Germany and Nuclear Power

I’ve seen far too many people in the English-speaking world attack Germany repeatedly for its closure of nuclear power plants, for a variety of reasons. So as a public service, I would like to explain why Germany is like this. This may be relevant to other related issues concerning the politics of the green transition, including transportation and urbanism.

Electricity in Germany

There’s easy-to-search data on the electricity mix in Germany by source on Clean Energy Wire and the Working Group on Energy Balance (AGEB); on the latter site, Stromdaten gives the overall mix. In 2019, 40% of German power generation was renewable, and 12% was nuclear. The renewable share of German power consumption was slightly higher, 42.6% – Germany is a net exporter of electricity. The biggest contributor to renewable power is wind, but solar has recently been growing as well. Hydro power counts with renewable energy here, but is not a major factor, as German population density is high, unlike in Canada, Sweden, or Norway.

Over the decade, there was a large reduction in nuclear power generation. Nuclear power generation is down by slightly less than half, and a full phaseout is expected by the end of 2022. This has created a lot of criticism from pro-nuclear advocates as well as from trolls who enjoy attacking Germany, the green movement, and German greens specifically. Here is one typical example, a 2013 Telegraph article warning German economic growth might fall and saying utilities were turning to coal. But coal production fell in absolute numbers even more than nuclear power, down over the decade from 42% to 28%.

Why is Germany like this?

It’s still worth asking, why did Germany cut nuclear production, where it could have instead reduced coal production even further?

The answer can be found in the following Cold War joke:

Q. What is a tactical nuclear weapon?
A. Anything that lands on Germany.

West Germany built some nuclear plants in the 1960s and 70s, as did many other developed countries, like the US and France. But it faced New Left protests early and often, and this has to be understood in the context of the association between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. In Japan, such popular opposition happened even earlier, going back to the 1950s; the state kept building nuclear plants anyway, but slowly, without anything like France’s rapid buildup in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis.

Nuclear power advocates get frustrated when people compare nuclear power with nuclear weapons, but peaceful use of nuclear power always involved this association, often by supporters too. In the US, physicists proposed using nuclear bombs for infrastructure purposes. In the 1960s there were plans to use nuclear bombs to built I-40 as well as straighten the Southern Transcon; eventually I-40 was built by conventional means, and the Southern Transcon was not straightened. This was always a solution looking for a problem – the atomic age was the hallmark of modernity, so why not use nukes for more purposes than just war?

In France, too, the reasoning for the buildup of nuclear energy in the 1980s was justified on national security grounds – “in France we have no oil, we have ideas.” Germany and Japan, which do not have the global superpower pretensions of France, did not have the same justification to expand nuclear power at the same time.

Nuclear power and the modern greens: costs

On the eve of the Fukushima plant closures of 2011, German electricity was 23% nuclear, French electricity more than 70%. The origin of this difference is not about modern greens but about whether the national consensus viewed nuclear weapons positively or negatively in the 1970s and 80s, at which time nobody thought climate change was a serious problem.

The 2010s and 20s are not the 1970s and 80s; today, people do understand just how important climate change is as a global environmental problem. The green movement has adapted, if not as radically as pro-nuclear advocates would like. The German environmentalists I talk to either don’t care about nuclear power or are in favor of keeping it around. I tried to explain to the Breakthrough Institute’s Ted Nordhaus that at the big Fridays for Future protest on the 20th of September, there were hundreds of anti-coal power sign and just one anti-nuclear sign, held by people visibly older than most of the millennial and postmillennial attendees; he replied, “Greta is anti-nuclear.”

What is true is that nobody except Breakthrough calls for the construction of new nuclear power. But nuclear power is expensive with modern safety standards, while the costs of renewable energy are falling, those of onshore wind in Germany already lower than those of any other source, even coal. A 2009-11 analysis claims onshore wind costs $1.75-2.40 per watt to install (source, PDF-p. 25). A 2018 comparison within Europe finds a range of 1-1.50/W for onshore wind and perhaps 1.50-2.50 for offshore wind (source, PDF-p. 24), with noticeable correlation between a country’s wind power costs per watt and its urban subway tunneling costs per kilometer. Breakthrough has a cost comparison of nuclear power plant construction, where South Korea, which they praise for its low-cost construction, builds plants for about $2.50/W after PPP adjustment.

