The Lightbulb Moment’s something I might not have made clear yet: I wanted Germany to succeed. I sincerely did. Despite the poor rationale for mandating an accelerated nuclear energy phaseout, and my maturing grasp of energy policy matters, I maintained hope that each year would somehow see dramatically falling emissions as more wind and solar capacity was added.

Because this would demonstrate that popular “new” energy technologies can potentially deliver as promised so long as “we have the political will“. This would simplify the climate change challenge. There is immense support for wind and solar. I’d lament the early closure of nuclear plants, but emissions would be falling.

Except they’re not, really. It’s just not as simple as swapping between clean energy options.


As it turns out, that’s never really been the priority anyway:


But despite infrequent yet celebratory headlines, wind and solar are still small fractions of Germany’s annual generation. If more is added, surely we’ll see *some* emissions reductions?


German solar has clearly reached the crest of its growth logistic curve.


Wind’s contribution up to 2014 is vaguely linear. It’s easy to assume expansion could continue for years to come… but will it? No less a personage than the president of the German Wind Energy Association is worried. 2015 featured a relatively dramatic increase in higher capacity offshore wind production. Integrating offshore wind is not straightforward, and targets for offshore wind have been cut by a third.


And more wind will not overcome its inherent limitation, quantified as its roughly 7% capacity credit, an intrinsically low threshold above which dispatchable “backup” capacity cannot be withdrawn.


The share of generation combustion has remained constant, especially if biomass is included, which it probably should be. After all, if projected reforestation can be invoked to neutralise the greenhouse gas emissions of biomass, why not extend such methodology to, say, natural gas (which doesn’t require any logging to start with)?

So with stalled growth in solar and potentially limited future wind addition, what will be “replacing” Germany’s remaining nuclear capacity, let alone the far, far more polluting and deadly coal? More importantly for the world, will Germany be open to changing its approach if the so-far glacial rate of decarbonisation of the 4th largest economy can’t somehow be promptly accelerated?

Because they have all they need with which to do so. With enough capital and good management – let alone the sorts of policies which reward other technologies for not being fossil fueled – the closed but still-operable reactors could be recommissioned. That’s a total of 9611 megawatts. Let’s guess this could be done with focused German efficiency in two years. At the annual capacity factor derived from 2014 performance (87%) this would provide an additional 73.25 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2018, and with urgent climate action firmly in mind it would entirely displace more than half the current lignite combustion and its associated carbon dioxide emissions intensity of 1,153,000 tons per TWh.


Approximate projected 2018 German mix, sans Energiewende

That’s well over 84 million tons annually, by just switching back on the existing reactors.

That’s halfway to the 2020 target, without needing to build a single new power station or transmission link.

There would be costs. The reactors may need to operate more flexibly. To their owners, this would undoubtedly be preferable to being arbitrarily forced to shut them. Several may have less than a decade of licenceable life remaining. In the meantime, Germany should enter the global race towards debuting the next generation of designs, the sort which mitigate the accidents that have fueled such dread. There’s even an elegantly simple homegrown molten salt reactor which has been awaiting its chance.

Sure, I’m just one blogger opposing the vast weight of German opinion. I admit I could be way off or entirely wrong. And it seems ultimately impossible, considering the effective revocation of nuclear energy’s social licence in 2011 beneath overwhelming political activism. Yet the environmental consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi accident bear no resemblance to the apocalypse invoked and perpetuated by anti-nuclear organisations. Despite a triple meltdown less than five years ago, the majority of land has been resettled to some extent; fish and food are edible; even high school students are providing independent data on how little contamination exists. The meticulous process of restarting Japanese reactors continues. Who granted the European nuclear rejectors their assumed social licence to maintain a false narrative of baseless fear?


CWvFOl8XAAAnqT6Please, Germany. Activism continues to celebrate the promise of “100% renewable energy” at-some-point-in-the-future, but it no longer holds you up as the shining example. In the 15 years the Energiewende has taken to show us how unlikely success will ever be, Ontario in Canada has completely exited coal by – you guessed it – restarting nuclear reactors! With rock bottom emissions intensity, Ontario is now the modern model of regional decarbonisation for everyone who doesn’t hate nuclear energy.

Please. You don’t have to love nuclear energy, Germany. Just try to love a habitable climate, better health and unscarred land more.


Civilian nuclear energy has never caused anything like this.

Update: It turns out that 2015 sadly saw a 0.9% rise in German energy emissions.


6 thoughts on “The Lightbulb Moment

  1. Pingback: The Lightbulb Moment | Northwest Clean Energy

  2. From the Wheatly paper on declining emissions displacement I extrapolate there is no emissions saving in more than about 48% penetration for wind power. Rather than a line an asymptotic curve like the logistic could be more accurate.

    Re Maralinga back in 2003 Rann handed some Woomera restricted zone land back to the aboriginal community. However the main Woomera zone has some underground mines like Prominent Hill. When depleted around 2022 the tunnels would make an ideal geological repository if dry and stable. Hard to argue against the nuclear legacy of A-bombs at Maralinga and transuranics perhaps originating from Olympic Dam uranium .

  3. Hey! Ontario didn’t “restart” nuclear. No, we fired up nuclear in the 80s and 90s and there has been no shutdown other than routine maintenance and refurbishment.

    Other than that minor quibble, great article!

  4. Pingback: Der überschlagende Funke | Nuklearia

  5. Who granted the European nuclear rejectors their assumed social licence to maintain a false narrative of baseless fear?

    Precisely. I wonder how many Germans reflect on your point – that by shutting down their near zero-carbon nuclear plants they are needlessly dumping tens of gigatons of CO2 into our common atmosphere. Will the Energiewende ever achieve the emission reductions promised by the Greens? I don’t know — how much longer will German voters pay such a high price?
    Over at Seekerblog I look at J.P. Morgan’s recent 2015 annual energy paper. The report doesn’t answer the question “will they achieve 80% VRE?” Rather J.P. Morgan models what it will cost if Germany achieves their 80% renewable goal. Looks like a CO2 avoidance cost of about $300 metric tonne.

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