30 August 2011

An "experiment on ourselves": The German energy picture

So Germany has decided to make permanent its decision, post-Fukushima, to shut down its eight oldest nuclear reactors. Today's New York Times has a story analyzing Germany's energy situation, and the sense one comes away with is partially captured by a quotation from Jürgen Grossmann, who runs the utility that owns two of the deactivated plants: "Germany, in a very rash decision, decided to experiment on ourselves,” he said. “The politics are overruling the technical arguments.”

Actually, I think that's a bit overstated, which is no surprise given the weight of the decision on Grossmann's company. Certainly, the decision seems to have something of an emotional ring to it. But I think it's tough to argue anything other than that the Fukushima accident merely accelerated (albeit for partly non-technical reasons) the timeline of a project Germany had already more-or-less decided to pursue. My guess is that this "experiment" was going to happen either way.

What is that experiment? In short, it's to set aside nuclear energy and continue aggressive expansion in renewables to make up most of the difference. (But do note that the energy gap they're creating is dynamic and requires diversified assets to fill it: "To be prudent, the plan calls for the creation of 23 gigawatts of gas- and coal-powered plants by 2020. Why? Because renewable plants don’t produce nearly to capacity if the air is calm or the sky is cloudy, and there is currently limited capacity to store or transport electricity, energy experts say.")

Now I'm obviously partisan about whether eliminating nuclear is a necessary or even advisable part of plans to make our energy use and production more environmentally responsible. I (still) happen to think that, by and large, we're going to need more nuclear plants, not fewer, if we're going to keep this planet habitable and continue to improve our ability to feed, clothe, and shelter a growing population. The trick, it seems to me, will be keeping affluent people content enough with their shrinking (but still ample) lot that they won't react by simply blocking efforts at reform. That tenuous situation is part of why I believe in nuclear power: it's cheap (like gas and especially coal), but it still allows us to actually deal with the waste stream rather than pumping it into the atmosphere (unlike with gas and coal). The cheapness keeps us energy-addicted types plugged in, while our secure possession of the waste prevents carbon emissions and gives the planet (and the people living in the most vulnerable places) a fighting chance in the globally warmed years to come.

So what caught my eye in this article is Germany's willingness to go "all in" on what is, by almost all accounts, a technically ambitious plan, in order to bring desired change about. It's a plan that is rife with uncertainty. There seems in Germany then a mandate for making a certain amount of sacrifice, or at least potentially doing so, in order to make ends meet while using (even) cleaner energy. I very much doubt there will be any tenable long-term solutions that don't require still more significant sacrifice (or what will at least feel like sacrifice for a while).

Thus, whatever I think of this plan as an erstwhile systems analyst and as a nuclear power proponent, I'm encouraged as a wannabe Christian ethicist by another super-rich country's willingness to take on a little collective uncertainty for the sake of bringing about a desired change. I think much of our fate as a planet will ride on the willingness of the first to be last (Matthew 20:16) in just this way. I hope my own country will find ways of taking analogous moral leadership in the face of the crisis ahead.

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