The cost comparison suggests strongly that people interested in green energy should be fine with retaining existing nuclear power in the medium term but not call for new capacity – it’s more expensive than renewables.

Political compromises

There are people who are against nuclear power categorically. There are people who want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is a clash between these two propositions, but it is not a total war. Before Fukushima, German power was 23% nuclear, and nuclear power costs were already higher than wind power costs, so decarbonizing the German electricity sector meant incentivizing more renewable power, not building more nuclear power. Since there was no point in dying on the nuclear hill – it was too small a share of power generation to be worth defending as in France, and too expensive to be worth expanding – the NIMBYs got their wish and nuclear power is being phased out early. Nonetheless, the majority of German electricity is generated by carbon-free sources, and the growth in renewable power has grown its scale to make it economic.

In France, the calculation is different. After Fukushima, there was no chance of a phaseout, only plans to reduce the share of electricity coming from nuclear power from the 70s to 50%. But the Macron administration has extended the lifespan of existing plants and pushed back plans for plant closure. In France, the nuclear power share is high enough because of decisions made in the 1970s and 80s that defending what exists is important, and thus the state can postpone mass installation of solar and wind energy until costs fall further. But in Germany, with an imminent need to install renewable power anyway, the political compromise went in another direction.

The formation of a de facto anti-nuclear political consensus has to be seen in this context. By the time the political system got serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, roughly in the 2000s and 10s, the costs of renewables were more favorable than those of nuclear power. Thus, to people who do distinguish nuclear power from nuclear weapons, think the plants are safe, and harbor no NIMBY opposition to new construction, nuclear power was an acceptable political sacrifice. It wouldn’t be the first choice to close these plants, but as a second choice combined with extensive renewable construction, it was fine.

It’s important to think in terms of goals – decarbonization, improving public health, reducing housing costs, etc. Breaking down these goals further – decarbonizing the power sector, reducing air pollution, etc. – can be desirable for specific solutions. But the goals are still too important for activists to be wedded to a specific solution and convert it from a means to an end. If the relative costs of different solutions change, it’s important to recognize this fact and switch support to the cheaper solution.

47 comments

  1. henry

    This is a lot of words that don’t really explain anything. Germany is still unquestionably increasing its carbon footprint because of anti-nuclearism from greens and the political strength of the coal industry.

    > But coal production fell in absolute numbers even more than nuclear power, down over the decade from 42% to 28%.

    Where are you getting this? Every source I’ve seen has coal in Germany between over 35% of electricity generation in 2019. And a good portion of the “renewable” sector comes from biomass, which is only debatably carbon neutral.

    • Alon Levy

      Follow the links. Coal was around 35% in 2018 but fell a lot in 2019. And no, the German carbon footprint is not increasing. The renewable + nuclear share is quickly increasing, beyond prior plans (which had renewable at 35% of consumption by 2020, whereas last year it was 42.6% of consumption), and was flat even in the big shutdown period of 2010-3.

      • Alberto Zaragoza Comendador

        In order to evaluate the impact of an emissions policy, what matters is not the percentage of electricity coming from different sources, or even the absolute emissions. What matters is difference in emissions between a policy scenario and a no-policy scenario. Of course this calculation cannot be totally precise, as one can never be sure of how high or low emissions would have been in the absence of a policy, but it’s the only approach that makes sense.

        Perhaps the simplest counter-factual exercise consists of looking at how fast GDP growth is, compared with emissions growth. I call this the decarbonization rate, but some people may call the rate of increase in efficiency or whatever. Under this metric, there is no question Germany’s approach has been a failure. The economy was decarbonizing slightly faster in the 1980s and 90s, meaning there was a bigger gap between GDP growth and emissions growth. With the caveat that the last time I run the math I used emission numbers up to 2015, but I doubt much has changed with an additional three years of data (most sources don’t have 2019 numbers yet).

