Ripple Effects

By Keith Kloor | May 28, 2012 8:04 am

So what are the broader cultural, political and economic ripples of the German nuclear phase-out? On the one hand, it will send a signal to the world that nuclear is dated and dangerous and that switching it off is a greater priority than limiting carbon emissions as swiftly as possible. It will also damage the nuclear industry. These two factors together will probably decrease the likelihood that the nuclear industry will succeed in finding ways to reverse its cost curve and make this large-scale low-carbon power source cheaper in the future (unlike renewables, nuclear is currently getting more expensive rather than less).

On the other hand if, specifically as the result of the nuclear phase out, Germany massively ups its level of ambition for renewables and is able to demonstrate that it’s possible to maintain public support for high energy prices to stimulate a clean-energy revolution, that too could influence the world far beyond its own borders.

This is from Duncan Clarke in the Guardian, in what is the smartest analysis I’ve read so far on Germany’s nuclear phase-out. His piece is not, as he puts it, an argument for nuclear power, but rather “an argument for thinking about things the right way.”

He writes:

It boils down to this: to meaningfully measure the impact of any action on a climate change, you need to recognise that the world is interconnected and measure the effects as widely as possible. In addition, you need to ask the right question, which means ““ just as with a medical experiment ““ comparing “with and without” the action, not “before and after” it.

Anyone interested in climate and energy policy should read this piece.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change
  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Germany is bringing dirty coal up to replace the nukes. Hard to see how that helps the environment.

  • MarkB

    Ripples of the German nuclear phase-out? According to Speigel Online, my source for English-language news, the ‘ripples’ are 1. purchase of nulcear-generated electricity from the Czech Republic and France, 2. the building of more coal-fired plants in Germany, 3. an increase in off-shore wind farms in the north, which is currently on hold due to technical difficulties and expense, plus a Green Party-supported fight against the necessary north-south power lines to bring the power to the industrial south, and 4. some of the highest electricity prices in the world, which is causing companies to move production and jobs off-shore. Other than that, it’s a great idea.

  • harrywr2

    nuclear is currently getting more expensive rather than less

    Maybe someone should look at the budget for the VC Summer Nuclear plant.http://www.scana.com/en/investor-relations/nuclear-financial-information/default.htm

    VC Summer is 6 months to 1 year behind the Vogtle Nuclear plant and so far ‘on time, on budget’ (It’s amazing how much of the budget is spent before construction actually starts).

    As far as looking at a Florida plant scheduled for construction in 2022 all utilities use ‘cost escalators’ when budgeting future plants…I.E. They figure in a estimated inflation number.

    The ‘anticipated’ inflation for the VC Summer plant used in budgeting in their public documents is 4.76%.

    If the price of steel,cement and labor go up due to inflation then windmills, coal plants, nuclear plants will all be more expensive.

    Comparing the cost of building a windmill today with the cost of building a nuclear power plant 10 years from now is one of the more ‘dishonest’ tricks in the ‘renewable’ advocates bag.

    The list price on a 1970 Corvette was $5192. So can I say that a 1970 Corvette costs less then a 2012 Hyundai? Probably not…because if the 1970 Corvette was made with 2012 Labor costs it would probably cost $60,000.

  • BBD

    As I said last time this came up, I’m very pleased that Germany is carrying out this vast experiment on itself. Instead of arguing hypotheticals, we will all have an actual, large-scale deployment of renewables in the real world. If it works, whoopie-doo. If it doesn’t, we might learn how to make it work in future. Or we might realise that renewables aren’t going to offer as much clean energy as previously projected, and the future energy mix will have to have more nuclear. At least we will *learn*.

  • Jarmo

    Next winter will be interesting. As DC noted in his piece, this winter was mild in Germany – and also in the rest of Europe. Nevertheless, power prices rose way over 100euros/MWh in France and Germany.

  • Anteros

    BBD -I agree. I also think the article suggests that the ‘result’ of the experiment will be interpreted in different ways by different partisans, and that quite a lot of thought will be required to tease out what we can sensibly learn.Anti-nuke and pro-nuke are likely to remain so, but for those of us with a relatively open mind the lessons may not be particularly obvious.

  • Tom Scharf

    “…if you sign up for a green electricity tariff…”

    ha ha.  That’s as likely as all the big government loving liberals here in the US sending in extra money with their tax returns.

  • Louise

    Tom Scharf  – when comparing energy prices on web sites such as http://www.uswitch.com/gas-electricity/comparison there is an option to choose ‘green tariffs’. I assume some (many?) people do this or they wouldn’t bother offering it as an option.

  • DeNihilist

    DoubleB-SingleD @ 4 – Plus One!

