Germany’s Green Energy Bust

Energiewende by the Numbers


Germany was the great green hope, promising to dispel the aura of impractical utopianism surrounding the renewable energy project by implementing it with fabled Prussian efficiency. Yet, instead of vindicating renewable energy, the mounting evidence from the German experiment spotlights its limitations: high costs, low and unreliable productivity, intractable problems with grid integration, a reliance on subsidies that impose bizarre and counterproductive distortions on energy markets, and an unbreakable dependency on the fossil fuels it is supposed to displace.

July 30, 2013 | Will Boisvert,

Through much of 2012, the Energiewende, Germany’s pioneering effort to construct an energy system around renewables while simultaneously phasing out nuclear power and cutting carbon emissions, was on a roll. Plunging prices and eye-popping production figures for wind and solar power seemed to fulfill all the visionary prognostications. Germany shrugged off the shuttering of nearly half its nuclear plants without a backward glance: not only did it not suffer the predicted power shortages, it boosted electricity exports. Renewable power pushed market prices down and threatened to drive gas- and coal-burning power plants into bankruptcy. The press and the green blogosphere celebrated passed benchmark after shattered milepost, including the day in May when, according to’s headline, “Half of Germany Was Running on Solar Power.”

But statistics on Germany’s electricity sector for the whole of 2012 are now in, and when you look beyond the cherry-picked hype, the results are dismal and disquieting. Despite massive construction of new capacity, electricity output from renewables, especially from wind and solar, grew at a sluggish rate. Germany is indeed avoiding blackouts—by opening new coal- and gas-fired plants. Renewable electricity is proving so unreliable and chaotic that it is starting to undermine the stability of the European grid and provoke international incidents. The spiraling cost of the renewables surge has sparked a backlash, including government proposals to slash subsidies and deployment rates. Worst of all, the Energiewende made no progress at all in clearing the German grid of fossil fuels or abating greenhouse emissions—nor is it likely to for at least a decade longer.

Germany has become the great green hope, promising to dispel the aura of impractical utopianism surrounding the renewable energy project by implementing it with fabled Prussian efficiency. And the Energiewende is doing so while repudiating nuclear power, the low-carbon cure for global warming that most supporters of renewable energy consider even worse than the disease. That adds a seemingly unanswerable pragmatic argument to anti-nuclear power advocates’ usual claims of apocalyptic danger: no need to build risky, expensive nuclear power plants when Germany’s example shows that renewables can do the job better.

I will focus here on that pragmatic argument, but first let me note that this argument is crucial to the case for a non-nuclear approach to carbon abatement precisely because claims about the unusual dangers of nuclear power are so weak. Indeed, the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident of 2011 has shown those risks to be more mythical than real. Contrary to panicked forecasts, the emerging scientific consensus is that the health effects of the Fukushima meltdowns will be modest to nil. The World Health Organization’s recent report estimates that, among the most radiologically vulnerable of the few thousand people who received the highest doses, about 1.2 percent will develop cancer over a lifetime from Fukushima radiation. (Normally about 35 percent of Japanese will get cancer at some point in their lives.) Total casualties will therefore be few. At the high end, Princeton physicist Frank von Hippel, writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, reckons an eventual one thousand fatal cancers arising from the accident. A peer-reviewed study by Stanford’s Mark Z. Jacobson, a renewables advocate, and John Ten Hoeve calculates a likely toll of just 130 fatal cancers in the whole world, with a low estimate of 15 to a high of 1,100. (Remarkably, Jacobson and Ten Hoeve’s model assumes no evacuations from the plant’s surroundings; in fact, they estimate that the evacuations themselves killed more people than the radiation would have.) While sensationalist media accounts portrayed the emergency response at the plant as a suicide mission, risks for Fukushima Daiichi workers were also tiny: the WHO report estimates that, among the 23,000 workers assigned to the plant after the tsunami, 51 may get cancer at some point in their lives because of the radiation exposure. All these casualty figures are calculated using the linear no-threshold model—the “no safe dose” theory of radiation risk—but they are really conjectural: the numbers are so low that in epidemiological studies they will probably not be discernible against the normal background incidence of cancer. Empirically speaking, the health effects of the Fukushima radiation will be too small to measure.

Moreover, these minuscule effects are dwarfed by the health benefits of replacing coal- and gas-fired power plants with nuclear reactors. Air pollution from fossil-fueled plants kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, orders of magnitude more than the worst once-a-generation nuclear accidents. An excellent case can be made for building nuclear power plants solely on the grounds of improving air quality, quite apart from their usefulness in abating greenhouse gases. A new study in Environmental Science and Technology, co-authored by NASA climate scientist James Hansen, estimates that commercial nuclear power plants have saved a net total of 1.8 million lives over the last few decades by reducing pollution, and could save a further 420,000 to seven million lives by mid-century depending on the mix of coal- and gas-fired generation they displace. Alarm over the immeasurably small risks of nuclear accidents thus get the cost-benefit equation of nuclear power backward.

