Germany is the scene of some of the most vibrant and numerous anti-nuclear activities including protests of waste shipments and reactor relicensing. Although it is supposed to be phasing out nuclear plants, the Merkel government in 2010 agreed to modest license extensions for the country's 17 plants, prompting widespread protests.



Viewpoint: Why the rise in lignite use in Germany does not prove the Energiewende is failing

By Daniel Mittler, political director of Greenpeace International

Perceptions of the German energy transition (Energiewende) often lack a critical level of nuance in the UK. Every time I visit, I get asked “whether I still think the nuclear phase out is a good idea - as emissions are rising as a result”. And every time I point out that there is no connection, that saying that there is an overly simplistic interpretation, and well, not true.

And here we go again. In what it is indeed bad and appalling news reported last week, Germany´s use of lignite reached a 20-year high in 2013. The Financial Times covered these figures, but wrongly or misguidedly stated that “Ms Merkel's decision to phase out nuclear power has left a gap that only fossil fuels could fill quickly.”

It seems to be not only missing the point, but many points:

  • Renewables in Germany also continue to rise and play an ever more important role; 11.8% of primary energy or 25% of electricity consumption come from renewables.
  • Coal use as a whole is not increasing and rising efficiency means there is more energy generated per ton of coal – so the emissions of the power sector as a whole may even be declining (sadly, we don't have official numbers yet).
  • As no nuclear capacity was decommissioned in 2012 or 2013, the nuclear phase out clearly has nothing to do with the increased use of lignite (by the way, nor is any planned to be taken off the grid in 2014).
  • Germany has exported more electricity in 2013, so to claim that there was an energy “gap” that needed filling by fossil fuels is a fantasy

All of this does not make the rise of lignite any less bad. But to blame the Energiewende or the nuclear phase out for this rise is plain wrong. The real reasons are to be found in markets failures and close relationships between energy companies and politicians.

A significant factor is the failure of the European Emissions Trading System (ETS) and the resulting ridiculously low price of carbon, which is about 5 Euros a metric ton.

Also, lignite is being burnt in old plants. The investment costs of these plants have been recouped long ago and they can, as a result, make huge profits easily.

In an equally classic market failure, externalities are not reflected in energy prices, which means that the huge health costs of lignite, for example, are borne by society and the taxpayer, not the energy producers.

At a political level, the rise of lignite - and Germany´s continued reliance on coal overall - is a result of the fact that in Germany (much like the UK) a small number of huge energy firms control too much of the energy market and hold excessive power over politicians.

And it's that power dynamic across Europe that has resulted in an ETS that fails to make lignite - the most carbon intensive of all energy sources – uneconomic, as any policy instrument trying to limit carbon emissions surely should. Too many German politicians are in cahoots with the coal industry, which makes them shy away from the action needed to fix market failures or take additional regulatory measures - such as a law to phase out coal.

So Germany´s Energiewende is neither Nirvana nor to blame for everything that goes wrong. What it is is a contested and nuanced policy area. 

So instead of saying: “Look, the Energiewende is failing”, let's demand - in the UK as well as Germany - an end to the excessive power of the energy giants. Let's step up our efforts to fix the ETS, and work together to advance European-wide ways to speed up the uptake of renewables - a no brainer, given how fast installation costs are coming down. Are you in?

Daniel Mittler is the Political Director of Greenpeace International. He is German and lived in Edinburgh and London for most of the 1990s. He now lives in Berlin.


Germany joins elusive search for radioactive waste repository


The German parliament has passed a law which begins the formal procedure for a site to be found for a national repository for the country’s high-level radioactive waste.

After approval by the Bundestag, the law also passed the Bundesrat, which represents Germany’s 16 federal states at national level.

The law creates a 33-member commission to develop “basic principles” for site selection such as safety and economic requirements as well as selection criteria for rock formations.

The commission will consist of a chairperson, eight representatives from the Bundestag, eight from the Bundesrat, eight from academia, as well as two representatives each from civil society organisations of religious communities, industry, the environment and the trade unions. 

To ensure maximum transparency, their meetings will be open to the public.

The commission will recommend possible locations for a new high-level radioactive waste disposal site to the Bundestag, which will decide by 2031.

In order to conform to EU rules on the separation of operators and regulatory authorities, a new regulator – the Federal Office for Nuclear Waste Disposal – will be established next year. 

Germany’s government has decided to shut down all of the country’s 17 nuclear reactor units by 2022. Eight of those units remain offline following the March 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi accident. Nine are still in commercial operation.


Germany's energy revolution in the hands of ordinary citizens

51% of the renewable energy on the German grid is put there by individuals (like us) and farmers. Individuals and private investors are contributing the equivalent generation capacity in renewables of20 nuclear power plants. None of it is state owned. More than one million Germans are involved as energy producers or investors in renewable energy production. According to Germany's environment ministry, "New ownership models such as citizens’ wind parks and energy cooperatives show that the Energiewende cannot only bring about environmental protection and economic growth, but also decentralized production structures in the hands of local initiatives.


Angst or Arithmetic? Why Germans are so skeptical about nuclear energy

The first in a six-part series from the HeinrichBöll Foundation, deals with the roots of nuclear energy's unpopularity in Germany. It begins:

"The fact that Germany, in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, redoubled its efforts to phase out nuclear energy has nothing to do with hysteria or postwar angst. on the contrary, a majority of Germans, including much of the political class, has been unconvinced of its merits since the early 1980s; the source of this anti- atom consensus lies not in emotional populism but rather in the persuasive, fact- based arguments of a powerful, grassroots social movement that has long included nuclear physicists and other bona fide experts." By Paul Hockenos. Read the full report here.

This paper is part one of a six-part series on the German Energy Transition. The authors are experts on different issues such as renewable energies, rural communities, social movements, and nuclear power.  


Two major German firms pull out of UK nuclear programs

Two giant German firms, E.On and RWE, are to pull out of building new nuclear power stations in the UK. It's the first fallout from the Japanese Fukushima disaster to hit Britain's nuclear industry, reports Channel 4 news. The joint venture run by the two firms, Horizon, was planning to build new nuclear plants at Wylfa on Anglesey, and Oldbury-on-Severn in Gloucestershire. The companies blamed the scarcity of capital in an economic crisis, the ‘significant ongoing costs’, and the fact that their home country has turned its back on nuclear power.