  • BBD

    This is the final paragraph of the Guardian piece:

    My own view is that Germany should have kept its nuclear plants running and invested massively in renewables and demand reduction ““ and next-generation nuclear research for good measure. But that isn’t the point of this piece. What I’m trying to say is that everyone involved in
    the climate and energy debate needs to think more holistically and dispassionately about what will nd won’t work. We need a better quality of analysis and debate. We need to stop overstating our case. And most of all we need to stop bickering!

    Yes, yes, yes and yes. And yes, yes, yes and yes. In that order.

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    As Eli said last month as long as a number of countries continue to develop nuclear political
    decisions to forego may not have much of an effect on the continental
    scale, with the developers selling power to the others.  The continued development of continent wide grids will drive this.  Eli wants to stress the non-breakthrough nature of these initiatives. 
    This is not pie in the sky carbon capture so favored by Ethon’s food
    groups.  The Pie PushersTM ER are, like those who favor birth
    control by thinking pure thoughts, fabulists.  These are significant,
    commercial projects for which financing is available, and construction
    underway, quietly, but to good effect.  The technology was developed
    over the past few decades and is currently available.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    BBD, you don’t get it. Germany is not replacing nukes with green renewables. They are replacing it with brown coal and natural gas.

  • BBD

    TF

    Sure, in the short- and mid-term. But the stated aim is to move the generation infrastructure towards clean energy and away from C&G. As I’ve said more than once, I have grave doubts about the likely success of such an ambition, but I’m very interested to see what happens.

    Incidentally, your comment coming straight after the paragraph I quoted is ironic.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Irony is where you find it, I guess. I’m not sure where pointing out reality constitutes bickering, but ymmv.

  • Jeffn

    “Sure, in the short- and mid-term. But the stated aim is to move the generation infrastructure towards clean energy and away from C&G.”

    - from DDT bans to high-rise public housing, anti-GMO to anti-vaxers, there is not much I this world more dangerous at worst, or irrelevant at best than that which was done for the “stated aim” of some liberal pursuit. That was the purpose of the article- get our heads out of our collective ” stated aims” and consider real world consequences of policies and actions.

  • Steve Fitzpatrick

    Sie werden zum Absturz zu bringen und brennen.Count on it.

  • Steve Mennie
  • hunter

    Germany’s decision to not use nuclear power is their implicit ratification of the skeptic point of view that CO2 is not really very important in the scheme of things.It is their admission that no matter how much CO2 Germany removed from its energy by-product menu, world climate would not in reality be changed significantly at all.German leadership, like all leadership, should be judged on their actions. Their actions show that they believe the climate concerned are gullible fools and if their leaders can be bought off by wasting some money on so-called renewables,  then peace and quiet can be had.

  • Martha

    So, some of Germany’s geography makes sense for larger-scale use of renewables like wind and solar; the majority of this energy is in the hands of communities not corporations;  Germany’s grid and storage systems were due for an overhaul;  the people people did not want nuclear;  and this transition has been underway for some time, as Eli and others have suggested.  I will add only that the U.S. grid also requires some kind of design overhaul regardless of a possible transition to more renewables, just to make it minimally efficient and reliable in the future;  and oil could soon become too expensive to fuel growth since the oil we can get at now is much more costly to extract and process than in the past.   
    We can make change, like societies and people have done for epochs.  Or we can wait around for oil to become so unaffordable and the grid so unworkable that production is crippled and few  can afford to buy anything or go anywhere.  :-(   On the bright side, this wiill reduce emissions.  :-)  
    Germany has taken action in the context of the German public’s concerns and options by providing a  policy and infrastructure plan that can support this kind of choice.  I think this is reasonable.

  • kdk33

    Anectdotal evidence is never too trustworthy.  However…

    I’ve had cause to speak with German engineers of late.  Seems that not all of Germany supports the anti-nuclerar move.  Seems that a fair number of Germans don’t take the move seriously.  The anticipated real world outcome has been described to me as:

    Keep moving the phase out deadline until the public eventually forgets.  No meaningful real world change in the offing.

    But that’s anecdotal.

  • BBD

    Martha and I generally disagree, but in this I am somewhat with her. The dangerous bit is inserting the community-centric concept of generation. This will not power industry, or major connurbations (megacities, cities or suburbs). It is part of the belief system which imagines renewables as an aspect of localism and incorporates a substantial element of anti-corporatism. Grid engineers faced with keeping cities of tens of millions supplied know very well that community generation is a fantasy.

  • jeffn

    meanwhile, Nature takes note of the fact that environmentalists are now literally shooting at nuclear engineers:

    http://www.nature.com/news/anarchists-attack-science-1.10729

    “A loose coalition of eco-anarchist groups is increasingly launching violent attacks on scientists.