        • Alon Levy

          This is a pretty big caveat – coal burning has fallen by a lot since 2015. A lot can change in 4 years; in 2008, Greece had had one of the fastest economic growth rates in the developed world since 1990, I think the second highest per capita in Europe after Ireland, whereas by 2012 the growth rate since 1990 had fallen to one of the lowest, I think the second lowest ahead of only Italy.

  2. Brett

    Good point about the PPP cost of the South Korean nuclear plants’ power, given how frequently they get trotted out by nuclear power advocates in response to the cost problems of building new nuclear plants. The truth is that nuclear plants are just largely too expensive to build for the value of the electricity they generate, and that’s after they get a huge implicit subsidy in the US because of laws reducing their liability for potential nuclear accidents (allowing them to get affordable insurance).

    Nuclear power is best where you need high power density and can afford to pay a higher cost for it. That makes it good for certain large warships/submarines and probably spacecraft (and future space bases), but bad for regular electricity generation, where cost is more important.

  3. Alex Mazoomer (@mazuretsky)

    I am sorry if I am being wrong, but the 1000MW nuclear power plant can produce while it is online, while wind is less reliable.
    In 2018 in France, there was 63.12 GW of nuclear and 393,000 GWh were produced. This gives us a capacity utilisation factor of 71%. France’s capacity utilisation factor may be lower than technically possible because it is about the only country in the world that has so much nuclear that it actually has to throttle it down.

    During the same period, the utilisation factor was 26% for the onshore wind in the UK and 40% for the offshore wind (bear in mind that offshore wind tends to be more expensive). The total capacity factor

    These numbers are hardly atypical: German capacity factors are in the 15-25% range, in 2018 they were 21%.

    This means, that it may easily be necessary to install 3MW of wind to replace 1MW of nuclear. Once you multiply wind costs by 3 they are no longer looking so good. Furthermore, as wind expands to the more marginal locations, its capacity factors may well fall further.

      • adirondacker12800

        The price of storing the excess, overnight, keeps dropping too. There are all sorts of scenarios. One of them is to store a big chunk of the excess in the electric cars. Shaving the peaks or filling the slumps with the car batteries is almost “free”. “Free” is cheaper than anything else.

  4. jonsalmans

    So far as I can tell, the prices that are listed for renewable energy do not include the price of having fossil fuel plants on standby or of grid scale energy storage to make sure that power is consistently and reliably available. While it may be true that renewables are cheaper, I am skeptical until I’ve seen a full cost accounting.

    • Alon Levy

      They don’t, nor do the nuclear ones include the price of having fossil fuel plants on standby for power surges (France exports electricity on net but sometimes has to import during peak load times).

      (The Breakthrough paper about comparative nuclear power costs has come under criticism for its own lack of full cost accounting, by the way.)

      • jonsalmans

        Since most as-built nuclear and coal plants are both base load plants, for the purpose of evaluating the most cost effective way to reduce coal use, you don’t need to consider the fact that the nuclear plants are unable to provide variable/peak power. If you have a coal plant you can replace it with a nuclear plant of a standard design without changes to your grid. This is not the case for adding renewables where you must also add either peaking power plants or energy storage as well for reliability.

        It is also possible to design nuclear power plants that provide a variable amount of power. I don’t think these would cost that much more than standard designs. So it is not clear to me that it would be more expensive to build a grid that was 100% nuclear power + hydroelectric as opposed to 100% renewable.

        • Alon Levy

          I mean, Scandinavia is converging on wind + hydro, with an international grid to export Norwegian hydro when there’s no wind and import Danish wind when there is wind.

          • Onux

            Yes, but this is a poor model for other places. Almost nowhere has the low population density and large hydro potential like Scandinavia to make this work. Elsewhere you need some other source to provide the reliable base load power when it isn’t windy: i.e. nuclear.

            Note also Norwegian hydro makes wind viable not vice versa. Norway has had hydro for a long time, but Danish wind has grown in proportion to the grid capacity to import more reliable hydro. Once again, highlighting the importance of technologies like nuclear to make renewables work.