So the choice between nuclear power and renewables should hinge less on safety anxieties than on logistics, costs, and deployment rates. Many believe that the Energiewende shows that the economics and the practicalities of renewables are self-evidently superior. Yet instead of vindicating renewable energy, the mounting evidence from the German experiment spotlights its limitations: high costs, low and unreliable productivity, intractable problems with grid integration, a reliance on subsidies that impose bizarre and counterproductive distortions on energy markets, and an unbreakable dependency on the fossil fuels it is supposed to displace. Most of all, the Energiewende raises grave doubts about the wisdom of banishing nuclear power if we are serious about cleaning up our energy supply.

Energiewende by the Numbers

First, let’s take a statistical tour of the German electricity sector in 2012, one that reveals the poor performance and intrinsic shortcomings of the most popular renewable technologies. (Most of these figures come from Germany’s BdeW utility consortium, an industry source that gathers data from all of Germany’s electric utilities, here and here.)

Renewable power is growing, but too slowly to take up the slack from nuclear shutdowns and also reduce fossil-fueled generation. The portion of German electricity generated by renewables rose from 20.3 percent in 2011 to 21.9 percent in 2012. Unfortunately, that was largely offset by a drop in nuclear’s share of generation due to the post-Fukushima shutdowns of reactors, from 17.7 percent in 2011 to 16.1 percent in 2012. Fossil-fueled generation edged up from 352 to 356 terawatt-hours (trillion watt-hours, TWh) and its share of total electricity production barely budged: 57. 8 percent in 2011 compared to 57.6 percent in 2012.

Worse, that fossil-fueled electricity got dirtier because of the “merit-order effect”: renewable power preferentially displaces expensive natural gas from the grid rather than cheaper coal. Natural gas–fired generation decreased, but coal-fired plants, which generate more pollution and greenhouse gases, increased their output by 14.5 TWh—more than the increase in renewable generation—and coal’s share of electricity production rose from 43.1 percent to 44.7 percent. Germany’s greenhouse emissions therefore rose 1.6 percent in 2012, the increase mostly coming from CO2 emissions by coal-burning power plants—up 3.4 percent for anthracite and 5.1 percent for lignite.

Wind and solar are doing even worse. Wind turbines and solar panels get all the press, but half the 2012 rise in renewable generation came from less glamorous and sustainable sources—hydro, biomass, and trash incinerators, which together contributed 9.9 percent of Germany’s electricity. These are more reliable technologies than wind and solar, but they won’t increase much: Germany has maxed out its suitable sites for hydro power, and large-scale biomass burning would level its forests and cripple food production. The Energiewende, therefore, relies on wind and solar to meet its ambitious targets—and is duly racking up huge increases in nameplate capacity. (“Nameplate capacity” or “nameplate power” is the maximum power a generator produces under ideal conditions—perfect winds, cloudless noon, fully stoked boiler.)

On paper the buildup of wind and solar looks colossal. In 2012 Germany built 7.6 gigawatts (GW, or one billion watts) of photovoltaic nameplate capacity and 2.4 GW of wind. Added to existing capacity, that brought total German wind and solar nameplate power to about 32 GW each at the end of 2012. Since it came online gradually, figure the average nameplate power in 2012 at about 30 GW of wind and 29 GW of solar—an enormous amount of capacity.

Unfortunately, the nameplate capacity trumpeted in the media is a drastically misleading measure of the electricity added to the grid. While wind and solar nameplate capacity represented 84 percent of Germany’s average electric power generation of 70.4 GW, it ultimately generated only 11.9 percent of total electricity (up from 11.2 percent in 2011). There are simple reasons for that discrepancy: night, cloud, and calm. The output of wind and solar generators varies wildly with weather and the time of day; during most hours they produce a small fraction of their nameplate power—or nothing at all.

The standard measure of that shortfall in electricity production compared to nameplate capacity is the “capacity factor”: the amount of electricity a generator produces in a year divided by the amount it would produce if it ran at nameplate capacity for all 8,760 hours. In 2012, German solar electricity production rose to 28 TWh from the 2011 figure of 19.3 TWh. But those solar panels would have produced 254 TWh had they run at full power for all 8,760 hours in the year, so they had a capacity factor of just 11 percent. Production from wind power, despite all the new turbines, actually declined to 46 TWh from the 2011 figure of 48.9 TWh. (Sun and wind anti-correlate, so the solar surge came at the expense of wind.) That puts the capacity factor of German wind at 17 percent. By comparison, fossil-fueled plants can achieve capacity factors of 80 percent or more. And electricity production from Germany’s 12 GW of nuclear capacity in 2012 was 99 TWh, a capacity factor of 94 percent. Even though Germany’s nuclear nameplate capacity was just one-fifth the size of its solar and wind nameplate capacity, those few nuclear gigawatts produced 35 percent more watt-hours of electricity than did all the wind and solar generators put together.

To get a more realistic picture of the renewables build-out, we need to think in terms of “average capacity”—the nameplate capacity multiplied by the capacity factor. By that metric, the 10 GW of wind and solar nameplate capacity added in 2012 really amounted to a measly 1.24 GW of average capacity. Compare that with the average capacity of, say, the Brokdorf nuclear reactor, whose 1.37 GW nameplate capacity would have an average capacity of 1.28 GW, generating as much carbon-free electricity as all the wind turbines and solar panels commissioned in 2012. At the current installation rate, it would take the wind and solar generator fleets some sixteen years to muster enough new average capacity to replace the 20.3 GW of Germany’s 2010 nuclear fleet—with nothing to spare for the displacement of fossil-fueled electricity in the meantime.

