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Why many environmentalists will fight Germany’s green energy plan

FRANKFURT — Angela Merkel’s German cabinet Tuesday ratified an ambitious blueprint for moving the country toward a low-emission energy future that calls for ending centuries of reliance on fossil fuels.

The plan calls for developing renewable energies and energy efficiency requirements to help cut greenhouse gas emission by 80 percent within four decades. It is, many say, a “green revolution” that could bolster Germany’s pace-setting role in addressing climate change.

“This is a very important step toward the restructuring of Germany’s energy future,” says Miranda Schreurs, who heads the Environmental Policy Research Center at the Free University Berlin.

She says the blueprint sends a clear message to the country and its industrial concerns that the government is no longer going to support fossil fuels.

“Compared with what we see from North America, Austria, and other European countries, except for Sweden, that is going really far,” says Schreurs. “It’s going to challenge other countries to do more.”

Merkel’s coalition of conservatives and pro-business liberals agreed on a package of 60 measures, from spending several billion euros on wind projects to expanding bio-energy to getting 6 million electric cars on German streets by 2030. It commits to combating energy waste by implementing stricter energy efficiency standards.

“We want to wake up the sleeping giant of energy efficiency,” says Environmental Minister Norbert Röttgen. He says that improved energy efficiency standards could cut energy consumption by 40 percent.

The nuclear question

But in agreeing to use nuclear power as a “bridge” toward developing renewable energy, the Merkel coalition rekindled one of the most deeply anchored elements of German culture: its visceral aversion to nuclear power.

Last week, close to 100,000 people marched against the Merkel decision to reverse an earlier commitment to end nuclear, and keep the country’s 17 nuclear plants plans running an average of 12 years beyond the year they were supposed to be phased out.

Relying on nuclear energy for another decade would give Germany the time and money it needs to develop its energy sources and keep its economy competitive, supporters say.

Opponents of extending the life of Germany’s nuclear power plants say they will fight the plan. While Chancellor Merkel says her initiative needs approval only from the Bundestag (the lower house) to become law, her opponents also say it require approval in Bundesrat (upper house), where Merkel no longer holds sway. The nuclear issue could be a major sticking point in getting Merkel’s energy concept passed into law.

Even though the nuclear issue has turned many environmentalists sour on Merkel’s energy blueprint, many say this plan put Germany at the forefront of renewable energy.

“If the goal is 80 percent renewable, halving energy consumption, improving efficiency in buildings, the opposition is no longer right in saying that renewable energy is not tackled,” says Claudia Kemfert, who heads energy and environment research at the DIW German Institute of Economic Research in Berlin. “This is far beyond what the European Union ever dreamed of.”

Price tag for the green revolution

But even though the government proposes to make nuclear power utilities contribute to paying for the development of renewable energy through a new tax, many question whether Germany can afford its green revolution.

Advancements in green energy will mean developing a system to transport and store the energy, as well. Germany’s current electricity grid cannot handle more than 30 percent of the electricity produced by renewable sources, and because renewable energy comes sporadically, on sunny or windy days, so there needs to be a better way t store it for future use.

Fritz Vahrenholt, who heads a subsidiary of energy group RWE that operates wind farms and biogas plants, says that the fluctuations of renewable energy could lead electricity prices to skyrocket and hurt Germany’s economic competitiveness.

“If we set our goals too high and dream of renewable energy covering all of our energy needs, then in the end we’re not going to have a steel, chemical, or machine-tool industry anymore – and then the Chinese will thank us,” says Vahrenholt.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by rolf westgard on 09/29/2010 - 11:41 am.

    Actually, Germany’s electric grid, like others, can only handle about 10% wind without substantial natural gas backup plants. Denmark’s grid gets just under ten percent of its supply from wind. The rest has to be dumped to Sweden, Norway, and Germany.
    A few places like in the U.S. Northwest, the Bonneville Power Administration has enough hydro to use that to balance erratic wind. But it is driving them crazy.
    Wind and solar exist primarily from government ‘must take’ mandates and subsidies. We need to keep working with those sources, but they are supplements not substitutes.
    And nuclear won’t be the bridge, it will be the destination fuel.