      • Onux

        Nuclear plants don’t absolutely have to incorporate the price of fossil fuel surge power, it is possible to throttle nuclear plants, it’s just very inefficient. More importantly, your point is a straw man, since the argument wasn’t standby fossil power for surge loads, it was standby fossil power for base load. Renewable energy ALSO needs standby power for surge loads, since if a power surge comes the energy company can’t will it to get sunnier or windier at that moment. But renewable energy IN ADDITION requires standby power for times when energy demand is normal, but it is cloudy/nighttime, still air, or both. Nuclear does not for normal operation.

        On another note, the preferred source for peak and especially surge power is hydro, since it can be throttled immediately and without power or cost penalty.

        • adirondacker12800

          There’s a big surge when a gigawatt sized power plant, how ever it’s fueled, goes out suddenly. They do occasionally.

          • Onux

            Yes, but no utility anywhere keeps a gigawatt or more of spare capacity laying around for a once every couple of years occurrence. Plus if your interconnection is large enough it is easier to absorb a whole plant going offline suddenly when demand isn’t tight.
            The very rare occasion that a whole plant drops offline in no way offsets the variability of renewables. The sun sets every day, not a few times a decade.

          • adirondacker12800

            The wind blows all night. Usually, in most places, harder than it does during the day. I can top up the car and house batteries with excess wind available in the dead of night.

          • michaelrjames

            No. If you want low-carbon energy and you only have solar and wind then you need big storage (which is not going to be chemical batteries) or enough hydro or nuclear. There is no immediate, economic solution which is the whole point of why energy experts believe Germany (and Japan) should not prematurely close down its operating nuclear plants.

          • adirondacker12800

            It’s not that big. Much smaller than my oil tank. Back of the envelope calculation is that I need 40kW hours of storage to get me through the coldest days and nights. Perhaps less if I can skim kilowatt hours from the two cars sitting in the garage. 200 mile range on the car I only need to charge it once a week or ten days.

  5. michaelrjames

    My position, which I have elaborated on on this blog, is that the Germans should not shut down operating nuclear. Up to the present they have closed 12GW of nuclear, and it will be 22GW by 2022. It’s seriously whack that they are doing that in such a rush while coal won’t be eliminated until 2038. I know which is killing the planet.

    That’s an awful lot of power, especially 24/7 power, for which they won’t have any substitute any time soon. It’s why France is the EU’s biggest electricity exporter and of course at the times renewables can’t necessarily deliver. And France closed their last coal plant last year.

    While nuclear power costs a lot, the economics are not so simple. Econocrats can calculate LCOEs as much as they like but there are too many unaccountable factors for it to be reduced to such simplistic terms. How to put a value on all that nighttime reliable power, or the cost of trying to store solar and wind power? Germany has begun building PHES but nothing approaching the scale required. Nuclear has also shown an ability to have a life extension of ten years; it’s not a gimmick as coal generators cannot do this and often are clapped out at 30 years (often before their rated life; and their owners don’t want to try to extend their lives because it is costly and a constant battle to keep them operating). And what about the coming EV revolution? It will bring a very big demand which will mostly be at night and no grid is prepared for this–except perhaps the French.
    For these reasons, despite UK probably being the country that has made most progress towards greening their grid, is still going ahead with two EPRs (3.2GW) at very high cost.

  6. Mikel

    Does the cost of nuclear vary significantly across countries? If existing French reactors are newer than German ones we could expect lower costs due to 1) modern designs being more efficient and 2) less need for safety retrofits.

    • adirondacker12800

      Lower the costs it’s still more expensive than windmills, PV and batteries.

