 oil crisis, annual expenditures for energy research, adjusted for inflation, were almost doubled to €1.5 billion ($2.37 billion). But then, as the pressure of high oil prices subsided, research budgets were gradually reduced before reaching a record low of just under €360 million ($569 million) in 2001.

Energy research budgets have gone up again since then, but far too slowly. Ironically, the grand coalition makes no secret of its pride in having brought the government's energy research budget back up to above €500 million ($790 million).

KIT research director Fritz isn't surprised that so many important questions still haven't been answered, including the issue of long-term storage of nuclear waste. "It is critical that we bring expenditures back up to €1.5 billion ($2.37 billion)," he says, and he even has a provocative idea to offer: "The government should sell extended operating periods for German nuclear power plants at auction and invest the proceeds in research."

It's a provocative idea: Use yesterday's dirty technology to make a clean future possible? Nuclear money for the great efficiency revolution?

Even Foreign Minister Steinmeier, the architect of Germany's nuclear phase-out, sometimes succumbs to temptation. "Longer operating lives for nuclear power plants would certainly be the easier approach," he says, but adds: "However, accelerated technology development is much better in the long run and provides us with new export markets."

In his position paper, Environment Minister Gabriel warns that more nuclear power would only postpone the necessary investments even longer. But is this necessarily the case?

The KIT idea of using nuclear power plants to fund the solar cells of the future has been completely ignored in Berlin's gridlocked energy policy. Investigating it would mean breaking one of the grand coalition's many energy taboos.

The alliance of Germany's two main parties, which actually derived its legitimacy from its potential to tackle major problems, has only dealt with the lowest common denominator, namely climate protection. Meanwhile, it has managed to avoid the most important tasks, such as developing new ideas like those coming from the KIT, giving investors free market access, securing the power grid and explaining to citizens why coal power plants, pipelines and overhead power lines are also in their interest. All of these objectives must be addressed vigorously if the power shortfall is to be prevented.

Meanwhile Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel has finally gotten his frustrations off his chest. Besides, he needs to get going. He has a meeting with the SPD's Peter Struck to discuss the possibility of Gabriel taking over from him as the party's floor leader.

Is a new energy summit needed -- an alliance for electricity? As he is leaving, Gabriel says: "All we really have to do is follow normal, good energy policies."


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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