Because of the terrible performance of solar and onshore wind, Germany plans to build offshore wind turbines, which could have twice the capacity factor of onshore turbines (at twice the cost). Angela Merkel’s government has targeted 10 GW of offshore wind by 2020, according to Reuters. But assuming very optimistic capacity factors of 40 percent for offshore turbines—which would be higher than the average capacity factors in Britain and Denmark, the only countries with appreciable offshore windthat 10 GW would represent average capacity of just 4 GW, less than a quarter of the 2010 nuclear capacity that will be shut down by 2022.

The Energiewende is building as much coal and gas capacity as it is wind and solar capacity—more, in fact, by the proper metric of average capacity. In 2012 Germany commissioned new coal-fired generators with combined nameplate power of 2.9 GW, which can run at capacity factors of 80 percent or better. That’s an average capacity of perhaps 2.3 GW—nearly twice as much as all the solar and wind power added in 2012. According to utility consortium BdeW, another 4.6 GW of coal power will come on line this year. Of a planned 42.5 GW of major power plants to be built by 2020, including offshore wind, pumped storage, hydro, and biomass, fully two-thirds—28.5 GW—will be new coal and gas generators. Taking into account their high capacity factors, in 2020 these new fossil-fueled plants will have more average capacity than all of Germany’s wind and solar generators combined. Partly they will replace older, dirtier coal plants, but there will be an overall expansion; a study by the German Energy Agency forecasts a net rise in coal and gas capacity from 76 GW in 2010 to 83 GW in 2030.

If the point is to eliminate greenhouse gases, why is the Energiewende turning to fossil fuels? The reason is that, in a crucial respect, wind and solar can never fully replace nuclear power, because they can’t equal the reliability of nuclear reactors. The main job of the new fossil-fueled plants is not to retire grungy old coal boilers, but to replace nukes with grungy new coal boilers. To see why, we have to consider the distinction between dispatchable and intermittent generators.

So far we’ve looked at aggregate generation—the total amount of electricity churned out during a whole year. But aggregate generation doesn’t cut it when it comes to electricity. To avoid blackouts and overloads, the grid has to match generation with consumption on a moment-to-moment basis, not on a yearly basis. Since it’s difficult and expensive to store electricity on a significant scale, the grid can’t bank much excess electricity production to draw on later during shortfalls; it has to reliably produce all the power demanded each moment, largely from generators then on line.

That’s an easy task with so-called “dispatchable” generators—nuclear, coal, gas, hydro, and biomass—that can ramp up and down on command to match their power output with current electricity demand. Unfortunately, wind turbines and photovoltaic panels can’t do that. They generate power when the wind and sun decree, often going dead when electricity is needed and then overproducing when it isn’t. These “intermittent” generators result in “common-mode failure”: night, winter, summer, and passing weather fronts cause swathes of generators to fizzle all at once, for weeks on end, on a continental and even hemispheric scale. Grid managers dread that kind of catastrophic unreliability, but it’s a daily reality for wind and solar.

Stats from the pro-renewables Fraunhofer Institute show how dire those common-mode failures can get. Had they been running constantly at nameplate capacity, solar and wind would have produced from 9 to 10.5 TWh each week. But during six separate weeks in 2012 they produced less than 9 percent of that nameplate generation for the entire week, and less than 7 percent during three of those weeks. During week 46, November 12 to 18, all the wind turbines and solar panels in Germany together produced just 0.51 TWh, generating a mere 3 GW of power on average out of their 63 GW of nameplate capacity—a weeklong capacity factor of just 4.8 percent. And these weekly aggregates leave out many two- and three-day periods when wind and solar slumped even further, generating essentially no electricity at all.

These numbers raise a sobering question: how will a Germany run largely on wind and solar generators survive the long periods when they shut down completely in the dead of winter?

Overbuilding capacity won’t solve the problem. To generate its total yearly electricity consumption of 594 TWh, Germany would need about 484 GW of wind and solar nameplate capacity, almost eight times as much as it has now. But even this gargantuan over-capacity would have been insufficient during that moribund week 46, when it would have produced just 34 percent of Germany’s 68 GW or so of electric-power demand. And capacity expansion runs into a wall of diminishing returns: as Germany builds über-redundant wind and solar capacity to cover common-mode slumps, more and more electricity will be wasted during common-mode surges of overproduction; construction and overhead costs per usable kilowatt-hour will therefore skyrocket. Dispatchable renewables won’t help much because they don’t go to scale: hydro and geothermal capacity will max out at about 5 GW each, biomass at perhaps 8 GW. Nor will storage save the day. Germany has about 5 GW of pumped-hydro storage stations, maybe rising to 10 GW over the next few decades, but even generating at full power their small reservoirs would run dry in a day at most. If nuclear is out of the picture, that leaves only dispatchable coal- and gas-fired generators to bridge the gap when wind and solar collapse.

