Ideological origins of “Energiewende”
Germany's one time famous #Energiewende (energy transition) program has been blamed with gradually pushing the country into the hands of #Russia gas dependency, rather high CO2 intensity of German electricity generation (even while having one of the largest shares of #renewables) – and all that at extremely high electricity prices.
I won't go into the details of Energiewende timeline and criticism, as it has been sufficiently discussed elsewhere. I just wanted to look at one particular document, a foundational one, to see if an ideological bias of the program could have something to do with its failure.
The document in question is a 2011 report Germany's energy transition – A collective work for the future by Ethics Committee for Secure Energy Supply (original in German).
The report is a feasibility study of the Energiewende and one of the primary questions it attempts to answers is whether it's possible to still decarbonise the German electricity generation and phase out #nuclear power at the same time. The question was being raised based on a rather sober notion that removal of the only low-carbon and dispatchable electricity source that nuclear is, makes the decarbonisation much harder rather than easier to achieve.
The report's conclusion not only a firm “yes”, but also a recommendation to make that particular target binding:
The Ethics Committee is firmly convinced that the phase-out of nuclear energy can be completed within a decade by means of the energy transition measures presented here. This goal and the necessary measures should be a binding commitment on the part of society. Only on the basis of a clear timeframe can the necessary planning and investment decisions be made.
The primary challenge with removing nuclear from the grid is that it's dispatchable, that is produces electricity we need it, not when wind wants to blow or Sun wants to shine. By removing especially a dispatchable source you need to replace it with something else, also dispatchable, or you're risking blackouts.
The report's conclusion?
It is possible because there are lower-risk alternatives.
Are there? Well, there are no other dispatchable electricity source alternatives, neither in 2011 nor today. What did the report's authors have in mind back then?
Germany has alternatives: power generation from wind, sun, water, geothermal energy, biomass, the more efficient use and increased productivity of energy, and fossil fuels used in a climate-friendly way. Changes in people's lifestyles also help to save energy if they respect nature and preserve it as the basis of creation.
Note a very careful wording here: interests of nearly every interest groups have been captured here in a very inclusive way: renewable industry, farmers, but also fossil fuel suppliers (!) and even environmental and religious groups, who get a nod in the last sentence. The report is generally very conscious about the interests of the German businesses and scientific community:
The phase-out should be designed in such a way that the competitiveness of industry and of Germany as a business location is not jeopardised. Through science and research, technological developments and entrepreneurial initiative to develop new business models for a sustainable economy.
There's just one business and scientific community that is consistently vilified in the report:
The phase-out is necessary and recommended in order to eliminate the risks posed by nuclear power in Germany in the future.
The “risks” are mentioned in the report 33 times on 48 pages, so nearly on every single page, excluding list of authors etc. From the EC JRC (2021) report we know that all electricity generation technologies come with some risks and the risks of nuclear power are easily manageable, and from the UNECE (2021) report we learn that nuclear power comes with quantifiable lowest environmental impacts among all generation sources.
When reading the Energiewende report it's hard not to feel that its largest bias (but not only one) was obsessive singling out of nuclear power as the most risky source, while even fossil fuels are not presented as such – even though exactly the opposite conclusions come out from reports on the impact of fossil fuels on human health and climate. And no, the report does not quote a single scientific publication to support this particular claim. It just seems to be an a priori assumption that all authors kept in their minds so hard that nobody even felt any need to prove it. Almost an axiom. It was so deeply embedded into the report, that it even impacted the writing style. Note the scare quotes?
The accident in Fukushima has shaken confidence in expert assessments of the “safety” of nuclear power plants. (p. 10)
The axiom is even explicitly mentioned in the report, which quite clearly explains its rather notable lack of any impartial and evidence-based discussion on “should we do it” or even “can we do it”. The report from the beginning was intended as a way to convince the lawmakers that it must happen, and the sooner the better:
The question is no longer “nuclear power yes or no?”, but rather the question of how to shape the phase-out, i.e. “phase-out sooner or later? (p. 10)
The report reaches deep into the religious origins of obligation of human towards the nature:
It is about the question of how people deal with nature and the relationship between society and nature. The Christian tradition and the culture of Europe result in a special obligation of man towards nature. Man's ecological responsibility for nature aims to preserve and protect the environment and not to destroy it for one's own purposes, but to increase its benefits and to preserve opportunities for securing future living conditions. (p. 11)
And there's nothing wrong with this postulate on its own, except the whole narrative is so extremely biased in its vilifying of nuclear power while whitewashing any other generation (including fossil), that its practical outcome is literally reverse of the intended: nuclear phase-out has resulted in increased pollution and human mortality.