    A group calling itself the Olga Cell of the Informal Anarchist Federation International Revolutionary Front has claimed responsibility for the non-fatal shooting of a nuclear-engineering executive on 7 May in Genoa, Italy. “

  • harrywr2

    #19,We can make change, like societies and people have done for epochs.  Or we can wait around for oil to become so unaffordableIn the US the amount of oil burned to produce electricity is pretty close to zero.  We still have some peaking units left over from the 1970′s but they are only run as a ‘last resort’. It hasn’t been ‘economic’ to burn oil to make electricity for 30+ years.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Mary, it’s the knock-on effects that might concern you. Germany was a major exporter of electricity. Much of those exports are now being replaced at source very inefficiently.

    I’m certainly not going to complain about a government being responsible to the wishes of the electorate–it’s unusual enough that I hope we have a camera available. But I usually only wish we had a better electorate after disappointing election results.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Keith thanks for the pointer to the thoughtful guardian article and in particular for highlighting this particular passage:

    It boils down to this: to meaningfully measure the impact of any action on a climate change, you need to recognise that the world is interconnected and measure the effects as widely as possible. 

    Those of us familiar with lifecycle assessments involving biofuels are all too aware of the need to consider the interconnected nature of the world. When California first developed its low carbon fuel standard, ethanol had a carbon intensity about 5-20% lower than gasoline. Then along comes Tim Searchinger’s paper suggesting that the indirect land-use effects associated with corn-based ethanol could triple its carbon intensity relative to gasoline. As you might imagine, this threw a pretty big wrench in biofuel policy development around the world. CARB eventually settled on a 30 gCO2e/MJ so that some ethanol production pathways were still marginally better than gasoline, but it’s very much open to debate how one should account for indirect land-use changes. 

    On the surface, Searchinger’s argument is intuitively appealing. Demand for food is relatively inelastic. When you divert corn and other food crops to fuel production you raise prices for these commodities. All other things being equal, this leads to more forest land being cleared to grow more crops, and the carbon released from this clearing should be included in biofuel carbon accounting. But then, where does the analysis end? For example, do you also consider that increased grain prices also increases the cost of meat production, and therefore lower methane emissions? I don’t think that there are any easy answers, but it’s very easy to get into a situation where we’re forever chasing our tails trying to capture the ‘true’ impact of our policy choices… 

  • Jeffn

    #25, does this not suggest we should think more about consequences before setting the policy?
    It is not actually true that ethanol had a lower carbon intensity than gasoline when California set its policy. It was always higher, they just didn’t know their policy was counter productive and discovered after the fact that it harmed people and channeled investment dollars into less effective pursuits.
    Hence the shift among the actually concerned toward thoughtful approaches regardless of whether Eco-political activists prefer them.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    It is not actually true that ethanol had a lower carbon intensity than gasoline when California set its policy. It was always higher, they just didn’t know their policy was counter productive and discovered after the fact that it harmed people and channeled investment dollars into less effective pursuits. 

    You’re a mind reader now? Evidence please….

  • Jeffn

    #27 unless you are suggesting that Tim Searchinger’s paper caused a massive change in intensity rather than simply quantified the real number, I’m not sure what you question is.
    It seemed pretty clear to me that they thought the intensity was less until the paper showed otherwise.
    If not, how did his research throw a monkey wrench into the policy. The fact is that bio- fuel policy is a very good example of good intentions, bad reality. There are other examples, they add up. This is why Solyndra resonates- hundreds of millions of taxpayer and investor dollars wasted. From an environmental standpoint, bio fuels did the same- except it also starved people and destroyed boats and cars.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    @28

    it’s pretty clear you’re being a douchebag and have NO IDEA what you are talking about. Sorry to be so blunt, but there it is.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    In the interest of accuracy, I should point out that Searchinger’s original estimate pegged the indirect land use change penalty of corn-based ethanol @ 102 gCO2e/MJ, such that it’s lifecycle emissions were 93% higher than gasoline, not triple as I suggested earlier (I may have got that estimate from an earlier draft). To put this figure in perspective, consider that most lifecycle assessments of corn-based ethanol put the value in the neighborhood of 75 gCO2e/MJ compared to ~96 gCO2e/MJ for gasoline. So contrary to what Mister Omniscient would have you believe, a 102  CO2e/MJ adjustment is a big, big swing that has enormous policy implications.

    Now Mr Ominiscient, I’m curious how one goes about finding out what the ‘real’ number is. Can you explain how mere mortals like me could do this?  Is there a ‘god-mode’ button in GREET perhaps?While you’re at it, could you point me to the cars and boats that were ‘destroyed’ by ethanol? Much obliged.