To escape long blackouts many times a year, Germany is planning to back up every gigawatt of wind and solar average capacity with another gigawatt of gas or coal. As it builds its intermittent fleet it will not be able to shut down existing fossil-fueled plants; they will remain in service, complete with staff, maintenance, and overhead expenses and the infrastructure of transmission lines, coal mines, and gas pipelines. And because the dispatchable nuclear generators that could have backed up wind and solar are being shuttered, additional coal and gas plants must be built to take their place—as we see happening now. Those coal and gas plants will emit large quantities of greenhouse gases even when idling in standby mode. And because that dispatchable fleet is both necessary and sufficient, the expense of a redundant wind and solar fleet running on top of it is pure waste from an economic standpoint. That’s one reason why wind and solar are the highest-cost options available for generating power.

The real decision we face isn’t whether to choose wind and solar over nuclear and coal, but rather which kind of dispatchable generator fleet to build. Should we build a largely fossil-fueled dispatchable fleet whose greenhouse emissions are then slowly and only partially abated by adding in wind and solar? Or should we build a low-carbon dispatchable fleet of hydro, geothermal, and, mainly, nuclear—a generator fleet that can eliminate greenhouse emissions without the expense of a “second grid” of wind and solar? The Energiewende has chosen the first option, locking Germany into a perpetual dependence on fossil fuels.

Things won’t get better for a long, long time. If Germany keeps up with the 2012 pace—a big “if”—it will meet its current target of raising the renewable share of electricity production to 35 percent by 2020. Yet the really important target isn’t the share of renewables on the grid but the share of “low-carbon” generation—both renewable and nuclear generation. By that metric, Germany will be at a standstill for quite some time.

At the planned and current rate of expansion, when the last German nuclear plants shut down in 2022, renewables will be generating about 38 percent of the electricity; with no more nukes in operation, that will be the total share of low-carbon electricity. But that’s almost exactly the same share of low-carbon electricity Germany produced in 2010, when the share was 38.8 percent—22.4 percent nuclear and 16.4 percent renewable. The next ten years will be a lost decade for German decarbonization efforts. Meanwhile, Germany’s coal and gas plants will spew as much pollution, methane, and carbon dioxide as ever.

But the German policy of favoring renewables over nuclear has been in effect for thirteen years now, so it’s more like a lost generation. In 1999, a peak year for nuclear power, the low-carbon share of electricity was 36 percent, with nuclear contributing 31 percent. Thus, during a twenty-three-year period of shuttering nukes and subsidizing renewables, from 1999 to 2022, Germany will have managed to decarbonize all of 2 additional percentage points of its electricity. The 2030 target is 50 percent low-carbon electricity (all renewables), an improvement of just 14 percent over the 1999 figure.

Cost of Renewable Electricity

Despite declining relative costs for wind and solar generators, the electricity they produce is still much more expensive than fossil-fueled and nuclear power. The German government therefore supports renewables with a web of subsidies and preferments designed to entice businesses and households to invest in them. The main subsidy is the feed-in tariff (FIT), which gives guarantees for renewable electricity at above-market-rate prices. The FITs generally last twenty years and are assessed according to a complex rate schedule. Onshore wind is currently guaranteed at least €89.3 per megawatt-hour (MWh) for the first five years of operation, after which the tariff resets to about €49, a little above market rate. Offshore wind will get €150 per MWh for the first twelve years before a downward reset, with long extensions if the facility is located more than twelve miles from shore or where water is at least twenty meters deep. Photovoltaic solar gets roughly €120-180 per MWh, depending on the size of the rig, for a full twenty years.

The tariffs are funded by a “renewable energy surcharge” added to electricity bills. A utility will pay a FIT of, say, €180 for a megawatt-hour of solar power; it will then sell that electricity on the wholesale market for perhaps €45 and charge the difference to the renewables surcharge. (Some energy-intensive businesses are exempted from most of the surcharge.) The tariff-surcharge mechanism seemed unobtrusive and benign when renewables were a sliver of electricity production, but swelling bolts of pricey wind and solar electricity have turned it into a Frankenstein’s monster. The FITs will cost €20.4 billion this year, according to the Financial Times, and to fund that the 2013 surcharge jumped 47 percent to 5.3 euro-cents per kilowatt-hour. The surcharge alone is 60 percent of the average total U.S. residential electricity rate.

The exploding subsidies have stirred political opposition and moves to retrench. Merkel’s environment minister, Peter Altmaier, has put forward a plan to cap surcharge hikes at 2.5 percent per year, while expanding their base by removing business exemptions. Der Spiegel has reported that he also wants to levy a new tax on renewable electricity itself (including rooftop solar for home use), reduce or eliminate FIT schedules entirely for some new renewable installations, and occasionally delay or suspend FIT payments.

The renewables industry and the Social Democratic-Green opposition have denounced Altmaier’s proposals, saying they will cripple investment in the sector. And indeed, that’s the idea—to hold back the renewables build-out that’s pumping up subsidies to insupportable levels (and out-running transmission capacity). New government targets cut the rate of photovoltaic installation in half to 2.5 to 3.5 GW per year (just a third of a gigawatt per year of average capacity.) Feed-in-tariffs for new solar are to end entirely after a total of 52 GW nameplate capacity has been installed, which will enlarge solar capacity by just 2 additional gigawatts of average capacity.

