I visited Berlin a week after President Obama’s reelection, and came away envious of the strategic clarity and political consensus that mark Germany’s new energy strategy. After months of watching Democrats and Republicans bash each other with vacuous and contradictory rhetoric about where our country’s energy future lies, it was refreshing to see that one of our key allies has a plan—and is implementing it.

Despite having a relatively weak solar resource, strong domestic policy has enabled Germany to dominate the global solar PV market (Source: REN21).

In 2012, Germany got more than 25 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, up from 5 percent in 1995 and 10 percent as recently as 2005. Since 1995, the U.S. share of renewable electricity has hardly budged—going from 10 percent to 11.5 percent.) At the same time, Germany has rapidly increased its energy efficiency, and reduced its carbon dioxide emissions and dependence on imported fossil fuels. Government plans are even more ambitious—at least 80 percent of the nation’s electricity is to come from renewables in 2050.

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China, Climate Change, Climate Policy, coal, energy policy, France, Germany, green transition, Italy, nuclear, renewable energy, solar power, United States, wind power

More than a year-and-a-half after the tsunami and resulting nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japanese policymakers are trying to figure out what to do about Japan’s power-generation future. In September, the government released a document titled “Revolutionary Energy and Environment Strategy,” which proposes to eliminate all nuclear generation in Japan by 2040. While the general public continues to support a transition away from nuclear power in Japan, business leaders have argued that such a change would increase energy costs, thereby making Japanese companies less competitive in an already increasingly competitive East Asian market.

Japan pays incredibly high rates to import LNG, which has become only worse since Fukushima and is driving up energy prices.

Close to one-third of Japan’s power generation came from nuclear prior to Fukushima, and before the tsunami, there had even been discussion of increasing the share of nuclear to 50 percent with hope that this would help the country reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Now that much of the population wants to phase-out nuclear by 2040, Japan faces an interesting question of what to do with its power sector in the future.

One solution, and what Japan has largely done in the short-term, is to rely more heavily on fossil fuels. After Fukushima, Japan began importing more natural gas and oil to make up for its loss of nuclear generation, and the share of fossil fuel generation in its electricity mix rose to 73 percent (a level not seen in decades) by early 2012. The problems with this increase, however, are numerous.

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Last Sunday marked the first anniversary of an unprecedented catastrophe that struck northern Japan. On March 11, 2011, a tsunami—triggered by a major earthquake—swept into the area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, disabling the cooling capabilities of three of the plant’s oldest reactors. In the days and weeks that followed, as workers struggled to cool and dismantle the plant, reactors 1, 2, and 3 went into meltdown. A series of explosions and fires led to the release of radioactive gas, and fears of contamination ultimately prompted the evacuation of approximately 100,000 people from the immediate area; some 30,000 may never be able to return to their homes.

The Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant, 25 March 2011 (Source: econews)

The first anniversary of this horrific event—the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl accident in 1986—is a time to commemorate the more than 20,000 people who died in the initial earthquake and tsunami, as well as the courage of those who risked radioactive exposure to regain control of the plant and prevent further calamity. But it is also a time to look forward—to examine what we have learned from Fukushima and what it means for the future of energy in Japan and around the world.

A “moment of opportunity” for Japan

In the aftermath of the meltdown, the Japanese public turned decidedly against nuclear power, marking a pronounced change in a nation that was once one of the world’s most committed proponents and producers of civilian atomic energy. Japan has been using nuclear power since the 1960s, and in 2010 it generated 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants. In the past year, however, the vast majority of nuclear facilities in Japan have been shut down for routine maintenance or “stress tests” and have not yet been reopened. Today, all but two of Japan’s commercial reactors have been shut down, with the last one scheduled to go offline as early as April. The country has also abandoned any existing plans to build new reactors.

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While U.S. policymakers remain hesitant to contemplate the transition to a low-carbon economy, Germany’s energy transition is already under way. At two Washington, D.C. events on Monday, October 3 (Germany’s Unity Day holiday), Franz Untersteller, Environment Minister for the German State of Baden-Württemberg, discussed his country’s efforts to phase out nuclear power and heavily promote renewable energy in the coming decades. Germany’s decision this spring to phase out nuclear energy by 2020 has been regarded as a controversial path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling climate change. At a panel titled Leading the Way or Lights Out? Germany’s Nuclear Exit and U.S. Energy Perspectives held at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies (SAIS), Minister Untersteller described how Germany plans to achieve both the nuclear phase-out and the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Minister Untersteller has been Environment Minister of the State of Baden-Württemberg in the Green-Social Democratic government since the March 2011 regional elections. Baden-Württemberg is a highly industrialized German state that is home to global industrial players such as Mercedes, Porsche, and Bosch. The region could serve as a model for other very industrialized areas in showing how high energy intensity can be combined with CO2 emissions reductions. Untersteller described the German government’s nuclear exit strategy as “irreversible,” not just because the amendments to the Nuclear Energy Act were supported by an agreement of all parties in the German Bundestag, but also because the strategy is based on broad popular consensus. The nuclear phase-out by 2020 is accompanied by several other elements:

  • A substantial rise in the share of renewable energy in the country’s energy mix, projected to reach 38 percent of the national electricity supply by 2020, compared to 20 percent today and 6 percent in 2000;
  • The construction and use of flexible natural gas power plants;
  • Infrastructure adaptation, especially high investment in the electric power grid; and
  • Increase in energy efficiency, including a further decoupling of energy use from economic growth.

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China appears to be heading for its worst power shortage since 2004, putting pressure on already struggling industries and strained livelihoods due to restricted energy access. The 26 provinces served by the State Grid Corp of China could face a combined power shortage of 30 gigawatts (GW) this summer. Central, southern, southwestern and eastern provinces introduced power use restrictions and rationing in late March, well ahead of the summer peak demand season, fueling concerns that shortages could worsen and spread to other regions.