      • michaelrjames

        No. Batteries are simply not up to the job. They are being deployed on grids, such as in CA or South Australia’s “world’s largest” battery, but to replace gas-peakers for very short timespans and for voltage and frequency control. SA’s has been very successful, and profitable, but not as a substitute for mass storage which it is not. And don’t forget that the batteries being deployed have a lifespan of about ten years, less if intensively used as daily storage rather than just control or peakers as currently. (Other battery technologies will be needed for serious storage.)
        It’s why any place that has a lot of renewables is looking seriously at PHES which can store as much as you want, though of course it is capital heavy which in turn is discounted by its very long life (in principle a century or more like big hydro). You don’t necessarily need huge dams, though existing huge dams can often be retrofitted eg. the 2GW “Snowy-2.0” project (for 4TWh pa). Australia is building PHES using adjacent old mining shafts (we have zillions of such abandoned mines), see Genex Kidston project which has seven-hour generation cycles once each day, delivering a maximum of 2250 MWh to the grid, approx. 800 GWh per year. Germany has its off-river Naturstromspeicher in Gaildorf: wind turbines that pump water from a river or river-adjacent reservoir, up the hill to where it is stored in structures at the base of the wind turbines.
        And of course hydrogen but realistically that is still not close, and it is quite inefficient.

        The notion that EV and their batteries can substitute is appealing but it turns out quite contrary to reality. They are just another demand on the grid.

    • Alon Levy

      The Breakthrough paper argues from historical data that yes, it does, hence the praise for Korea for having reasonable-for-the-2000s costs and for not having rising costs over time. It’s hard to give exact costs today since very few places are building new plants – Korea too is phasing nuclear out, replacing it with gas, for what as far as I can tell is the usual nuclear power-nuclear war association.

      For what it’s worth, Olkiluoto Unit 3 is €8.5 billion for 1.6 GW, so around €5.31/W, and that’s in a low-construction cost country; I don’t know how much wind power costs in Finland, but in Norway and Sweden, onshore wind is €1.15-1.35/W. I’m tempted to say it’s most important to install more wind power in Scandinavia in order to be able to export hydro power to the rest of Europe for base load.

      • Luke

        It’s not strictly true that Korea is phasing out nuclear; a period of public consultation resulted in the pre-existing plans for previously-halted new reactors at the Kori plant resuming, and there are new reactors being built at the Hanul plant, as well. Granted, some of this will replace reactors to be decommissioned, but Korea’s 2030 energy plans will hold nuclear roughly stable in terms of generating capacity; the new reactors being built are larger than the old ones being rid of, and so nuclear only loses 2GW of nameplate capacity by 2030. A long-term commitment to end nuclear exists, but more in theory than anything else.

        https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/cornotgandolphe_south_korea_electricity_2018.pdf

        I’d also say that while being anti-nuclear weapon played an early role, the anti-nuclear movement in Korea only really started to pick up after Fukushima-Daiichi happened. There are still (erroneous) concerns about irradiated fish and crops from Japan.

        Given the persistent, severe, air quality problems plaguing the whole country, and mountain-ensconced Seoul in particular, I can’t believe there’s not more energy in the efforts to phase out coal. There are three massive coal power plants in Gyeonggi-do, alone–the largest, the tragically-named Dangjin Eco Power Plant, is the 2nd largest in the world, at ~6GW. It’s here where South Korea tragically mimics the German error of phasing out nuclear first. At this point, additional capacity in either place is very difficult to justify, but maintaining nuclear as a baseload while renewables replace coal seems like the natural, best scenario.

      • michaelrjames

        It’s fair enough to cite the blown-out price of Olkiluoto and France’s EPR at Flamanville, as I do myself. However, it was a first build of a brand new reactor design (the most sophisticated reactor ever) and so no surprise it ran into cost overruns and big delays. It may be fairer to compare the costs of the two EPRs built in China. Both Taishan EPRs were began well after the Finnish & French, so should have benefited from that sorry experience, and both have been completed and deliver to the grid (#1, Aug, 2018; #2, Sept, 2019); in fact each EPR has nameplate 1750MW with 1660MWe delivered: we should use nameplate as other reactors and generators do. The Chinese claim they were built for US$7.5bn, not after big delays etc just not as bad as for the first European ones (French Areva is a 30% partner in Taishan). FWIW that is $2.14 per W (gross). Pretty damn fine.
        OTOH, the same pair of reactors to be built in Hinkley, UK, are £18bn to £24bn which is a not-so-fine US$23.78 to $31.69 per W. They will be built by the same Chinese-French consortium that built the Taishan reactors so one might at least expect the build to be smoother? (In UK, post-Brexit, hah! who has a blind clue … but they obviously can and will blame the French.)