A bit schizophrenically, Altmaier also said recently that he wants to raise the renewables target to 40 percent of electricity production by 2020. Unfortunately, his new program of caps, cuts, and slowdowns make even the current 35 percent target look iffy. The current €20.4 billion yearly renewable surcharge is largely needed just to pay FITs already grandfathered in for existing generators. Enlarging the surcharge base by ending business exemptions can increase the revenue stream somewhat, but Germany’s almighty export sector will fight those rate hikes. (High electricity prices and spreading power outages that damage industrial machinery are prompting German manufacturers to shift production elsewhere.) Additional huge infrastructure expenses will have to be added into general electricity rates, including €20 billion to pay for new power lines to offshore wind farms by 2020. Subsidy cuts have been blocked in the Bundesrat by the Greens and Social Democrats and will stay blocked at least until the September election. But if they go through—and it’s hard to see how they can be avoided—they will likely burst Germany’s green-investment bubble and bring the Energiewende to a screeching halt.

Renewable Riches?

Even as the Energiewende staggers under exorbitant costs, renewables boosters tout its success in lowering electricity prices. The strange truth is, they’re not wrong. Tides of wind and solar electricity are forcing down prices on European wholesale markets and eroding the profits of conventional plants. French business leaders have complained about the competitive advantage their German rivals get because their renewable power is now cheaper than France’s nuclear electricity.

Is renewable power winning a price war with Big Fossil and Nuclear? Not really. Germany’s feed-in tariffs disguise the fact that intermittent wind and solar power isn’t cheap at all—although it is often worthless. German grid operators are legally required to buy all the electricity wind turbines and solar panels produce, demand or no demand, at prices far above market rates. Having bought it, they then have to get rid of it, because an excess of electricity supply will crash the grid. So they dump it on the wholesale electricity market at bargain-basement rates. Midday solar dumps in sunny weather particularly eat into the profits of conventional plants by pushing down prices during times of elevated demand.

These subsidies and market distortions do not yield a systemic lowering of electricity costs. They are simply transfers from German households that drastically overpay on surcharges to renewable generators—and to electricity-hogging industries that are exempt from surcharges but benefit from lower wholesale electricity prices when wind and solar flood the market. Also benefiting are foreigners who buy German electricity and energy-intensive products. Germany’s subsidized electricity exports jumped from 6 TWh in 2011 to 23 TWh in 2012. Eventually someone will bring a World Trade Organization anti-dumping case against the Energiewende; Poland and the Czech Republic are already threatening to block transmission from Germany to prevent wind power surges from crashing their grids.

Although renewables subsidies may wreck the margins of conventional power plants, they won’t necessarily cut emissions. Utilities don’t like to make way for intermittent renewable surges by turning off coal, nuclear, and combined-cycle gas plants; firing up the boilers after a shut-down takes time and wastes fuel and money, and they will need those generators back on line, quickly, when wind and solar cut out. To cope with the oversupply during surges, increasingly they are resorting to “negative pricing”—which simply means that utilities pay customers to waste renewable electricity instead of using it to abate greenhouse gases. And as subsidized and even “negative” renewables prices push conventional plants into the red, the subsidy regime will need to expand to embrace fossil fuels, the necessary back-up for intermittent generators in the absence of nuclear. “Capacity markets” that pay fossil-fueled plants to remain on standby are now being debated in Germany and France.

The Energiewende will come to this: corporate welfare for coal-burners in the name of clean energy.

The Alternative to Alternative Energy

Germany is phasing out its nuclear power plants because of safety concerns and is unlikely to reverse course anytime soon. And the nuclear renaissance has bogged down in the rest of the West, too, with massive delays and cost overruns on every new reactor. The obstacles are many: first-of-a-kind costs for new models; the rustiness of an atrophied construction industry and supply chain; neoliberal electricity markets and financing mechanisms that favor natural gas over everything; strangling red tape. Acknowledging all these problems, let’s do a thought experiment: how much low-carbon energy could Germany get by 2030 if it diverted its renewables surcharge into a nuclear Energiewende?

For this exercise I’ll use as a cost model the poster-child of nuclear boondoggles: the French Evolutionary Pressurized Reactor project at Flamanville. Now limping toward a 2016 finish line, the reactor is four years behind schedule and, at €8.5 billion, more than twice over budget. For revenue I’ll assume that a nuclear Energiewende can spend no more than the €20.4 billion per year that the 2013 renewable surcharge will bring in (only a portion of the funds slated for renewables). I’ll also assume that Germany uses as much power in 2030 as it does now, although targets call for trimming electricity consumption. Finally, I’ll insist on the obvious—turning all of Germany’s 2010 reactors back on and leaving them on.

