Chancellor Merkel, a trained physicist, reacted with horror to the hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima nuclear facility and in that instant went from pro-nuclear to anti-nuclear, from supporting extending the lives of the 17 German nuclear reactors to shutting them all down by 2022.
The Chancellor believed that a nuclear disaster of the scale of Fukushima in modern Japan meant that Germany too was at risk. Merkel ordered immediately the 7 oldest Germany reactors to be taken off line and now has decided that they will never reopen. The remaining 10 German reactors will be closed by 2022.
Germany is committed to replacing the nuclear reactors with renewable energy and getting 35% of its total electricity from wind, solar, biomass, and hydro sources. Offshore wind is likely to become a major source of power for Germany and its 4th biggest economy in the world.
What does all this mean for energy policy and development? Here are 5 thoughts:
1. 35% renewables is both a huge number and at the same time demonstrates the limits of how much power can come from renewables in a large economy even when the national government makes a major commitment. Renewable power with current technology can do a great deal. It is, can, and must expand. Renewables, however, cannot today provide all our power.
2. The German government has said ending nuclear power and moving to renewables will require more natural gas plants to provide back up power and insure reliability. Gas power plants can quickly produce electricity and shutdown. Gas plants are ideal to match with renewable power to provide reliable supply.
3. The next stage of renewable development--to go beyond 35% of total power--requires major breakthroughs in the large scale, cost-competitive energy storage systems.
4. The move from nuclear power in Germany will not reduce carbon emissions. In fact, it will lead to more global warming pollution than if the German government had not made this decision. Any one energy decision has multiple impacts. It is a domino that falls knocking over another domino. Some of the results are positive and some not.
5. World carbon emissions will not be stabilized below dangerous levels without major development of renewables, nuclear power, and electric vehicles powered by carbon free electricity. Fukushima is a major setback for nuclear power in Europe, in Japan but probably not in China or India.