Most notably, on page 14 there's a whole long section on risk management, which is honest, professional and logical, with statements such as “there cannot be zero risk in large-scale plant”, “none of the energy options is risk-free” and calls for “scientific facts and jointly agreed justified ethical weighing criteria”. At the end it however it does literally the opposite: rather than actually looking at science and comparing the relative risks per units of energy, it simply jumps straight to a conclusion like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat:
It is easy to see why nuclear power plants can and should be replaced by lower-risk methods of energy production. This is because almost all scientific studies come to the conclusion that renewable energies and the improvement in energy efficiency entail lower health and environmental risks than nuclear energy. Moreover, from today's perspective, the economic risks of these alternative energies appear to be manageable and limitable. (p. 14)
This couldn't be complete without the mandatory nod towards
Gazpromthe fossil fuel industry:
This also applies in a weakened form to the use of fossil energy sources, if the agreed climate protection goals are met. (p. 14)
The authors were unavoidably going to hit the conflict of removing a dispatchable low-carbon source from the grid and the targets of decarbonisation. They resolve it rather easily – you can't compare these!
The question of whether the climate problem is bigger or smaller than the problems resulting from nuclear accidents is answered differently, but basically there is no meaningful basis for comparison. (p. 20)
The next key controversy they faced is “security of supply”, or simply uninterrupted supply of electricity throughout the country. Their verdict?
In the next few years, a considerable increase in renewable energies will have to be achieved. This expansion is important in order to achieve the goal of climate-compatible energy production. Wind, solar thermal energy, photovoltaics (PV), geothermal energy and other innovative approaches, together with flanking measures for electricity storage, can thus tend to contribute to securing the base load demand. Today, biomass power plants are already capable of providing secure power. (p. 22)
Unfortunately, this statement is directly contradictory to the stated section topic: variable renewable energy (VRE) is called “variable” for a reason, and because it's weather dependent a better expansion would be “variable random energy”. Renewables do not improve supply security, quite the opposite – they cause insecurity by dropping supply at random moment during peak demand times, and by overloading the grid with unneeded supply during low demand periods. Especially talking about “renewables securing the base load demand” is an oxymoron, as “base load” is called “base” specifically due to its stable and predictable character.
Among all listed technologies biomass is the only dispatchable generation technology that actually exists in Germany – it provides ~14% of the electricity and is highly controversial as most of the “biomass” are trees imported from Siberia and Africa to be burned in German power plants. Electricity storage has been always the Holy Grail of renewable energy, as in theory it's the missing ingredient that allows to store the excess energy produced by variable renewables during their peak generation times to be released when they go down. But that's theory – in practice storage is tricky, with the only large-scale storage technology available being hydro pumped storage, which Germany has ~15% in terms of power (4% of annual generation), and an emerging technology is battery storage, which after 10 years of Energiewende achieved 4% of power and negligible generation.
Ultimately, the question of “how to replace phased-out nuclear capacity” is watered down and left without a definitive answer. That is, if we don't count this forecast – rather shocking in the context of postulated decarbonisation of the whole program:
The German Association of Energy and Water Industries even goes beyond this in its figures on the addition of power plant capacity: by 2019, around 50 power plants (wind, gas, hard coal, lignite, biomass, waste, run-of-river; also pumped storage, compressed air) with approx. 30 gigawatts would be built. (p. 22)
Wait, what?! Gas, hard coal, lignite? And no, no “approx. 30 GW of compressed air” power plants have been built, ever.
Dependence on imports
Can you think of any other significant “supply security” aspects? Well, certainly there's dependence on foreign imports.
This aspect is represented in the report by... two paragraphs of rather vague analysis, listing “imports of oil, gas and uranium” as the key dependencies.