  2. Submitted by rolf westgard on 09/29/2010 - 12:58 pm.

    >>>Fritz Vahrenholt, who heads a subsidiary of energy group RWE that operates wind farms and biogas plants, says that the fluctuations of renewable energy could lead electricity prices to skyrocket and hurt Germany’s economic competitiveness.
    “If we set our goals too high and dream of renewable energy covering all of our energy needs, then in the end we’re not going to have a steel, chemical, or machine-tool industry anymore – and then the Chinese will thank us,” says Vahrenholt.<<<< This is the one part of this CSM article that makes sense. All these articles you read about some new wind farm being able to supply X thousand homes are nonsense. At times that farm won't supply any homes.

  3. Submitted by Lance Groth on 09/29/2010 - 02:44 pm.

    No one ever said that wind farms can be the sole or even primary source of power. That doesn’t mean they’re a bad idea, and obviously, the estimates of supplying “x thousand homes” is based on an average, which I think anyone ought to be able to understand. Wind is an excellent supplemental source that reduces our consumption of fossil fuels to the extent that it’s implemented, and that’s all it is intended to be and all anyone has ever claimed that I’ve heard.

    As an ardent environmentalist, I would add that environmentalists do need to get over their aversion to nuclear power. Fossil fuel emissions represent a far greater threat to the global ecology than nuclear waste, and in particular nuclear power does not contribute to global warming, and thus we ought to be building as many nuke plants as possible. Yes, nuclear waste is a problem, but it can be contained and isolated – permanently so if we can get over our NIMBY mentality about underground storage.

    That said, wind power is an excellent choice for those locations where it makes sense. Any supplemental source that helps us get off fossil fuels, which are damaging to the environment and which siphon off our national treasure into the pockets of people who are not our friends, needs to be exploited.

  4. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/29/2010 - 09:44 pm.

    I subscribe to the idea that individuals and nations only start to behave rationally once all other options have been exhausted. Only when the lights finally start to go out, will the people start thinking. We only learn by experience. At same time Germany like Scandinavia is doing a lot to reduce energy consumption

  5. Submitted by rolf westgard on 09/30/2010 - 03:54 am.

    Lance: Wind has not eliminated the need for a single fossil fueled power plant on earth. Normally you have to build extra combustion natural gas plants to back up the wind farms. In the Northwest it causes cutbacks in clean hydroelectric power.
    And wind has nothing to do with oil imports as oil isn’t used for electric power plants.

  6. Submitted by rolf westgard on 09/30/2010 - 08:55 am.

    I should note that IMO the CSM article does a good job of laying out the various points of view. It fails to emphasize that the total German plan is pie in the sky.
    It’s similar to the MN legislature’s demand that Excel Energy get 25% of its grid fuel from wind. That’s about as likely as me winning the Power Ball.

  7. Submitted by Glenn Mesaros on 09/30/2010 - 02:55 pm.

    I think the country needs a basic lesson in physics. You can’t power an electrical grid with intermittent sources. The requirements for storage are immense – you essentially have to double capacity and even then no real technology has emerged. All this started off with “Small is Beautiful.” Now we’re talking about covering whole states with windmill farms and building an entirely new electrical grid to move all this elusive energy around.

    On the other hand, Hyperion, a California company, just introduced a 70-MW nuclear reactor the size of a gazebo that can power a city of 15,000. And it wouldn’t require any new transmission lines. Is it possible that nuclear is really “small and beautiful?”

  8. Submitted by rolf westgard on 09/30/2010 - 03:27 pm.

    Well put, Glenn. Babcock&Wilcox and Bechtel are teaming up on a 125MW nuclear reactor, ideal for a company like Minnesota Power in Duluth. Most of these small reactors are based on naval reactors developed under Admiral Rickover after the Manhattan project.

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