        Unfortunately this doesn’t reveal the real costs of building one today, given how off-field the UK is in all big infrastructure projects, and how Chinese costs are opaque. Nevertheless I would guess it will be low enough to still be within competitive range of other generation, especially given its particular characteristics. As long as new construction don’t suffer the outrageous delays of the past; the cost blows up so dramatically due to the high capital costs and its cost of money, compounding interest is a bitch.

        Incidentally none of this was included in the 2016 Breakthrough Study (too early).

  7. Eric

    The figures you give for “cost of wind/solar” are irrelevant, because wind and solar are intermittent sources. There will be times when no wind is blowing and the sun is down, but you still have to supply energy. Therefore fossil fuels cannot be replaced by wind/solar, but only by a combination of wind/solar and a massive amount of batteries (or capacitors, pumped hydro, etc). So the real question is, what is the cost of wind/solar+batteries? And the answer is, higher than the cost of nuclear.

    In fact, we don’t even know if it is possible to run the entire electric grid based on wind/solar+batteries. Even if this is affordable at small scale, ramping up battery production may cause shortages of the relatively exotic elements needed to produce high quality batteries, and make it unaffordable at large scale. This is an experiment which has never been tried before, and we have no idea if it will succeed. Why bet the future of the planet on this possibility, when there already exists a tried and true carbon-elimination technology in nuclear?

    Interestingly, “green” anti-nuclear activism is funded in large part by the fossil fuel industry, which should tell you something about what the experts see as the biggest threat to fossil fuels.

    • Alon Levy

      1. In a part of the world where new wind installations cost 1/5 as much per unit of capacity as new nuclear plants, intermittency is not the worst problem.

      2. The solution this part of the world is converging on is wind + hydro + eventually solar; Norway is investing in grid connections to neighboring countries so that it can export hydro power when there’s no wind and import wind power when there is

      3. The main barrier to new nuclear power is cost more than anything else; the serious debate is about phaseout now vs. extending plant lifespans until there’s good enough renewable replacement, and on this issue the green movement is completely agnostic, judging by signs at climate protests.

      4. The link you sent me does not once say greens are funded by oil and gas – it mentions Greta’s name adjacent to saying that Shell promotes gas-and-renewables and wants you to think it establishes some link, which is really funny since Breakthrough pretty openly says oil and gas have been and still are good for the world. (Shell and BP both invest in solar tech to hedge against the possibility that climate action will kill their oil business; Shell was running “trust us, we’re investing in solar” ads 15 years ago. The fact that it’s wind and not solar that grew so much last decade was not expected in the 2000s.)

      • Eric

        1. That’s ignoring the battery issue

        2. There is not enough hydro in Europe, in Norway or elsewhere, to make that a viable solution for European decarbonization

        3. Nuclear’s cost issues (which, as I said, are smaller than the cost issues with non-nuclear decarbonization) are in large part due to excessive hysteria-mongering and NIMBYism – issues which can be mitigated by a strong pro-nuclear movement

        4. Direct quote contradicting you:
        In response, Brower quit and started a new group, Friends of the Earth (FOE). “There’s no more important issue in my life,” said Brower, than to “see that Friends of the Earth does everything it can, here and abroad, to stop the nuclear experiment.” Would you be shocked to learn that the founding donor of FOE was oilman Robert Anderson, owner of Atlantic Richfield?

        • Alon Levy

          1. The battery issue is not a factor-of-5 cost raiser.

          2. There isn’t? The share of hydro power in Northern Europe is pretty high, and if you add existing (not new) nuclear power in Sweden and France, it’s pretty healthy.

          3. Are you saying this out of knowledge of how much power NIMBYs have in Finland (or France, or Sweden, etc.), or out of assumption?