Yes, 100 tons of uranium and 100'000'000'000 of cubic meters of gas and oil are put in the same line and presented as equivalent. The only conclusion is to keep the imports “diverse”, and I have an impression that the authors either avoided the topic or simply dismissed it as too trivial to discuss any further.
Another important part of the analysis contains a forecast about estimated price rises as result of nuclear phase-out. And we have a forecast:
The German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) concludes that the moratorium will only lead to minor electricity price increases for households amounting to a maximum of 1.4 percent. The DIW attributes the increase mainly to the rise in exchange prices of about 0.4 cents per kilowatt hour (six per cent).
The grim reality was that only 5 years after these words were written, Germany reached the highest electricity prices in the whole EU. In 2022 the billions of discounted gas from Russia came out to come bundled with a energy blackmail and €200 billion stabilisation package to help skyrocketing electricity prices.
I quite like that large part of the report is dedicated to achieving social consensus on the terms of the transition. As a matter of fact, large part of the document discusses that topic and I'm essentially skipping that as most of it is non-controversial to me. In any case, widespread discussion and consensus-based decision making is a key trope throughout the document:
Such a process of understanding is a viable path to a concretisation of the basic consensus. On this path, ideological divergences will always arise. They concern, for example, the extent to which protection against risks should take precedence over protection of the quality of life.
It's nice to highlight these unavoidable differences in opinions, and it's nice to wish to resolve them. But how do you resolve a conflict between those who want to build way more wind towers and PV farms in Bavarian hills, and those who want to preserve the hills for future generations?
Here comes DESERTEC
The section on actual technologies to drive the transition is long but surprisingly vague in terms of both concrete effects and especially their feasibility. I won't discuss it in details, but rather conclude that in general it proposes a lot of ideas that it's hard to argue with (“energy efficiency”, “modern insulation” etc) but in general it looks more like a result of enthusiastic brainstorming where random ideas are enumerated (“let's combine innovative products ... oh I've heard someone proposed electricity storage in refrigerator systems ... and here it goes in the report”) but contains zero actual analysis of their feasibility even on the highest level (“we need to reduce demand by X GW ... potential for reduction in residential buildings countrywide is Y GW”).
And then there's the whole section on “Renewable energies” (p. 31+) which bears exactly the same spirit as described above. But then I got to this:
In the medium and long term, solar thermal energy also offers great opportunities for energy cooperation with Southern Europe and Africa, which also has development potential in Africa. The “Desertec” initiative is a first important approach.
Ah, the DESERTEC! In 2009 the project, which proposed to build massive arrays of PV panels on Sahara and then export electricity over HVDC lines to Europe was massively advertised, with far-fetching forecasts it will produce “15% of Europe’s electricity requirements by 2050”. No wonder it just had to be mentioned in the 2011 report, and I remember any doubts on “but how do we...” was promptly dismissed with the magical “we'll have DESERTEC soon!” discussion-ending argument.
How do we replace 8.5 GW of the phase-out nuclear? Elementary: we'll have DESERTEC! By 2013 however DESERTEC was practically dead due to a mix of reasons: technical complexity, lower than expected capacity of panels, higher than expected prices, Arab Spring in Africa and many other.
I believe this section of the report is both representative to the spirit of Energiewende and symbolic to its failure: its authors pushed a hard time-bound decision to phase-out a reliable, low-carbon electricity source while placing all their bets on a future, prospective technologies with a very uncertainty of feasibility. Germany literally jumped head-first into a pool covered in a dense fog of future, hoping it will be full of clean, fluffy, modern tech just because “society wanted it”. One thing that was certain was the demand for electricity. As the expected technologies never really materialised, or were way less optimal than expected, but the German society of course expected 24/7 power supply, the pool came out to be actually filled with hard, dirty fuel of the past – coal.
And the fossil fuels were kind of guaranteed in the Ethics report already in 2011. The whole section “Fossil-fuelled power plants” (p. 34) starts with a righteous disclaimer (“phase-out of nuclear energy must not be at the expense of climate protection”) but it only plays the role of a fig leaf before what comes next:
The supply gap resulting from the phase-out of nuclear energy is to be closed primarily through the use of renewable energies and energy efficiency as well as through the use of fossil fuels, especially gas. They provide the security of a permanently available electricity supply. (p. 34)
Now, as we saw in the later years, the supply gas was not really closed “by the use of renewable energies and energy efficiency”, and that was kind of obvious due to the intermittency of the former.
