They call it the Energiewende—Germany’s dual “energy transition” away from nuclear power and toward renewable electricity sources. The Germans do have a way with euphemism: “Transition” is a polite word for what could really be called a revolution. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster of early 2011, Europe’s leading economic power, already a leader in switching its industrial base to solar and wind, took a leap in the dark; its government abandoned plans to continue depending on aging nuke facilities as a crutch for the experimental, intermittent new inputs to the grid. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her cabinet are sticking to their plan, and the German public is behind them. For now. Even though you’d think they would have learned that war on two fronts isn’t easy.
Wind-power advocates used to uphold Germany as the super-country of the future, and it still is, if you are in favour of wind generation for its own sake. The amount of German electric power supplied by wind is approaching 10 per cent of national demand, even as big North Sea projects meet with unexpected technical and environmental delays. The German government has guaranteed a high, fixed, long-term feed-in tariff for renewable energy projects, including wind turbines. That has encouraged an explosion of infrastructure, much of it from small firms and local co-operatives. If you’re a wind-power provider, especially a nerdy “small is beautiful” one, it’s a picture of paradise.
But the state, ever keen to preserve the country’s industrial might, protected big factories and raw-materials processors from the costs, and passed them directly to consumers. Ordinary Germans face the highest electricity prices in Europe, and they went up 20 per cent this fall. Germans, according to a blistering Aug. 26 cover story in Der Spiegel (it’s German for Maclean’s), will pay $27 billion just this year for electricity that would otherwise have a market price of $4 billion. The poorest citizens of the Federal Republic are seeing fixed incomes and welfare cheques devoured by the year-over-year price hikes, and hundreds of thousands are without power altogether.
If the goal is to get the lumpenproletariat to pay some attention to energy efficiency in the home, then an economist might count this as a feature rather than a flaw. It might be better for national welfare to get many thousands of average Germans to turn down the brightness on their computer screens than it is to stop work in a steel mill. The problem is that German greenhouse-gas emissions are increasing. They went up by 1.6 per cent in 2012, and the energy ministry admitted, “More coal was burned to generate electricity and more gas was used to heat homes.”
With domestic nuclear capacity dwindling by design, Germany is being forced to hang onto old, inefficient coal and gas plants, whose capital costs were paid up decades ago, to cover the inevitable gaps in wind production. And the grid regulator does not see that changing, certainly not between now and the final 2022 nuclear cutoff. If Der Spiegel is to be believed, old-line energy companies getting ready to mothball old fossil-fuel facilities have been getting panicky letters asking them to keep everything shipshape in order to address wind and solar production slowdowns.
There is an admirable Gordian-knot quality to the Energiewende, whose total costs are expected to exceed $1 trillion over time. (It is often compared in its economic scale to German reunification.) If nuclear power as we know it is destined to be politically unthinkable in the future, it is certainly in the spirit of environmental change to cover the costs and face the social difficulties now rather than handing them off to future generations.
But there are limits to selfless sacrifice. The Energiewende is predicated on a better-connected German grid, with new power lines whisking wind megawatts from the north coast to the southern industrial core. Yet NIMBY-type resistance to both new onshore wind turbines and to new transmission infrastructure seems to be growing: Everybody loves the idea of renewable energy, but nobody wants the stuff that comes with it to spoil the view from the local Schloss.
And this is to say nothing of the electrical interconnections with neighbours like Poland and the Czech Republic, who say that periodic German cross-border dumping of excess renewable power is messing with both their own grids and their domestic markets. European energy integration is already relatively poor, thanks to traditional political barriers. Making things even worse would be a major unintended consequence of the Germans’ iron determination to eliminate nukes and promote renewables at the same time.