Faced with two politically unpalatable choices for electrical generation technologies, Germany has recently chosen one which more acceptable domestically, but which may draw strong criticism throughout the European Union. Although concerns over greenhouse gases, carbon generation and climate change have driven some groups to force the German government to reduce the use of coal-fired electrical power plants, the only other practical choice available to them – nuclear power – has even greater opposition. Will the choice that the German government has made become a model for the rest of Europe?
Germany surprised – even shocked – many people when it announced early in 2013 that it was scheduling building and placing on line six new coal-fired electricity generation plants later this year. These plants, when completed, will have a combined generation of 5000 MW of power, adding 7% to the country’s electrical pool. None of these plants will be built with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which are both expensive and require a longer time for construction. The German government also announced that the less-problematic gas-fired technology will also be used in 27 new stations, which will add 17% to Germany’s power.
This power will certainly be required to meet demand over the coming two decades. Although the size of the German population has been holding steady over the past ten years (even declining slightly), demand for electricity continues to creep upwards. This is an unwanted pressure on an economy already stressed by the meltdown of the Euro and its position as the last-resort lender for the EU’s other floundering economies. Unless Germany can meet demand for its electrical needs, and thereby keep prices from increasing, its own economy may begin to weaken.
The problem is that Germany’s nuclear power plant base is aging, and its ability to even keep up with current needs is under strain. Of the 17 nuclear plants in operation, 8 were closed temporarily in 2012 for safety reviews following the failure of the Fukushima plants in Japan; the powerful Green Party reluctantly permitted them to come back on line – temporarily – but only after the demand for power became acute. Even so, the percentage of Germany’s electrical power generation based on nuclear power declined from 24.4% in 2010 to 17.7% in 2011. Since all nuclear plants in Germany are scheduled to be closed by 2022, and with construction of replacement nuclear plants blocked by the anti-nuclear lobby, Germany had little choice but to look to coal and natural gas.
The decision to use coal and gas electrical generation brings with it problems of a different kind. Although natural gas is cleaner, the primary source for Germany is through the Russian-built and -sourced (and therefore controlled) pipelines. While gas prices are stable at this time, they will almost certainly rise in coming years, both as a result of the maturing of Russia’s current gas fields and that country’s own increasing demand for the fuel. After all, Russia has its own political and economic agendas, and serving Germany’s needs is far less important to the increasingly nationalistic Russian government than looking to its own requirements. A proposed pipeline from Iran would have to pass through Russian territory, which can’t make the German government rest easy.
Coal, then, is the obvious solution, at least for the near term. Taken as a purely economic decision, it is better than nothing, but it is obviously only a stop-gap measure. Firm, long-term decisions will have to be made. Unfortunately, the use of coal in the current political climate is not a purely economic matter: The concerns over climate change are still strong enough to make the use of coal on such a scale a magnet for criticism, both within Germany and throughout the EU. Even if this decision has bought some time for Germany, it has a short timeline, and some decisions will have to be made before electric costs cripple their economy. What can Germany do?
1) Increase the use of “green” energy sources (i.e., non-nuclear and non-fossil fuel). The German’s have a term for this: Wolkenkuckucksheim (“cloud cuckoo land”). Germany has already carried the use of photovoltaic (solar-generated electricity) panels to the saturation level. Barring a dramatic breakthrough in solar panel efficiency, this technology cannot be taken much further. Hydroelectricity and wind power can only contribute a miniscule percentage of the country’s electric needs, and there are no geothermal sources;
2) Construct a new generation of nuclear power plants. This is unlikely to happen, at least for the next two decades. Anti-nuclear bias is so firmly ingrained in the Green Party’s leftist ideology that they will not – cannot, politically – permit new nuclear plants to be built within Germany’s borders. Since the Green Party is, itself, firmly entrenched in Germany’s political landscape, and will remain so for at least the current generation, nuclear power is a non-starter;
3) Continue to look to coal and, to a lesser extent, natural gas for generating electrical power.
The way, and indeed the only way, that coal can become palatable to the German public is by a combination of pushing emission-cleaning technology and decoupling coal from the climate change debate. The technology is the easier part of the equation, as incremental improvements in filtering and carbon-trapping techniques are being made continuously. Convincing the general voting population, and the decision-makers in the economy and government, that the use of fossil fuels will not condemn the planet into an ecological crisis is also possible.
After the initial rush to judgment in support of the “global warming” crisis model, both the public and the scientific community have begun to reconsider many of the assertions made in support of it. A number of the researchers who initially presented the global warming hypothesis have begun to reconsider their data and models, while others have become embroiled in debates about their objectivity (to put it kindly). In fact, some scientists have recently begun to present the theory that the world is actually facing global cooling over the coming century.
Even more than that, Germans (as well as Europeans in general) are beginning to resent the pressures brought upon them to bear the brunt of sacrifices formerly deemed necessary to reduce potential future global warming. The exceptions made in the Kyoto Protocols that would permit developing countries (including China and India) to continue their use of carbon fuels without caps have become so controversial that the next round of the protocols may be abandoned for lack of commitment.
Certainly, there is no way to know for sure what choices Germany will make next year, let alone a decade from now. Given that the country requires a dependable source of electricity to maintain its prosperity – as do all modern economies – they will have to make the choices that provide what its own people need, balanced against the fewest number of adverse consequences. Shivering in the dark for the sake of a shaky theory is probably not the choice that Germany will make.