Germany ahead on renewables

A nuclear power plant in Bohlen, Germany (photo: Trey Ratcliff)

David Toke explains how nuclear run-downs in the UK and Germany are not stopping electricity being decarbonised 

Even-handed analysis of data from Germany and the UK indicates that it is still easily possible to dramatically reduce carbon emissions whilst greatly reducing the amount of energy coming from nuclear power. The likely entry of the Greens into the German government later this year will accelerate the decarbonisation trend in Germany. 

One thing not usually appreciated in the arguments about the impact of nuclear power plant retirements in Germany is that in reality much the same process has occurred, for different reasons, in the UK. In both Germany and the UK, the falling proportion of electricity coming from nuclear power has gone along with dramatic reductions in carbon emissions from electricity in both countries. 

Peering through the fog of the current debate, one would almost think that ‘pro-nuclear’ UK was busy cutting its carbon emissions by increasing nuclear output whilst ‘anti-nuclear’ Germany was busy increasing them, or at least not reducing them, by its phase-out policy. Yet nothing of the sort has been happening. 

First, strong declines in nuclear’s share of electricity output this century have been occurring in both the UK and Germany. In 1997, Germany derived around 31% of its electricity from nuclear power, whilst the UK sourced around 27% from nuclear power. In 2019, nuclear’s share had fallen to 12% in the case of Germany and 17% in the UK (the older Magnox plant having been phased out in the early years of the century). Germany’s nuclear proportion is set to fall further as the phase-out policy is implemented. However, so is the UK’s nuclear proportion as generation from the AGR power plant winds down. Even as Hinkley C comes online (sometime after 2026?) the UK’s nuclear proportion of power seems likely to fall to around 9%. 

In the UK nuclear power has declined because of its weak economics and consistent failure to deliver the nuclear expansion supported by successive governments. In Germany the political consensus is about finding a different, sustainable, system that does not include nuclear power. 

The more rapid phase-out of nuclear in Germany compared to that of the UK has been paralleled by a bigger rapid build-up of renewables in Germany. Forty-four per cent of electricity came from renewables in Germany in 2019, whilst 37% came from renewables in the UK in the same year. We can see from this that the proportion of power generated from non-fossil sources in both countries is roughly the same. It is also the case that carbon emissions from electricity use in German have fallen by a third since 2013 – precisely at a time when nuclear power stations have been taken offline as a matter of political policy. 

Of course, the amount of carbon emitted per kWh of electricity in Germany is still substantially higher than it is in the UK, but that is attributable to the fact that Germany still burns a substantial amount of coal in its electricity generation. That’s a failing in German policy, but it is also fair to comment that the UK has been in a much better position to substitute natural gas for coal generation because the UK has access to relatively cheap North Sea gas, whilst Germany has to import gas at much higher prices, a lot of it from Russia. 

Both the cases of Germany and the UK knock on the head the pro-nuclear argument that increases in renewable energy cannot reduce carbon emissions without maintaining nuclear production. Clearly they can.  

Germany remains ahead of the UK in renewable energy deployment, despite the UK’s clear advantage in having much bigger offshore wind resources. Germany is working hard to make the most out of its own onshore resources by expanding opportunities for onshore wind and promoting community support for both wind and solar projects. Local communities will now receive extra income from allowing renewable energy projects.  

If, as seems probable, the Greens join the Federal Government later this year, the Nordstream 2 pipeline bringing gas from Russia will be stopped if it has not already been completed by then. Moreover, the drive towards renewable energy and energy efficiency will be enhanced. 

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