Given these parameters, let’s see what a nuclear Energiewende could accomplish by 2030, with a total budget of €367 billion (€20.4 a year for eighteen years). At €8.5 billion a pop, Germany could buy forty-three EPRs, each with a nameplate capacity of 1.65 GW. Add the 20.3 GW Germany had in 2010 and that’s 91 GW of low-carbon nuclear power. Let’s assume a nuclear capacity factor of 75 percent. (Why so low? Because they will “load-follow”—raise and lower their output to follow electricity demand—instead of running at maximum power 24/7 in “baseload” as they do now.) That’s an average capacity of 68 GW, exactly equal to Germany’s average power consumption in 2012 (based on total consumption of 594 TWh), and a peak capacity of 91 GW, a comfortable margin over the peak electricity demand of 82 GW.

In other words, a dispatchable nuclear grid could supply all of Germany’s electricity in 2030, not just the 50 percent target for renewables in the Energiewende. By comparison, Altmaier’s latest prediction estimates a price tag for renewables of €1 trillion by the end of the 2030s, for a grid that would still be roughly 35 percent fossil-fueled. A nuclear build-out could completely decarbonize the German grid by 2030 at less than one-third the cost of a renewables Energiewende that would still produce massive greenhouse emissions.

Wind and solar have lower nameplate prices than nuclear, but they seem cheap only if we ignore capacity factors and don’t count the systemic costs of chaotic intermittency: redundant transmission lines strung in from deserts, prairies, and oceans; redundant pumped-hydro storage stations; dispatchable generators to balance the intermittency; end users who have to rearrange their electricity consumption around “demand management” schemes geared to the whims of the weather; grid operators who graciously serve as buyers of last resort for surplus renewable electricity and then dump it on Poland or pay people to waste it. Nuclear power plants, by contrast, generate a prodigious amount of electricity per gigawatt of capacity and stabilize the grid rather than imposing fickleness costs. With nuclear power, there’s no need to build redundant capacity, storage, and transmission; subsidize back-up coal plants; or annoy the public with electricity-rationing meters.

The nuclear build-out I outline above would be ambitious. (The worst bottleneck would be training a skilled work force.) On the other hand, the economies of scale from a systematic deployment would substantially lower costs. China is building two EPRs at Taishan; the first is due to start up next year after a five-year build, at half the cost of the Flamanville reactor. If Germany managed to crank out EPRs on China’s timetable, it could save immensely on unit costs and build many more nuclear plants for the money than I estimated.

And thanks to the example of France, we know these goals can be met. During the twenty years after its decision in 1974 to decarbonize its grid, France managed to convert 90 percent of its electricity generation to low-carbon nuclear—about 80 percent—and hydro. Germany is bravely planning to hit 80 percent low-carbon electricity by 2050.

Unfortunately, France is now following Germany’s lead on energy policy under a Socialist Party that has forgotten its own stewardship of the nuclear project and caved to its Green coalition partners. François Hollande’s government intends to cut nuclear’s share of electricity production to 50 percent in 2025, according to Businessweek, by shuttering reactors and canceling new builds, while increasing renewables’ share from their present 16 percent to 23 percent in 2020. If renewables reach 30 percent by 2025, then in that year France will be generating 80 percent of its electricity from low-carbon sources; its current share is 91 percent. So rather than making more progress in decarbonizing France’s energy supply, Hollande’s proposals take a long stride backward. They will also raise electricity prices, damage the economy, and exacerbate austerity policies by diverting funds away from social spending. Unions at the Fessenheim nuclear plant are fighting Hollande’s plan to close the facility by the end of 2016. That 1.8 GW plant alone can produce nearly three times as much low-carbon electricity as the combined output of all the solar panels in France.

That Germany has become the bellwether for energy policy in Europe and the world is one of the more demoralizing ironies of our day. The Energiewende is not the swift, bold advance that greens imagine but a slow, timid, and inadequate response to the crisis of climate change. It represents a failure of nerve, a failure of imagination, and a failure of arithmetic. It is visibly failing now, and if it succeeds in all its stated goals it will still fail. It is failing for a simple reason: the environmental movement, whose signal triumph is its influence over energy policy, has rejected nuclear power—the best source of clean energy we have.

Will Boisvert is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

This article is reprinted with permission from Dissent Magazine, a quarterly of politics and culture. Boivert’s piece is part of a debate on the German plan to eliminate nuclear energy. To read Osha Gray Davidson’s response, click here.

Photo Credit:


  • Wind and solar farms produce energy, but Germany has no use for energy, it need power and intermittent renewables cannot supply it.  Yhe legally binding assessment was never carried out amid euphoria for hippy green ideology.  What a waste caused by ignorance.

    By Val Martin on 2013 08 14

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

    • If the nuclear radiation is so harmless, why did it take to evacuate about 156,000 people from the area near Fukushima ?

      The energy transition in Germany (Energiewende) does not date from 2011, but the laws of 2000 on renewable energies and 2002 on nuclear power phase-out.

      During this period, the evolution of the electricity production in Germany was as follows:
      - Nuclear :  from 170 to 99 TWh (-71 TWh)
      - Coal and lignite : from 291 to 276 TWh (-15 TWh)
      - Renewables :  from 38 to 135 TWh (+97 TWh)

      If you do not read French, you can at least see tables and graphs.

      Between 2010 and 2012, electricity generation from coal and lignite increased by 13 TWh but the electricity generation from the oil and gas decreased by 15 TWh.

