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ENERGY

Why Germany’s nuclear exit is posing tough questions about its energy future

The Bavarian village of Gundremmingen is so proud of its nuclear power station that its coat of arms is graced with a giant golden atom.

Why Germany's nuclear exit is posing tough questions about its energy future
Gundremmingen nuclear power plant. Photo: DPA

But change is coming to the village, with the plant facing imminent closure under Germany’s energy transition policy.

Former village mayor Wolfgang Mayer’s house has direct views of the imposing complex with its two 160-metre cooling towers — taller than the spires of Cologne Cathedral.

The plant still produces 10 billion kWh of power per year, though parts of it have already been shut down — enough to provide the entire Munich metropolitan region with electricity.

The power station will be decommissioned on December 31, 2021, along with two other facilities in northern Germany.

By the end of 2022, Germany will have achieved its goal of completely phasing out nuclear power, set by Chancellor Angela Merkel on May 30, 2011, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

SEE ALSO: Berlin agrees to compensate power firms for nuclear phase out

The plan represented a dramatic change of course by Merkel’s ruling conservatives, who just a few months earlier had agreed to extend the lifespan of Germany’s oldest power stations.

But it was met with widespread public support in a country with a powerful anti-nuclear movement, fuelled first by fears of a Cold War conflict and then by disasters such as Chernobyl.

Village church

In Gundremmingen, however, the decision has been a tough pill to swallow.

The nuclear power station has been “as much a part of the village as the church” and it feels as though “something is dying”, said Gerlinde Hutter, owner of a local guest house.

According to Meyer, it will take at least 50 years to remove all radioactive material from the site after the plant has been decommissioned.
The German government is still looking for a long-term storage site for the country’s residual nuclear waste.

Gundremmingen is not the only German village facing big changes as the country strives to implement its energy transition strategy.

Renewables have seen a spectacular rise since 2011 and in 2020 made up more than 50 percent of Germany’s energy mix for the first time, according to the Fraunhofer research institute — compared with less than 25 percent ten years ago.

The declining importance of nuclear power (12.5 percent in 2020) “has been compensated for by the expansion of renewable energies”, Claudia Kemfert, an energy expert at the DIW economic research institute, told AFP.

Nuclear power stations have therefore not been replaced by coal, though the fossil fuel does still represent almost a quarter of the electricity mix.

The gas dilemma

In fact, the phase-out of nuclear energy has been joined by another plan, announced in 2019, to close all of Germany’s coal-fired power stations by 2038.

This presents a particular challenge for Germany, which remains the world’s leading producer of lignite.

Mining for the brown coal, which is highly polluting, continues to lead to the destruction of villages in the west of the country in order to expand huge open-cast mines.

If Germany is to free itself from lignite, renewables such as wind, solar, biomass and hydropower will have to make up 65 percent of the energy mix by 2030.

Yet the country, which has long been at the forefront of wind energy in Europe, installed only 1.65 gigawatts (GW) of wind farms last year — the lowest level in a decade, according to the WindEurope advocacy group.

To meet the government’s targets, Germany would have to add 9.8 GW of solar and 5.9 GW of onshore wind annually, according to Kemfert.

But the development of new areas for wind or photovoltaic energy production is complex, with plans often coming up against resistance from local residents and the risk of damage to the landscape.

And unless storage and distribution can be improved via so-called virtual power plants, these new forms of energy do not have the same stability as thermal or nuclear power.

To secure its supply, Germany could therefore be tempted to build more gas-fired power stations.

But this would risk reinforcing its dependence on Russia, as illustrated by the controversy surrounding the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

A gas-fired power station is already in the works for the town of Leipheim, just around the corner from Gundremmingen.

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ENERGY

German government announces fresh relief package for high energy costs

With Russia's invasion in Ukraine exacerbating high energy and petrol prices, Germany is set to introduce a second relief package to limit the impact on consumers.

German government announces fresh relief package for high energy costs

The additional package of measures was announced by Economy and Climate Protection Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) on Sunday.

Speaking to DPA, Habeck said the wave of price increases throughout the energy sector were becoming increasingly difficult for households to bear.

“Extremely high heating costs, extremely high electricity prices, and extremely high fuel prices are putting a strain on households, and the lower the income, the more so,” he said. “The German government will therefore launch another relief package.”

The costs of heating and electricity have hit record highs in the past few months due to post-pandemic supply issues. 

This dramatic rise in prices has already prompted the government to introduce a range of measures to ease the burden on households, including abolishing the Renewable Energy Act (EEG) levy earlier than planned, offering grants to low-income households and increasing the commuter allowance. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Germany’s relief package against rising prices means for you

But since Russia invaded neighbouring Ukraine on February 24th, the attack has been driving up energy prices further, Habeck explained.

He added that fears of supply shortages and speculation on the market were currently making the situation worse. 

How will the package work?

When defining the new relief measures, the Economics Ministry will use three criteria, Habeck revealed. 

Firstly, the measures must span all areas of the energy market, including heating costs, electricity and mobility. 

Heating is the area where households are under the most pressure. The ministry estimates that the gas bill for an average family in an unrenovated one-family house will rise by about €2,000 this year. 

Secondly, the package should include measures to help save energy, such as reducing car emissions or replacing gas heating systems.

Thirdly, market-based incentives should be used to ensure that people who use less energy also have lower costs. 

“The government will now put together the entire package quickly and constructively in a working process,” said Habeck.

Fuel subsidy

The three-point plan outlined by the Green Party politician are not the only relief proposals being considered by the government.

According to reports in German daily Bild, Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FPD) is allegedly considering introducing a state fuel subsidy for car drivers.

The amount of the subsidy – which hasn’t yet been defined – would be deducted from a driver’s bill when paying at the petrol station. 

The operator of the petrol station would then have to submit the receipts to the tax authorities later in order to claim the money back. 

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, fuel prices have risen dramatically in Germany: diesel has gone up by around 66 cents per litre, while a litre of E10 has gone up by around 45 cents.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The everyday products getting more expensive in Germany

As well as support for consumers, the government is currently working on a credit assistance programme to assist German companies that have been hit hard by the EU sanctions against Russia.

As reported by Bild on Saturday, bridging aid is also being discussed for companies that can no longer manage the sharp rise in raw material prices.

In addition, an extension of the shorter working hours (Kurzarbeit) scheme beyond June 30th is allegedly being examined, as well as a further increase in the commuter allowance.

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