Germany Debates Role of Nuclear in Its 2050 Energy Mix

When it comes to European energy policies, Germany quite often basks in records. It leads the region in installed solar power capacity per capita, is a trendsetter in climate legislation (such as the Renewable Energy Sources Act of 2004), and boasts a head of state whom the national media dubs “Climate Chancellor.”

Germany has to decide on its energy future – Flickr Creative Commons / Mykl Roventine

But while the country enjoys an excellent reputation in international circles—well deserved for most of the past two decades—its domestic energy policy remains stalled in a dispute about the phaseout of nuclear energy. (Incidentally, none of Germany’s European neighbors is comparably engaged in this debate; in France, for example, nuclear power production nears 85 percent.)

Later this month, the German government will present its new “energy outlook for 2050,” with a key focus on the nuclear phaseout and the composition of the country’s future energy mix. On August 30, Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen  (CDU) and Minister of Economics and Technology Rainer Bruederle (FDP) presented the study that will provide the basis for this outlook, titled Energieszenarien fuer ein Energiekonzept der Bundesregierung (Scenarios for the Federal Government’s Energy Outlook).

The study contains nine different energy scenarios for 2050: one reference scenario that considers a business-as-usual approach, and four “perspective” scenarios that differ in the projected timeline for nuclear phaseout (4, 12, 20, and 28 years), each with two different estimates for the costs of upgrading the country’s nuclear power plants.

In the business-as-usual scenario, Germany would fail to reach its goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, as outlined in the coalition agreement. However, the study concludes that emissions cuts of 40 percent by 2020 and 85 percent by 2050 can be achieved in all scenarios if considerable public and private investment is made.

Key elements of the study include:

  • In the eight “perspective” scenarios, economic growth is always higher than the average growth projected in the reference scenario (of 0.6 percent to 2050).
  • Depending on the scenario, the share of fossil fuels in the energy mix declines 41–43 percent by 2050. Thus, renewables account for some 50 percent of primary energy consumption.
  • As a result, the share of imported energy declines from 70 percent in 2008 to 54–55 percent in 2050, depending on the scenario.
  • Electricity generation from renewables rises to 77–81 percent by 2050.
  • Energy efficiency is considered a crucial tool to achieve these goals—leading to a halving of energy consumption by 2050.
  • Other necessary steps include considerable investments in new grids, energy storage, and gas pipelines, as well as the establishment of a Common European Electricity Market by 2050.

The issue under debate currently is which of these scenarios Germany should adopt for its 2050 energy outlook. Although the ministries of Environment and Economics and Technology have issued a common press release, the ministers themselves seem deeply divided. At the August 30 press conference, Minister Roettgen failed to support one specific scenario; however, he did endorse a quick phaseout of nuclear energy, stating that a longer phaseout period (12–28 years) would have “marginal effects” on electricity prices but a negative overall effect on green power investments. Minister Bruederle, on the other hand, advocated for extending the lifespan of nuclear reactors by 12–20 years, arguing that nuclear power secures low energy prices.

To understand these differences, it is important to note that in 2001, then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s government (a coalition of the Social Democrats and Greens) passed a bill on Germany’s nuclear phaseout that contains three main goals: a ban on new nuclear power plants, a restriction on the lifespan of existing plants to 32 years, and a set electricity volume for each plant.

Needless to say, times remain interesting in Berlin. With such disputes representing far more than a summer slump, stay tuned for more on Germany’s energy future.

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