      Coal has temporarily replaced the gas but renewables have definitively replaced nuclear power.

      By Caribou on 2013 11 26

      Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • Sorry about the typos above. (replace needs with need and” yhe” with the) Most sites refuse to publish comments critical to wind.  See my web site valmartinireland you tube.    The traditional power distribution system cannot work without a dependable constant dispatchable source of generation.  Intermittent renewables result in more fuel being used than if there was none at all.  It does not matter what percentage of energy generated is renewable,  its what benefit that renewable energy brings that counts.  Unfortunately there is no benefit, nor is there any way to overcome that.

    By Val Martin on 2013 08 14

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • Great paper. Australia is being completely hoodwinked by the Labor and Green Parties here renewable technologies and Germany is being held up as a shining example of the way forward. We just have to get this information out there, but how with so many Editors remaining blind, to the problem facing the world.

    By Graeme Weber on 2013 08 14

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • Yes, the question is moving from the realisation that its a swindle to what are the reasons so many are being fooled.  My bet is that the public will call a halt before the politicians do.`  Wishful thinking has a lot to do with it.  In the end of the day its a social science question and a philosophical one.

    By Val Martin on 2013 08 14

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • What has been overlooked and I have just realised it that Germany is thirteen years into the wonderful Energiewende program but much of the solar and wind will have to start to be replaced as it only lasts 25 years.  What then it just becomes a perpetual replacement program. The Chinese solar panels may not last anything like that time.  It is all just a crazy stupid experiment and the Green and Labor movement in Australia want to go down the same path!

    By Graeme Weber on 2013 08 16

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • Yes, an engineer in my association says the same thing.  Mad and if this can happen, what:s to stop them starting other mad acts, like a war.

    By Val Martin on 2013 08 17

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • My god you are simple minded amateuers here at the BTI.

    (1) The construction cost of a nuclear power plant are not the financing cost.

    (2) A nuclear plant has several fixed operation & mainainance cost, aswell as fuel costs. 43 Nuclear reactors would have FOM costs of 275 billion Euro over 20 years.

    Both obliterate your silly number game.

    Peter Altmaiers “1 Trillion” number includes many other things that go beyond the electricity sector… and even so his numbers are bullshit and he failed to explain them (according to leading economics institutes)

    If you want to make arguments, please evolve beyond the Kindergarten level.

    By Thomas on 2013 08 31

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

    • Your 275 billion euro operating cost for 43 plants is the most laughable thing on this page. Your claim 1 makes no sense without context and your nimbers in general contain no references. Kindergarten indeed.

      By Ryan on 2013 09 02

      Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • Even if Nuclear/Fossil generating plant cost 7,359 Billion Euro per mw watt to build and run,  Neither wind or solar displaces it.  Wind and solar requires extra conventional power plant to operate than if there was no wind at all.  Wind or solar are not alternatives to nuclear/fossil fuel plant.  See my you tube videos valmartinireland.

    By Val Martin on 2013 09 01

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • As a simple example:  If there are no wind farms in a system the contribution of wind is obviously NIL.  100% wind energy cannot be used.  A system with 100% wind will not work.  So at what percentage is the contribution of wind optimised?    Is it 10%  30%  40% 60% or 80%.

    There are no engineering studies to examine it.  If there were,  the anwer would be something like:

    10%  no contribution
    30%  Negative contribution
    50%  Totally unstable grid.

    That is why in Ireland last year they paid 172 million euro to turn off turbines.

    By Val Martin on 2013 09 01

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

    • There are no engineering studies to examine it.
      There are many. The Germans spent ~$200milion in the nineties for such studies in order to fine the optimum scenario (~1.5% more renewable / year, etc. leading to >80% renewable in 2050. They show how that can be done, what storage levels needed, what over-capacity of wind and solar needed, etc).

      Even US universities now start with that type of such studies. E.g:“Cost-minimized combinations of wind power, solar power and electrochemical storage, powering the grid up to 99.9% of the time”.
      Refer to:

      By Bas on 2013 11 04

      Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • If you like to drink Coka Cola,  you can add tap water to it,  but it does not do any good.  If you like cabbage, you can add grass to it, but it does not do any good,  We all need air to live, but if you pump air from outside your house to the inside, it does not do any good.  We all need electrical power, but adding wind or solar energy to it does no good.  We don’t need energy, we need power.

    By Val Martin on 2013 09 02

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • Electric cars are another swindle, the emissions are just transferred to the power station.  There is no such thing as power that does not impact on the environment.  There is such a thing as people who cannot count, the governments of Europe cannot count.    The power generation and distribution companies as bust.  They mismanaged the grid system and generation system, so they want this renewable fad to mask their failures

    By Val Martin on 2013 09 02

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

    • Electric cars (and hydrogen powered cars) could work if electricity would be green (aka nuclear) and cheap (nuclear).

      By Tuomo Kalliokoski on 2013 09 24

      Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

      • Yes,  If you have plenty of dispatchable power,  you might run electric cars.  Wind/solar is not dispatchable.  If you have plenty of nuclear fuel, you might be able to synthesise a fuel. However what is being done, what the greens want is to use fossil fuel grid power with wind integrated and call it clean energy.

