Germany’s Energiewende is one of the most important and widely debated projects of our time. Among major economies, Germany has done the most to promote renewable energy at the expense of fossil fuels and nuclear power.
One controversial aspect of the Energiewende is the emphasis on phasing out nuclear. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany decided to become nuclear-free by 2022. As a result, the rapid growth of renewables in the power sector has largely replaced nuclear instead of coal.
Although I prefer renewables to nuclear, my personal preference would have been to phase out coal first. Coal is the most polluting source of energy today and should be our top target. In the power sector, progress in carbon abatement depends first and foremost on coal. On the other hand, nuclear power is not a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Still, Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear makes sense. The other day, @EnergiewendeGER, a Twitter “account dedicated to providing updates on Germany’s energy transition to 100% renewables,” tweeted the following:
“Politics is no university seminar where you come up with a theory & plan. We saw chance to stop nukes so we did. Coal? Is next!”
Renewable energy advocates cannot control energy policy on their own. If an exogenous shock — in this case, Fukushima — opens the door to phasing out nuclear, a renewable energy advocate who believes in a 100% renewable future should seize the opportunity. Given this ambitious goal, the next step is to remove coal from the power generation portfolio.
This reasoning is frustrating to conventional energy analysts because their emphasis is on prediction not action. It is true that in the business-as-usual scenario, the decision to focus on nuclear will have negative climate effects over time. However, Energiewende is an abrupt departure from business as usual. If the German renewable energy advocates play their cards right, Germany will next begin to reduce its reliance on coal. From this perspective, Fukushima was a great opportunity to phase out nuclear. Now that coal is increasingly criticized in the public debate, it’s time to set sights on a new, more dangerous target.
More generally, debates between activists and analysts are frequently frustrating because of the different perspectives and world views. What the activists say makes no sense to a hard-headed analyst who is looking for the most probable outcome. What the analysts say makes no sense to the activists who want to change the world.