Skip to main content

“Easy to shut down a nuclear power plant, but…”

kohler
Stephan Kohler
We’ve left Germany alone for awhile, you may have noticed. We perhaps overstressed the country’s difficulties in its projected transition from nuclear energy to (mostly) renewable energy sources. Maybe there was too much glee on our part at what is, after all, a terrible decision. The Germans have a word for that glee. It’s Schadenfreude, taking delight in other’s misery, and it’s not an attractive quality whatever motivates it.

Still … Still … there are things to say about this that are genuinely germane and instructive. Along these lines, I was very impressed by an interview Der Spiegel had with the German Energy Agency’s President, Stephan Kohler. Their chat contains a notably balanced look at the difficulties the country has set for itself. Here’s a sampler:
It's easy to shut down a nuclear power plant, but that doesn't mean you have something to replace it with. We know today, for example, that we don't have enough reliable power plant capacity in southern Germany to be able to offset the loss of nuclear energy.
Why can’t the country replace nuclear energy one-to-one with renewable energy sources?
When a new wind farm is opened and we're told how many thousands of households it can supply with electricity, that number applies to only a quarter of our demand. In Germany, 75 percent of electricity goes to industry, for which a secure supply -- that is, at every second, and with constant voltage -- is indispensable. Neither solar nor wind power are suitable for that purpose today. Both fluctuate and provide either no secure supply or only a small fraction of a secure supply. Solar energy has a load factor of about 1,000 hours a year. But there are 8,670 hours in a year.
But solar energy in particular can generate, on sunny days, a large amount of electricity. Isn’t that a good thing?
I don't want to bore you with the details, but a surplus and fluctuations lead to very unpleasant systemic effects. We have voltage fluctuations within the grid that create problems for industry. Or we overload the grids in neighboring countries. Poland is in the process of installing technical equipment to protect its grids by keeping out surplus German electricity.
Kohler goes on to make the point that many current wind and solar installations have been sited without much consideration of whether the electricity is needed there or even whether the installation can even connect to the grid without substantial new build. Additionally, where the energy isn’t needed – such as wind power in the north – there is no way to transmit the electricity to the south where it could be used. The transmission lines have to be updated first.

What Kohler describes is fairly messy, with a lot of moving parts (and expensive ones, too) that have not adequately been addressed. I found this statement to be especially telling:
In the 1970s, they believed that there is an annual 6-percent linear increase in the demand for electricity. That number was used to estimate how many nuclear power plants had to be built. … I thought the calculations were fundamentally wrong. Today we have a solar and wind euphoria, instead of a nuclear euphoria. We believe that there will be a 10-percent decline in electricity consumption by 2020. And, once again, we assume that this change will be linear. But I'm sure that we're probably going to be wrong this time, too.
Energy choices as a fad. Kohler is clearly interested in the environmental impacts of different energy sources and favors an increased use of renewable energy, though not at the expense of nuclear power. In this interview, though, he is focused on the implications of current German energy policy – and not thinking much of it.

Do read the whole thing – you’ll learn a lot about the complexities of delivering electricity steadily. It shows that energy policy matters a lot in achieving this. Making arbitrary changes to policy hurts the national treasury and ultimately, will hurt badly the people (and industries) who must have reliable electricity to thrive.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Design Team Pictures the Future of Nuclear Energy

For more than 100 years, the shape and location of human settlements has been defined in large part by energy and water. Cities grew up near natural resources like hydropower, and near water for agricultural, industrial and household use.

So what would the world look like with a new generation of small nuclear reactors that could provide abundant, clean energy for electricity, water pumping and desalination and industrial processes?

Hard to say with precision, but Third Way, the non-partisan think tank, asked the design team at the Washington, D.C. office of Gensler & Associates, an architecture and interior design firm that specializes in sustainable projects like a complex that houses the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. The talented designers saw a blooming desert and a cozy arctic village, an old urban mill re-purposed as an energy producer, a data center that integrates solar panels on its sprawling flat roofs, a naval base and a humming transit hub.

In the converted mill, high temperat…

Seeing the Light on Nuclear Energy

If you think that there is plenty of electricity, that the air is clean enough and that nuclear power is a just one among many options for meeting human needs, then you are probably over-focused on the United States or Western Europe. Even then, you’d be wrong.

That’s the idea at the heart of a new book, “Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century,” by Scott L. Montgomery, a geoscientist and energy expert, and Thomas Graham Jr., a retired ambassador and arms control expert.


Billions of people live in energy poverty, they write, and even those who don’t, those who live in places where there is always an electric outlet or a light switch handy, we need to unmake the last 200 years of energy history, and move to non-carbon sources. Energy is integral to our lives but the authors cite a World Health Organization estimate that more than 6.5 million people die each year from air pollution.  In addition, they say, the global climate is heading for ruinous instability. E…

Sneak Peek

There's an invisible force powering and propelling our way of life.
It's all around us. You can't feel it. Smell it. Or taste it.
But it's there all the same. And if you look close enough, you can see all the amazing and wondrous things it does.
It not only powers our cities and towns.
And all the high-tech things we love.
It gives us the power to invent.
To explore.
To discover.
To create advanced technologies.
This invisible force creates jobs out of thin air.
It adds billions to our economy.
It's on even when we're not.
And stays on no matter what Mother Nature throws at it.
This invisible force takes us to the outer reaches of outer space.
And to the very depths of our oceans.
It brings us together. And it makes us better.
And most importantly, it has the power to do all this in our lifetime while barely leaving a trace.
Some people might say it's kind of unbelievable.
They wonder, what is this new power that does all these extraordinary things?