By Melissa Eddy, The New York Times, July 12, 2015
|Nuclear plant at Granfenheinfeld, Germany|
GRAFENRHEINFELD, Germany — In one of this country’s most popular novels for young readers, the nuclear reactor on the edge of this Bavarian town melts down, spewing a radioactive cloud that threatens all of Germany and robs a 14-year-old girl of her family and her hope for the future.
Last month, that nuclear power plant in Grafenrheinfeld, responsible for meeting the energy needs of industry-heavy Bavaria since 1981, came to a less dramatic but equally symbolic end. The plant became the first active reactor to be decommissioned since 2011, following Chancellor Angela Merkel’s about-face on nuclear power after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant catastrophe in Japan.
Taking Grafenrheinfeld offline is a milestone in Germany’s push to establish a nuclear-free energy system by 2022, but also one made possible by its determination to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2020. The plant can be closed because it has already been replaced by alternative energy sources like solar and wind.
But while Germany has made substantial progress in its energy transformation policy, its aspiration is being put to the test by new political, technological and economic challenges as it moves into the next phase of the effort.
How it deals with the obstacles could go a long way in determining whether the country becomes a model for moving toward a reduced- or even post-carbon economy.
“The exit is taking place at a pace that is breathtaking, even for those of us who were always for it, and the transition to a decarbonized economy is not without great challenges that only come at a price,” Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s minister for energy and the economy, told industry leaders last month.
Current projections indicate that Germany needs to speed up the pace of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions if it wants to meet its 2020 goals.
Shifts in the energy market, including the persistently high price of natural gas in Europe and economic and political disincentives to move away from coal, have resulted in higher emissions than originally predicted. Europe’s failure to set up an effective carbon market that would encourage emission reductions has also contributed.
At the same time, under political pressure, the government was forced to back down from a proposal to impose fees on the oldest, and dirtiest, power plants, to encourage their phaseout.
Yet Grafenrheinfeld is a good example of how Germany’s efforts have already transformed its energy picture.
The plant, nestled in the Main River valley, generated roughly 14 percent of the electricity for the state of Bavaria, home to companies including Siemens and the carmakers BMW and Audi, as well as nearly six million households.
But now renewable energy sources, predominantly solar and hydro power, contribute electricity roughly equivalent to that produced by the nuclear plant, and officials said they were confident that was sufficient to maintain stability on the electricity grid.
“We have made substantial progress with expansion of renewable energy in Bavaria, to the extent we will be able to cover most of the capacity lost through renewables,” Ilse Aigner, Bavaria’s minister for energy and the economy, said before the plant was taken offline.
Even greater progress has been made across Germany. Renewable energy sources accounted for 26 percent of its gross electricity production last year, double the 13 percent of the United States but lagging neighboring Denmark, which is generating more than 30 percent of its electricity through wind power alone.
Even in the town of Grafenrheinfeld, solar panels glint from the roofs of homes and that of the local horseback riding club’s indoor arena, as distinct a part of the skyline as the bulbous church spires and the reactor’s twin cooling towers.
The expansion of alternative energy has led to a decline in the price of raw power, rendering nuclear power plants like the one in Grafenrheinfeld, once the cash cows of the energy industry, unprofitable. The Grafenrheinfeld plant was not scheduled to be shut until December, but E.On, the utility that owns it, decommissioned the reactor ahead of schedule to save on costs.
Still, the most recent projections show Germany will need to cut an additional 22 million metric tons of carbon emissions within the next five years if it is to meet its targets. Germany’s energy ministry in December proposed closing the gap by imposing penalties on the oldest lignite coal-fired power plants that are the prime emitters.
In response, 15,000 miners traveled in buses to the German capital in late April, blowing whistles and waving banners to denounce the proposal, which union leaders said would mean a loss of thousands of jobs.
Officials in Berlin recently adopted an alternative, drawn up in consensus with unions and industry leaders. Instead of being required to cover the full gap of 22 metric tons, the industry will be expected to reduce carbon emissions by about half that.
The difference is to be made up largely through subsidies to improve efficiency in heating generation and consumption, which could prove more costly to consumers.
The alternative plan comes as Germany looks to the next chapter of its emissions reduction program: cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 55 percent of 1990 levels by 2030, while at the same time increasing renewable sources to about 50 percent of energy production.
“We are now headed into a more challenging phase of the energy transition,” said Patrick Graichen, who heads Agora Energiewende, a research center in Berlin devoted to explaining the energy transition program. “Reaching the first 25 percent went swiftly, as they were largely absorbed by the existing system. But now reaching the 50 percent mark will mean transforming the system.”
Shutting the nuclear plants, which do not emit carbon but have other risks, would seem to be contradictory at such a time. Ms. Merkel surprised many in 2012 when she reversed an earlier policy, announcing the immediate closing of eight nuclear power plants and plans to shutter the remaining nine by 2022.
But Ms. Merkel faced political pressure on that front as well — powerfully illustrated in Gudrun Pausewang’s 1987 best seller “The Cloud,” read by generations of German high school students. Its depiction of a catastrophic meltdown helped raise public support for alternative energy sources.
Gaby Gehrold, who lives five miles away in Schweinfurt, was one of thousands of demonstrators who had sought an end to nuclear power.
“I think that we have set an example that we are serious about the energy transformation and our desire to see it continue, to ensure that all nuclear reactors need to be shut off,” she said.
Not everyone feels that way. Gerhard Riegler, a self-described “dyed-in-the-wool” Grafenrheinfelder who has worked at the reactor since its beginning, said the closing means a loss of jobs and tax revenue, but most of all a loss of pride.
“It is like having a car that for years you have cleaned and maintained and kept in running condition, but suddenly someone comes along and says you have to get rid of it. Just like that,” said Mr. Riegler, who is also the town’s deputy mayor. “It hurts.”
Every part of the country’s energy transition has had winners and losers. Yet while Germans have seen electricity prices rise to finance renewable sources — a three-person household now pays 29.13 euro cents per kilowatt-hour, including a renewable-energy surcharge of 6.17 euro cents — they have expressed deep and lasting support for the change.
In an October 2014 nationwide survey by TNS Emnid for the Agency for Renewable Energies, 92 percent of Germans said they supported the expansion of renewable energy sources.
“In Germany we are now seeing the brakes put on, out of a need to protect coal, as they used to protect nuclear,” said Hans-Josef Fell, a former lawmaker for the Green Party who fought Grafenrheinfeld from its start, but has now shifted his attention to fighting efforts to restrict the expansion of wind farms in Bavaria. “That will continue for a bit, but not for much longer. It is not sustainable for much longer.”