The next few pages sound literally like an advertising leaflet from “Gazprom”, where fossil gas is “safely available”, new gas plants can be built in “three years”. Of course, “there is no reason to fear a lock-in effect”, and then comes the best: “natural gas is the fossil fuel with the lowest CO2 emissions”. They happily wrote this in 2011, when CO2 intensity of nuclear were estimated at 12 gCO2eq/kWh while from fossil gas – 490 gCO2eq/kWh, that is 40x more. At the end of the chapter, there's a mandatory nod to the coal industry, praising “modern, highly efficient coal-fired power plants”.
I don't think the next paragraph will be of any surprise, after what we have read so far: the same attitude of “phase-out now, think about alternatives later”, and they certainly will appears because “of utmost importance”:
Creating electricity storage options will be of utmost importance. Due to grid integration and the state of research, solutions with hydrogen or methane as well as pumped storage, for example, are feasible in the future. New, unconventional infrastructural services will include the systemic storage of electricity. The electricity re-serve has a dampening effect on prices. The creation of extensive storage capacities is not a prerequisite for the nuclear phase-out. However, storage facilities of various types will be so important in the future that their further research, development and testing must be intensified today. (p. 37)
“Proliferation” and “nuclear waste”
The report contains further two sections, titled as above, which are an absolute mastery of vague and allusive style of writing. The topic of “proliferation” is a belief that where there are civilian nuclear reactors, there must be a bomb.
The authors do not even try to prove their point with any specific examples, they simply note that unspecified and that “international laws to contain and control proliferation have so far been of limited effectiveness”, which kind of completely ignores the fact that while there's 30+ countries with nuclear power, there's only 7 with nuclear weapons, and that club remains largely stable over the last decades. In addition, two countries (Israel, North Korea) allegedly have nuclear weapons but no nuclear power, which once again demonstrates that these two sets are largely independent.
The strongest argument used by the authors in this section is that “people increasingly have the impression”.
The section on nuclear waste starts with a demonstration of utter ignorance of the authors to the fundamental concepts of physics (“several millennia”), and ironically ends with a warning against “excessive optimism” about technology being able to deal with the waste, when the whole remaining parts of the report are one huge tribute to “excessive optimism” as it comes to all the technologies authors like and expect to magically appear to compensate for nuclear phase-out.
The report starts with a declaration that Committee “is firmly convinced” that the nuclear phase-out is not only feasible, but “can be completed within a decade”.
What follows is a mix of naive technocratic optimism about some magical technologies that will conveniently appear within only a decade (!) to happily compensate for the lost nuclear capacity, and cynical but calming “last resort option” of expanding fossil fuels capacity just in case the “magical” option did not happen.
What we saw in reality, was collapse of the naive renewables optimism (mostly driven by absence of any scalable storage) and prompt switch to the “cynical fossil option”, simply because it was the only option to keep the lights on in the country!
We will have phased out nuclear energy by 2022. We have a very difficult problem, namely that almost the only sources of energy that will be able to provide baseload power are coal and lignite. Naturally, we cannot do without baseload energy. Natural gas will therefore play a greater role for another few decades. I believe we would be well advised to admit that if we phase out coal and nuclear energy then we have to be honest and tell people that we’ll need more natural gas. (Angela Merkel, Speech at 49th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos on 23 January 2019)
By 2021 energy crisis we saw Energiewende turn into its parody, with Germany, which now has 120 GW installed capacity in renewables, is forced to turn to the most hard-core version: new coal (!) and gas plants, while the soon-to-be-closed nuclear fleet has been desperately spared for unspecified period thanks to appeals of thousands of scientists and engineers, with with fierce opposition from “Greens” who would rather keep “safe coal”.
I think the best demonstration of the bias of the reports is that Energiewende is still being presented as “leading program for decarbonisation”, while Germany's CO2 emissions intensity routinely 5-10x higher than its mostly nuclear neighbours!