          4. I would be shocked to learn people are bringing up a 51-year-old organization that has had no involvement in FFF. A year after FOE was founded, half the German population got mad at Willy Brandt over the Kniefall; today, the only people in Germany with such opinions are AfD. XR is infinitely more relevant (I have no idea what they think about nuclear power but I presume they’re against it), and I’d still argue that nothing that XR does is relevant to the main of FFF despite occasional cross-retweets.

          • Eric

            1. I think it is, at least until we have evidence of it being cheaper on a large scale deployment somewhere
            2. There is enough hydro for low-population Scandinavian countries, but not for high-population countries in “mainland” Europe
            3. Assumption, based on what I have seen of the public debates, calls for modification of plants under construction, etc.

          • Alon Levy

            1. You mean other than the hydro-and-renewables mix that Northern Europe is going for?

            2. It’s not just for Scandinavia, Norwegian (and Swedish, Swiss, and Austrian) hydro can probably handle base load in Germany and maybe also Britain. Norwegian hydro production is something like 20% of German electricity production.

            3. Okay, but that’s not in any of the reporting I’ve seen about Olkiluoto. Wikipedia cites reporting from 2009-10 explaining the high costs, which talks about engineering failures like contractors not being used to the exacting standards of nuclear plants; nowhere is there any invocation of political opposition, NIMBY or otherwise.

          • Eric

            1/2. Hydro-and-renewables can work if there is enough hydro. But for large European countries such as Germany, there isn’t enough hydro. Base load needs to be 30-40% of electricity production, not 20% (and if all of Norway’s hydro went to Germany, there wouldn’t be any for Norway). Not to mention Poland, Italy, Spain, and all the other EU countries that also need to decarbonize.

            3. Nuclear was built affordably in the 70s and 80s. I see no evidence that contractors have not gotten less competent since then, but I do see evidence that bureaucratic paralysis has increased since then. So I presume most of the reason for increased costs is political.

          • Alon Levy

            1/2. Why do you need 30-40%? Wind and solar are not that concentrated, the entirety of Europe isn’t going to be becalmed. And Spain’s solar power installation has begun skyrocketing in 2018 after the new government repealed the sunshine tax.

            3. No evidence other than real increases in the construction costs of everything else, like buildings and tunnels. When it comes to a technology where failure is catastrophic like nuclear power (or airplanes, same thing), “I presume” just doesn’t work.

        • michaelrjames

          2. There is not enough hydro in Europe, in Norway or elsewhere, to make that a viable solution for European decarbonization

          PHES can be built in all sorts of places and at all sorts of scale. Even in deserts (the water is cycled). Like the off-river system I described in Germany (serving 5 wind turbines) to giant dams (being retrofitted like Snowy) to medium-sized installations often on coastlines. In Australia, >20,000 such sites have been identified, mostly along the coastline (so-called “turkey nest” using saltwater like the Japanese pioneered). Or the mineshaft system already built in Australia. Here is a CSIRO report (link below) which has a nice graph (Fig 4, page 16) on relative costs (with the caveat that there are many assumptions that affect these results). Lithium batteries are clearly only good for a matter of hours (if that) and high-cost, while Zn-Bromine (Flow-Batteries) are cheaper and better suited for multi-hour capacity, but PHES has the characteristics needed: moderate cost (and very long life) and big capacity (in fact I don’t know why the line stops at 24 hours as Snowy-2.0 is 2GW/4TWh but I suppose that is the exception and most PHES is designed for a 24 hour cycle).

          http://energy.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/1526587/Opps-for-pumped-hydro-in-Australia.pdf

          Here’s Andrew Blakers of ANU and probably top expert in this area:
          http://www.ecogeneration.com.au/pumped-hydro-solar-and-wind-can-deliver-a-100-renewable-nem-anu/

          • fjod

            Europe (incl. Norway, UK, Switzerland) isn’t Australia though; it has over twenty times the population on under two-thirds of the land area. So it probably doesn’t have the geography to install enough PHES at that scale without massive amounts of population displacement (or maybe even at all).

