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"We Can Do It" Says German Environment Agency on Nuclear Phase Out

The Conservative German government has issued a 14-page document outlining how Germany can close all its reactors by 2017 and keep the lights on.

The report, Hintergrundpapier zur Umstrukturierung der Stromversorgung in Deutschland was released by the Umweltbundesamt, or the German Environment Agency (UBA), May 30, 2011.

The study found that Germany could close its reactors by 2017, much sooner than the government's official proposal of 2022. The report, and the timing of its release, indicates the intense political debate within and without the ruling coalition of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and her junior partner, the neoliberal Free Democrats.

As noted by Craig Morris for Renewables International, the report was issued by an agency within the German Ministry of the Environment, but it was not "commissioned" by the Ministry itself. This subtlety would be lost on all but the most avid political junkies.

The Ministry, the Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und Reaktorsicherheit or BMU, is led by the up and coming conservative party member Dr. Norbert Röttgen, who distanced himself from the report but did not prevent its publication. The report will surely be used by the opposition parties in arguing that the "austieg" or exit from nuclear can be quicker than the Merkel government is proposing.

Ironically, the conservative Merkel government has proposed the exit policy implemented by the previous red-green government of Social Democrats and the Greens. Merkel's conservative party rose to power in part on a platform of extending the operation of the existing reactors. Her policy on extending the reactors operating lives was tabled shortly before the Fukushima accident. The policy reversal is historic not only in Germany, but worldwide.

Critics of the reversal have charged that:

  • Germany will suffer power outages
  • Germany will import nuclear power from other countries, notably France
  • Germany will build massive new coal plants to make up the shortfall

The analysis by the German environment agency was undertaken to specifically examine these questions. They concluded that Germany can close the reactors within five years and do so:

  • Without power outages
  • Without importing nuclear power from other countries
  • Without building new coal plants
  • With only a modest increase in the cost of electricity

The agency says that Germany can close the nuclear plants by faster development of its renewable sources of energy and the construction of 5,000 MW of new gas-fired generation. The new gas-fired generation will give the grid the necessary flexibility to meet demand while also preserving Germany's commitment to reducing its carbon dioxide emissions.

To the surprise of many critics of Germany's renewable energy program, the country is not a net importer of electricity. In recent years, Germany has been a net exporter of generation.

UBA's study found that electricity imports to Germany are based on price and not on any shortage of supply, and this will continue as the reactors are taken off line. That is, Germany buys electricity on the liberalized market when it is cheaper than generating the electricity from its own fossil-fired power plants.

The German Environment Agency estimates that a rapid exit from nuclear will cost ratepayers only €0.006 to €0.008 per kWh ($0.009/kWh to $0.01/kWh). This increase, says UBA, is less than the price swings of natural gas and coal during the past year.

Interestingly, the higher market price for electricity will reduce the cost of Germany's renewable energy program by decreasing the differential between the market price of electricity and the average cost of feed-in tariffs for renewable energy.

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