    IMO, U.S. biofuel policy provides a pretty interesting cautionary tale on the dangers of adopting the ‘oblique’ Hartwellian-TBI-RPJr-Revkin-Kloor approach to climate policy. Ethanol policy was, and still is, driven primarily by the U.S. farm lobby, not environmentalists. First it was sold as a route to energy independence. Then in the 90s it was pitched as an environmentally friendlier oxygenate than MTBE (which it is). When oxygen sensors obviated the need for oxygenate mandates, it was sold on the basis of its GHG benefits. But let’s be clear. It wasn’t the ‘environmentalists’ who were doing the selling. It was Cargill, ADM, Dupont, Monsanto, etc…

  • jeffn

    No need for snark, I read your post as: they thought the intensity was low, so they adopted it, then this guy wrote a paper showing the intensity was high and now they’re stuck with a policy that doesn’t do what they thought it would do.
    Amazingly, that’s pretty much exactly what you say in #30- it was sold as, it didn’t. Now we’re just arguing about who sold it. Yes, farmers played a very active role in that. Yes, so did environmentalists. Funny how after-the-fact, it’s always somebody else’s fault.
    Proof that it destroyed boats? Every gas station in the United States that is anywhere near water contains a warning to boaters that the gas has ethanol that could damage the boat. It’s well documented. There’s a water problem and an issue with fiberglass gas tanks. Here’s an insurer advising boaters on the issue. Took a whole millisecond to find: http://www.boatus.com/seaworthy/ethanolwinter.asp
    The problems with cars are also well documented. You don’t have to be omniscient, just curious.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Jeff you still aren’t getting my basic point. Searchinger’s estimate was just one among many. Subsequent work by other researchers have suggested that his ILUC penalty was much, much too high. So where then does that leave policymakers? Should they use a value of 100? 10? What time horizon and discount rate should be used? The plea by the author of the Guardian piece is well intentioned but also a little naive IMO. Many of these wider effects are considered in policy deliberations but it’s a pretty immature field of study where there are many different competing (and to my mind credible) approaches for evaluating these sorts of indirect effects. This is true whether one is talking about biofuels and land use change, or policy more generally.

    Wrt to boats and ethanol, I would simply say that it is well known that ethanol-blended gasoline needs to be handled differently than  straight gas, because of its hydrophilic properties. Prior to the national RFS, most state level mandates either called for averages below 10 % (i.e. the ‘blend-wall) or specifically exempted gasoline sold at marinas from the regulatory requirements. Now does that mean that there haven’t been some problems? No. But it also suggests that your characterization of ‘destroyed’ cars and boats is, shall we say, a little overblown.Incidentally, the larger concern with ethanol and fiber-glass tanks relates to underground storage tanks rather than boat tanks because of the quantities involved and the contamination risks. The specific concern was that single-walled fiberglass tanks manufactured prior to 1981 weren’t tested for ethanol compatibility and might soften and/or rupture in the presence of ethanol. As it happens, the concerns here were also a little overblown:

    Therefore, the early users of fiberglass tanks and piping (i.e., major oil companies) and fiberglass tank and pipe manufacturers conducted independent studies to determine the effect of gasohol on the fiberglass material used for in-service USTs. It was determined that the fiberglass components used in pre-1981 tanks and pre-1988 piping were essentially the same as those subjected to UL compatibility testing and there was no technical reason to believe that the older USTs were not gasohol compatible. In 1992, Owens Corning, the manufacturer of the oldest fiberglass tanks, advised certain major oil companies that some tanks were approaching 30-years-old and the warranties have expired. As a result, the affected companies conducted surveys of these older tanks, including tanks in alcohol service (e.g., in the Midwest) and confirmed that the tanks were satisfactory for continued service. In summary, technical evaluations and historical experience demonstrate that there is no material or technical reason why properly installed pre-1988 piping and tanks in conventional or MTBE service should not perform equally as well when handling 10 percent ethanol blends. 

    (I’ll concede that the fiberglass tank and pipe institute isn’t exactly the most unbiased source on the issue, but the basic point still stands)

  • hunter

    We can add Germany’s walk away from AGW extremism to this growing list:State of play, updated.Kyoto – deadCopenhagen – disasterDurban – washoutRio+20 – good partyAustralia – entire population harboring homicidal ideas for greenCanada – no intention of signing emission treatiesIndia – not going to reduce emissionsJapan – no intention of signing emission treatiesRussia – no intention of signing emission treatiesChina – not going to reduce emissionsUEA hacking – Police not looking for anyoneCO2 – Increasing, Temperatures notMWP – was globa1GWPF – donor outed, nothing to do with big-oilJones – damaged, quiet.Hansen – laughing stockMann – bricking itGleick – bricking itBacon – frizzledLovelock – I was wrong about global warming Survey – intelligent people are climate scepticsGoose – cookedOf course this list is nowhere near all inclusive.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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