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Why Germany’s nuclear exit is posing tough questions about its energy future

The Bavarian village of Gundremmingen is so proud of its nuclear power station that its coat of arms is graced with a giant golden atom.

Why Germany's nuclear exit is posing tough questions about its energy future
Gundremmingen nuclear power plant. Photo: DPA

But change is coming to the village, with the plant facing imminent closure under Germany’s energy transition policy.

Former village mayor Wolfgang Mayer’s house has direct views of the imposing complex with its two 160-metre cooling towers — taller than the spires of Cologne Cathedral.

The plant still produces 10 billion kWh of power per year, though parts of it have already been shut down — enough to provide the entire Munich metropolitan region with electricity.

The power station will be decommissioned on December 31, 2021, along with two other facilities in northern Germany.

By the end of 2022, Germany will have achieved its goal of completely phasing out nuclear power, set by Chancellor Angela Merkel on May 30, 2011, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

SEE ALSO: Berlin agrees to compensate power firms for nuclear phase out

The plan represented a dramatic change of course by Merkel’s ruling conservatives, who just a few months earlier had agreed to extend the lifespan of Germany’s oldest power stations.

But it was met with widespread public support in a country with a powerful anti-nuclear movement, fuelled first by fears of a Cold War conflict and then by disasters such as Chernobyl.

Village church

In Gundremmingen, however, the decision has been a tough pill to swallow.

The nuclear power station has been “as much a part of the village as the church” and it feels as though “something is dying”, said Gerlinde Hutter, owner of a local guest house.

According to Meyer, it will take at least 50 years to remove all radioactive material from the site after the plant has been decommissioned.
The German government is still looking for a long-term storage site for the country’s residual nuclear waste.

Gundremmingen is not the only German village facing big changes as the country strives to implement its energy transition strategy.

Renewables have seen a spectacular rise since 2011 and in 2020 made up more than 50 percent of Germany’s energy mix for the first time, according to the Fraunhofer research institute — compared with less than 25 percent ten years ago.

The declining importance of nuclear power (12.5 percent in 2020) “has been compensated for by the expansion of renewable energies”, Claudia Kemfert, an energy expert at the DIW economic research institute, told AFP.

Nuclear power stations have therefore not been replaced by coal, though the fossil fuel does still represent almost a quarter of the electricity mix.

The gas dilemma

In fact, the phase-out of nuclear energy has been joined by another plan, announced in 2019, to close all of Germany’s coal-fired power stations by 2038.

This presents a particular challenge for Germany, which remains the world’s leading producer of lignite.

Mining for the brown coal, which is highly polluting, continues to lead to the destruction of villages in the west of the country in order to expand huge open-cast mines.

If Germany is to free itself from lignite, renewables such as wind, solar, biomass and hydropower will have to make up 65 percent of the energy mix by 2030.

Yet the country, which has long been at the forefront of wind energy in Europe, installed only 1.65 gigawatts (GW) of wind farms last year — the lowest level in a decade, according to the WindEurope advocacy group.

To meet the government’s targets, Germany would have to add 9.8 GW of solar and 5.9 GW of onshore wind annually, according to Kemfert.

But the development of new areas for wind or photovoltaic energy production is complex, with plans often coming up against resistance from local residents and the risk of damage to the landscape.

And unless storage and distribution can be improved via so-called virtual power plants, these new forms of energy do not have the same stability as thermal or nuclear power.

To secure its supply, Germany could therefore be tempted to build more gas-fired power stations.

But this would risk reinforcing its dependence on Russia, as illustrated by the controversy surrounding the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

A gas-fired power station is already in the works for the town of Leipheim, just around the corner from Gundremmingen.

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ENERGY

Sweden’s parties agree on goal to cut peak power consumption

Sweden's Social Democrat caretaker government has agreed with the incoming Moderates on a goal of cutting peak power consumption by 5 percent as part of an EU scheme.

Sweden's parties agree on goal to cut peak power consumption

Now the election is over, both parties seem willing to consider ways to encourage citizens to reduce power use, an obvious measure to reduce winter power prices that was conspicuously absent from the campaign. 

At the same time, the Moderates are downplaying their election campaign pledge to bring in “high-cost protection” to reimburse citizens for much of the impact of high power costs by the start of November. 

At a meeting of the parliament’s Committee on Industry and Trade, the two parties agreed that both the caretaker Social Democrat government and the incoming Moderate-led government should take action to cut power consumption by between 5 percent and 10 percent. 

“If we succeed in carrying this out on a coordinated EU level, we will be on the way to at the very least halving electricity prices,” Energy minister Khashayar Farmanbar told Sweden’s TT newswire. 

“We stand behind the ambition to reduce consumption,” agreed Carl-Oskar Bohlin, the Moderate Party’s power spokesperson, after a meeting of the committee on Wednesday. 

But he said that meeting the goal would be very much dependent on outside factors, particularly how cold the winter is in Sweden. 

“Then there are questions of how that should happen practically in real terms,” he said. “In Sweden, electricity use is largely dependent on the outside temperature. If we have a mild winter, it will be extremely easy to hit the 5 percent target, if we have a really harsh winter, it might be impossible.”

The Moderates are agreed that the public sector should reduce “unnecessary power consumption”, but have yet to agree on measures that households should take, such as reducing indoor temperatures or turning off the lights. 

At the same time, Bohlin admitted on Wednesday that the high-cost protection that Ulf Kristersson pledged in the campaign by November 1st, may be delayed by the government negotiations. 

“We promised high-cost protection from November 1st, on the condition that a new government was in place rapidly,” he told the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper. “The problem is that Svenska kraftnät [the company that owns and operates Sweden’s power grid], is working to another schedule, one given by the current government.” 

The outgoing Social Democrat government has given Svenska kraftnät until November 15th to propose a system for high-cost protection. The cash paid back to households and businesses would be taken from the bottle-neck income which the grid operator receives as a result of capacity shortages in the network. 

The outgoing Social Democrats have also changed their rhetoric since the end of the campaign .

On September 9th, two days before the election took place, the Social Democrat government framed a meeting of EU ministers on September 9th as a “breakthrough” in the EU negotiations. 

Farmanbar is now describing it as “a process”. 

“What we can promise right now is that we’re going to work as hard as we can to get a breakthrough,” he said. 

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