        By Val Martin on 2013 11 04

        Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • Great article, but while fossil fuel pollution may kill many people every year these are spread out in both time and location.  Nuclear issues will always be the opposite, with deaths occurring at the same time and in the same location, leading to a much greater physiological impact.  This causes them to be much bigger issues.  While irrational, it is how we are hard wired as a species to react.

    -Mike of Solar Well Pumps

    By Mike on 2013 09 02

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • Yes:  Coal kills more people than any other energy source.  It is most interesting how the German people are so easily fooled by Energiewerndie.

    Can anyone assist me?  Is there a movement in Germany to oppose it.  What is the picture at the top of this page about?  Can they be contacted?

    By Val Martin on 2013 09 03

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • Hi Will Boisvert,

    What about the economic losses associated with the Fukushima accident? What about the costs of cleaning up the contaminated areas and decommissioning the plants?

    Do you have this data?


    By Brendan Barrett on 2013 09 12

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

    • No Brendan, Will Boisvert does not have this data nor do you and I . It is spurious economics to get to that game.  I could start arguing about the cost of 18,000 dead and damage from the Tsunami but I won’t. This argument is about renewables having any impact on lowering CO2 emissions. The economic argument is that the only base-load, low emission technology YET devised by mankind is Nuclear.  Until ‘hot rocks’, Thorium reactors, Fusion Power etc. etc. are mainstream electrical generators then Nuclear Energy should be used. Germany has eleven reactors shut down by the Greens and the people of Germany deserve better. It will be interesting to see how Angela goes in the next election and if she can unshackle herself and her party from the Greens.

      PS Did you know that 80% of the Fukashima Profecture has been cleared for growing crops?  Do you know that the towns are being reinhabitated? But I agree that is not the Nuclear site. One final point have you seen the new photographs of Hiroshima city today?

      By Graeme Weber on 2013 09 12

      Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

    • Neither wind or Solar energy displaces conventional generation methods.  Say Japan did as it did before the Fukushima Accident, then we know the result would be “as it turned out”.    Say on the other hand, Japan started a wind solar programme in 1988.  Building to 300,000 mw of wind and 300,000 mw of solar.
      On a calm dull day or on a calm night they would still require the same conventional capacity, whether nuclear or fossil.  So it would not avoid   Fukushima.  You cannot use wind or solar to produce mains electricity.  As it is,, only between 20% and 48% .pf wind energy can be allowed on the grid.    If Japan had 300,000 mw of wind,  most of it would have to be constrained down and paid for anyway.  This is included in the count for the contribution of wind.  That is why with huge renewable installation in Germany and Denmark they are opening new coal plant.

      By Val Martin on 2013 09 13

      Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • EU regulations stipulate that a Strategic Environmental Assessment must be done for all projects which impact on the environment in a major way. This has been bye-passed.  The reason is that that they know the Emperor has no cloths.  Wind and solar energy does not work at all.  It makes no contribution and does not save fuel.  High amounts or wind and solar necessitates extra traditional and nuclear power plants.    S it does not matter if nuclear is expensive,    it works as does fossil fuel.  It you don’t agree, then why not build giant statures of Mickey Mouse?  Same thing

    By Val Martin on 2013 11 26

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • @Val Martin
    You cannot use wind or solar to produce mains electricity.
    Yet several countries/Islands show you can.
    Just check El Hiero (100% wind + solar with pumped storage)

    In Denmark Wind turbines produce ~40% of all consumed electricity, target is 50% in 2020. And 100% in 2040.

    The third economy in the world, Germany is on a similar pathway!
    Now 23% renewable, 35-40% in 2020. 50% in 2030. 65% in 2040.
    They use pumped storage/hydro, and burn waste & biomass. Furthermore they have electricity-to-gas/fuel developments, so solar overproduction in summer can be stored and used in winter. First pilot plant of 2MW operates already.

    By Bas on 2013 11 27

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • You can install wind farms and solar farms up to any level.  You could in theory cover every piece of land leaving none uncovered.  Once government subsidies them,  you can install them.  You can lead a horse to water, but you cant make him drink.  Wind or solar does not displace other types of generation and dies no cut co2 emissions.  So what benefit is it?  Denmark has the highest electricity prices in the world and Germany is next. Paying for something which is useless.

    By Val Martin on 2013 11 27

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • You might want to look at this video about the effects of hydropower in Germany.

    By Sam on 2014 09 23

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

  • But at least hydro power works.  So any environmental destruction achieves something. Wind energy does not work at all and solar is no use either.  It is amazing how few people understand this simple principle.  In many people’s mind its the effort made that matters, the result is irrelevant.  To help such people I will give you all an exercise to figure out.  Mark in order of merit.  Generation by:  Nuclear,coal, lignite, natural gas, oil,  hydro,  solar,  praying,  wood,  eggs,  milk,  wind,  beer,  ethanol,    fish,  blood,  coffee,  roses,  clay and biscuits.  This should enable an understanding be reached.  Very basic but the idea that having built a facility equates that it works is not logical.

    By Val Martin on 2014 09 23

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

Submit a comment