More media misinformation about Germany’s Energiewende

Solar power in a small village in Germany's Black Forest region.

Solar power in a small village in Germany’s Black Forest region.

Reuters today published a story (and it is indeed a “story”) with the alarming headline Costs for Germany’s nuclear exit could rise to $75 billion.

You can be sure the nuclear and coal advocates will start spreading that around as yet one more “failure” of Germany’s Energiewende, or energy transition. Look, they’ll say, at the huge costs ending nuclear power are inflicting on Germany and its citizens.

But, like the argument that use of coal has increased because of the Energiewende and shutdown of some of Germany’s nuclear reactors (as we stated here, with two citations, coal increased because of decisions made before the nuclear shutdown decision, and coal’s use is now dropping as more renewables continue to be added to the nation’s energy mix), the Reuter’s story shows a misunderstanding of the situation, aggravated by the headline.

That $75 billion cost estimate is for decommissioning Germany’s reactors and building a permanent radioactive waste dump. Those are costs that will be incurred regardless of the Energiewende–nuclear reactors don’t last forever. Eventually they’re all going to close and be decommissioned, and the radioactive waste they generated will have to be isolated from the environment.

In fact, by closing their reactors early, Germany actually will be saving money, because less radioactive waste will be generated, which means less will have to be placed in a disposal site.

And, it’s not like this $75 billion is to be paid by taxpayers or ratepayers because of the nuclear exit; in fact, most of it already has been paid. As in the U.S., it is the utilities that are required to pay for decommissioning, not the taxpayers. And the German utilities claim they have collected adequate resources to cover decommissioning. That may not be the case; according to the article the utilities have about $38 billion in their decommissioning fund, which averages out to about $2 billion per reactor. Whether that’s enough will depend on what kind of problems they run into when decommissioning large reactors. But we’ll point out that $2 billion per reactor is more than most U.S. utilities have socked away in their funds.

The rest of the money–the other $37 billion–is for the permanent radwaste disposal site. That wouldn’t pay for Yucca Mountain or any other U.S. radwaste site, not even close; whether it’s enough for Germany’s waste program, which is no further along than the U.S., is an unknown. But again, that’s a cost that will have to be incurred simply because nuclear power was used; it has nothing to do with shutting down reactors early.

It will come as a surprise to many Americans, certainly to most U.S. policymakers, but despite the claims made by nuclear and coal advocates about the Energiewende, at current Euro exchange rates, German consumers actually have lower electricity rates than do Americans.  (*OOPS! see below) German households are also much more energy efficient, and thus use much less electricity, than average U.S. households. Add up lower rates and less usage, and you get lower electric bills too.

Tomorrow, the rabidly pro-nuclear Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is going to hold a hearing titled “The United States without nuclear power.” It’s meant to scare everyone’s pants off with the notion that life without nuclear power would mean blackouts, higher electric bills, perhaps a return to living in caves. If Alexander, and the pro-nuclear advocates testifying (there are no anti-nuclear folks testifying, in fact, no one who isn’t either directly in the industry or ardently pro-nuke) were honest, they’d look at Germany and tell the American people that life without nuclear power would mean not only freedom from fear of atomic meltdown, but also more clean energy, more efficient use of energy, less radioactive waste, and lower electricity bills. Germany is showing the world that it can be done.

But Sen. Alexander and the like aren’t that honest.

If you’re in the mood to bang your head against the wall, you can watch the hearing here, beginning at 3 pm tomorrow, April 22. Yes, on Earth Day.

Craig Morris, who writes the Energiewende blog, recently wrote a piece attributing Germany’s policy to Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute.  Amory charted the difference between his preferred “soft energy” path and the “hard energy” path chosen by the industrialized nations, back in the 1970s. Back then, as Morris notes, he was a lone voice. Today, whether or not Germany would admit it, his ideas are leading the world’s third largest industrial power straight down the soft path, and setting the example, one that ultimately will be followed by every nation, for the entire globe. Well done, Amory.

Finally, speaking about misleading headlines from a different direction, the New York Times published a fine piece over the weekend about the rise in solar power, especially in Hawaii but elsewhere too. In print in Sunday’s edition, the headline writer got the thrust of the article right: Utilities see solar panels as threat to bottom line. Online however, the Times chose a less confrontational headline: Solar Power Battle Puts Hawaii at Forefront of Worldwide Changes. Exact same story, very different emphasis.

The fact is that the utilities do indeed see solar power as a threat–just as they do the success of the Energiewende. That’s why so many of them are doing everything they can to slow solar’s, especially rooftop solar’s, growth. They don’t want ratepayers to be able to generate their own electricity, and they’re especially scared now that battery storage is beginning to enter the era of cost-effectiveness. Because that will mean that, whether the ratepayers technically stay on the grid or not, they won’t be buying power from the utilities. Germany is embracing that concept (although there too the utilities aren’t exactly wild about it) because it’s not only better for the global environment, it’s better for their economy and their nation overall. It’s time for the Senator Alexander’s of the world to learn the facts and get over their 20th century fixation with the hard path of dirty, dangerous and expensive nuclear and coal power or step out of the way and let Americans build the clean energy future on their own.

*CORRECTION: Amory Lovins noted a mistake above. German electricity rates are not lower than U.S. rates (except for Hawaii) even at current Euro exchange rates, as the article cited actually states. The point is that German electric bills–the amount the average German household pays for electricity, are lower than average U.S. electric bills. There are a variety of reasons for this, but they boil down to the fact that German households use less electricity than their counterparts in the U.S. And, unlike in the U.S., which, as the Wall Street Journal reported today, has been experiencing years of ever-increasing electricity rates, German electricity rates have remained fairly stable throughout its energy transition.

Michael Mariotte

April 21, 2015


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2 thoughts on “More media misinformation about Germany’s Energiewende

  1. damchodronma

    Well done… so important to make these points clear and to notice when a headline changes — and the views of the reader are influenced subtly…. I wonder if print subscribers are more conservative and more liberal readers tend to read the online version…? or what explains the title changes so different.
    I’d like to see utilities return to more local control, non-profit imperative, basic services for the population meant to keep infrastructrure — renewables transition and maintenance regularly done, high standards, jobs with benefits and pension plans — and government — consumer board keeping rates down… emphasis on SERVING the Public…
    Power for heating and cooking, clean water systems, every rooftop a solar or wind collector.
    (de-regulating utilities, to me, was a huge mistake;; less service, less rigorous maintenance; introduced ore for top executives while trying to take benefits, retirement pensions from the majority of workers. In other words, profit motive messed things up that were running exceptionally well. Lesson: don’t fix something already excellent.)


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