Source: China Daily

Jiangsu, Henan, Zhejiang, Guangdong and Hubei provinces are most susceptible to electricity shortages this summer. Jiangsu province alone is expected to face an 11 GW gap between available power supply and expected demand, accounting for 37 percent of the country’s total shortage. Due to power use restrictions and rationing, many factories in the export-oriented eastern provinces have been forced to significantly reduce output, or instead meet their power demands with costly diesel generators.

The recent financial difficulties faced by China’s power companies caused the thermal power supply slump driving these severe shortages. This is particularly true of coal-fired power plants, which provide more than 70 percent of the country’s generation capacity. According to the 2010 Annual Report of the State Electricity Regulation Commission (SERC), the overall deficits for China’s five major thermal power companies (China Datang Corp., China Guodian Corp., China Huadian Group,  China Huaneng Group and China Power Investment Corp.) exceeded 60 billion Yuan ($6.23 billion) from 2008 to the end of 2010. In May 2011 alone, these “big five” lost 12.16 billion Yuan ($1.88 billion).

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This post is excerpted from an upcoming Worldwatch report on nuclear power in a post-Fukushima world.

With the crisis at Fukushima still unfolding as of early April 2011, the long-term impact of the disaster remains highly uncertain. In mid-March, however, London-based bank HSBC undertook a first analysis of some of the areas where the nuclear sector has been and might be affected. These include:

  • Safety reviews of reactors in several countries (e.g., Germany, Spain, Switzerland, the U.K., and the United States);
  • Immediate shutdown of older reactors (e.g., Germany);
  • Limited or no further lifetime extensions for aging reactors (e.g., Germany, the U.K., the United States);
  • Suspension of new plant approvals (including in China, which was expected to account for 40 percent of new installations over the next decade);
  • Review of reactors under construction in seismically active zones;
  • Higher safety and other costs (as yet hard to quantify) for new and existing nuclear facilities that would render nuclear power less economic or uneconomic; and
  • Re-evaluation of planned energy policy in all nuclear countries, with a greater focus on energy efficiency measures and natural gas and renewables installations.

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While the nuclear fallout from Japan’s Fukushima plant is unlikely to reach Europe, the political fallout is already arriving in the capitals of the European Union. The EU is considering “stress testing” its 143 nuclear power stations to ensure they can cope with crises. The EU’s energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, even raised the prospect of a nuclear-free future.

Is the sun finally setting on Nuclear Power?

This represents a dramatic turnaround for a continent that until last week had been considering a partial nuclear revival. This revival was prompted by the EU’s rush to achieve its low-carbon emission goals, but public mistrust of nuclear technology has lingered throughout the region following the Chernobyl accident, the 25th anniversary of which is this year. Nuclear power plants generate one-seventh of Europe’s electricity and the plants’ ages range from a relatively young 10 years in France to Soviet-era installations in Eastern Europe.

Nowhere is the debate on nuclear power more volatile than in Germany. Under the previous coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, Germany decided in 2002 to phase out all 17 of its nuclear plants by 2020. But the current Christian Democrat-Liberals coalition under Chancellor Angela Merkel overturned this policy in 2009. In October 2010, Germany extended the lifetime of its nuclear plants by 12 years in a decision that would keep the last plants on line until the mid 2030s.

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President Obama sets a new goal: generate 80% of U.S. electricity by clean energy sources by 2035. Source: WhiteHouse.gov

Last Tuesday, in his second official State of the Union address, President Obama signaled a new approach on energy – one clearly calculated to attract the widest possible support in the 112th Congress.

It sounds like this:

[C]lean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling.  So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal:  By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.

The President’s remarks echo recent Washington chatter about a federal “clean energy standard” – a target for how much electricity must be generated from renewable sources and other fuels supposed to be clean, at least relative to the traditional coal plants that currently produce 45 percent of the nation’s power. A clean energy standard, many analysts argue, would appease Republicans who favor coal with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and nuclear power. And although natural gas has yet to find the champions in Congress that coal and nuclear have, the natural gas industry believes that their fuel should not be left out of a renewable or clean energy standard either.

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Chancellor Merkel has spoken. At a press conference on September 6, the German head of state announced that her country’s nuclear phaseout will be extended by an average of 12 years. Merkel called the cabinet’s agreement on the government’s draft Energy Outlook for 2050 a “revolution” that further promotes Germany’s “most energy-efficient and most environmentally friendly energy supply worldwide.”

Germany extends nuclear phaseout - Flickr Creative Commons / miggslives

Unfortunately, Mrs. Merkel seems to disagree with many environmentalists about the difference between a sustainable, renewable, and truly “green” energy future and one that is based on the potentially hazardous exploitation of a scarce resource—i.e., uranium.

In the draft Energy Outlook, the lifespan of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants will be extended by eight years if the plant was installed in or before 1980, and by 14 years if the plant was installed after 1980. The draft envisions cuts in German greenhouse gas emissions of 80 percent, a share of renewables in total energy consumption of 60 percent, and a share of renewables in electricity consumption of 80 percent, all to be reached by 2050.

Cabinet ministers will decide on the draft on September 28. After that, legislative proceedings will begin with readings in both the Bundestag (Germany’s parliament) and the Bundesrat (the federal assembly of the representatives of the German states, or “Länder”). In addition to the political controversy about the nuclear phaseout, however, there is currently an ongoing discussion about whether the Bundesrat can only comment on the bill, or has the right to veto it entirely.

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energy outlook, Germany, nuclear, renewable energy

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).

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