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

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.


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