          • michaelrjames

            I think that is highly unlikely.
            The comparison with Australia is very unrealistic and only the narrow coastal strip where most people live is relevant and the CSIRO identified plenty of sites. Despite this coastal strip being very highly valued. They are not very intrusive.
            In Europe the Nordics and Switzerland would have the largest and easiest potential for PHES. Probably some of their existing hydro systems could be retrofitted. Elsewhere you only need a ≈150m head, ideally ≥300m, and this doesn’t have to be on existing rivers.

            What I don’t understand is Japan, which already has 26GW (v. approx. 40TWh) which was built to store excess nuclear power. They should be building huge amount of wind and solar, and maybe tidal or wave, because unlike most other nations they already have the storage and the transmission network linking it all.

    • Vassilis Tzaferis

      Then why don’t you talk about the “ecocide” caused by EV battery manufacturers and commodity traders in the DRC to obtain lithium? Don’t you realise that extracting the ore used in most modern day electronic devices, including EV batteries, solar panels…etc, is, generally speaking, extremely polluting: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/sep/15/norilsk-red-river-russias-most-polluted-city-clean .Nornickel’s Kombinat , which happens to be the largest palladium extraction site in the world, produces as much sulfur dioxide as the entirety of France . If you do, then why do you blame specifically “ze eviil french impérialistes” for getting their hand on that sweet nigerian uranium ?

  8. Michael

    I don’t get the whole energy storage preoccupation. We have little-to-no utility scale energy storage today despite the fact were rapidly burning our way through our finite endownment of coal & natural gas. The way utilities work now is that we just produce tons of electricity all the time and let half of it burn off as waste heat on the utility lines.

    I suspect renewables will follow the same model. We just produce a ton of it all the time and most never gets used. Utility grade energy storage just seems like a solution looking for a problem.

    • Eric

      “let half of it burn off as waste heat on the utility lines. ” – that is not accurate

      ” We just produce a ton of it all the time” – except that *zero* solar energy is produced at night. And near-zero wind in certain weather conditions.

    • adirondacker12800

      The transmission losses in the U.S. as a whole are around 5 percent.
      If there is a peak in demand, that they weren’t predicting, the voltage and frequency go out of specification for a bit while more generation get turned on. Coal or nuclear plants can’t change their production much or do it quickly. The natural gas plants can. Not as fast as hydro can but relatively fast. Production goes up and down every day and varies with the seasons. People who have detailed information and access to computers that can crunch it all say 4 hours of storage is almost the same as what we have today. The National Renewable Energy Lab which has all that detailed information and the super computers to model the whole East Coast say replacing everything with wind is possible. It would need more transmission. When it’s hot in Georgia it’s windy in New England kind of thing. Through in some photovoltaic and the transmission needs go down. Throw in some storage and the transmission needs go away. We need cheaper batteries and enough battery plant to build them. The East Coast is the densest part of the country, if it’s possible on the East Coast the rest of the country is possible too.

      • Michael

        What’s all this “rejected energy”? I’m absolutely not an expert, but I am under the impression that our grid & power generation is scaled to always have enough juice all the time. And when that electricity isn’t used… poof. Just burns off.

        • adirondacker12800

          They shut some power plants off over night when demand drops. Then start them up again in the morning. Some of them come on in late afternoon and shut down in early evening.

        • Tonami Playman

          It’s obvious from that Sanky diagram that most of the Rejected energy is waste heat from combustion of fossil fuels. Petroleum, Coal and Natural gas. The LLNL estimated energy consumption looks at all forms of energy including the fuel that goes into our current transportation system.

          The current US Electricity grid has a loss rate of 5-6% as adirondacker12800 stated not 68.5%.

    • Richard Mlynarik

      I don’t get the whole energy storage preoccupation

      Yes. I’d going to feel like an even more crazy preoccupation from the not-too-many-decades-in-the-future perspective of having lost things like national and regional electric grids, instant universal global telecom, all the coastal cities, habitability of the tropics and subtropics by mammals, the technical ability to manufacture photovoltaics and re-bootstrap, and more.

      At least the thorium reactor loons aren’t chiming in here, yet, with that pet universal solution to the always-on unlimited-supply “killer” storage problem.

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