A myth is haunting the English-speaking world: Germany allegedly shows that emissions rise because renewables can’t replace nuclear – and that France is right to stick with nuclear. What do the data show? Craig Morris reports
“Germany initially set out to close all of its nuclear reactors by 2022, but as a result, they are now likely to miss their emissions reduction targets. And France is now considering options to extend the life of many of its older nuclear power plants.”
— US presidential candidate Marianne Williamson in the New York Times
What’s worse, US policymakers are saying it. Five US states now subsidize nuclear to keep reactors from closing, and it’s possible that all of them have done so based on this incorrect assumption. It happened years ago in New York State with explicit reference to German emissions allegedly rising because of the phase-out, it then happened in Illinois, and as one press report from Ohio put it this year when the new nuclear subsidy was announced:
The experience of Germany was repeatedly used as an example of what might happen in Ohio. Germany decommissioned its nuclear plants in favor of an all-renewable strategy. Electricity prices spiked and carbon pollution spiked, in part because of the ramping up of fossil-fuel plants to compensate for when wind and solar faltered.
“If the studies are correct, the Germans must not know how to do this,” Mr. Randazzo [chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio] said.
“If the studies are correct” indeed: So do Germany and France show that climate change requires nuclear, as Williamson says? Let’s start with France.
France’s “nuclear options”
The French government has an official policy to reduce the share of nuclear in the power sector from around 75% to 50%. The original deadline was postponed in 2017 from 2025 to 2035 after years of inaction during the Hollande government, which adopted the policy in 2012. To complicate matters, some in the French government want new reactors; on Oct 15, the government asked reactor builder EDF to construct another six of the units it has never completed in the next 15 years.
But last spring, Williamson could not have been referring to yesterday’s announcement. In speaking of a French plan to extend reactor lives, Williamson may have been talking about the Grand Carénage – or “grand overhaul” – of French reactors. The carénage is not “France’s” plan, however, but EDF’s; the power company that operates the reactors wishes to extend their service lives to sixty years rather than close them. It cannot do so, however, without permission from the ASN, the French nuclear security agency commonly called a “watchdog.”
Here, we see how hard it is to say what “France” – a pluralistic country – wants. The French government owns 84% of EDF, which wants longer reactor lives. The ASN, a government regulator, might not allow those extensions: when it discovered flawed workmanship in steel containment vessels in a slew of old reactors, it temporarily closed a third of France’s reactors for unplanned safety inspections in 2016. (Flawed workmanship also affects the new EPRs, by the way.)
There are no details to the overhaul or the nuclear reduction: no list of reactors for EDF’s (not France’s!) carénage, no dedicated website, nor any roadmap of which reactors would go offline when towards the reduction to 50% nuclear power.
But reality marches on while policies remain vague. Until recently, it was generally understood that France’s oldest two reactors in Fessenheim would not be closed until the new one in Flamanville went online, though even that tradeoff was uncertain. Now, the ASN has postponed the opening of Flamanville for another three years – but EDF has given up on Fessenheim. In September, the firm announced it would close the two reactors by mid-2020. France is thus slipping into an unplanned nuclear phaseout.
This lack of detailed planning is French policymaking-as-usual, at least for energy: President Hollande invented the 50% target during the 2012 election campaign in the wake of the Fukushima accident based on no research. When the policy was adopted, it finally brought about the research it should have been based on. Researchers found that the policy might raise emissions in the interim. By postponing the date to 2035, however, they have merely kicked the can down the road; there are no better ideas today than there were in 2017, when the postponement was announced.
Doesn’t that prove Williamson’s point: closing nuclear raises emissions? No, France’s concern is theoretical: they didn’t actually close any reactors and try to replace the power with renewables. Rather, the French left nuclear on, and renewables hardly grew; solar (1.9%) and wind (5.1%) made up a mere 7.5% of French power supply in 2018. (In Germany, solar alone covered 7.7% of demand in 2018, with wind adding another 18.7% for a total of 26.4%). But in Germany, replacing nuclear with renewables isn’t just a postponed political ambition; it’s happening. So what do we know?
Germany emissions during the nuclear phaseout
In 2011, eight of Germany’s 17 reactors were closed. From 2010-2017, emissions in the power sector fell by more than 15%. For 2018, the power sector numbers are not yet in, but emissions from the energy sector fell by nearly two percentage points. And to date in 2019, renewables have nearly reached 50% of power supply. Germany now has some 210 TWh of non-hydro renewable power, far more than the record level of 171 TWh in 2001 for nuclear. Since 2010, renewable power has grown nearly twice as fast as nuclear shrank. Some nine tenths of it is wind and solar alone. Clearly, Germany shows that renewables can reduce emissions during a nuclear phaseout.
At this point, I hear objections. The first: “but Germany is going to miss its 2020 climate target!” Yes, it is expected to reach a 32% emissions reduction, not 40% relative to 1990 (French emissions fell by 15% from 1990-2017 in comparison, albeit from a much lower level thanks to nuclear). But the Germans don’t see the power sector as the main problem. As Deutsche Bank recently put it, “So far, Germany’s efforts… have focused on the electricity sector. However, attention is increasingly shifting towards the transport sector and its steadily rising carbon emissions.” Former Environmental Minister and Christian Democrat Klaus Töpfer recently worded the German consensus well: “We have the highest taxes on electricity although we have reduced emissions there the most.” That’s right: Germany has performed best in the sector where it has removed nuclear and worse in sectors where nuclear plays little or no role: mobility, agriculture, and heat.
The second objection is generally: “Germany would have lowered emissions even more if it had phased out coal, not nuclear.” That’s a fine thing to discuss, but it only moves us from a falsehood (“German phaseout raised emissions”) to revisionist history – not to facts. The revisionist historians act as though renewables would have been built anyway if nuclear remained online. As I wrote in my 50-page paper entitled Can reactors react (2018), the Germans argued a decade ago that renewables were unlikely to be built if nuclear stayed online.
What do the French and German cases show about how much renewable energy gets added when nuclear stays online? The French are also failing to add new nuclear as quickly as its own power company closes old reactors it wishes to keep on. From 2010-2018, wind and solar grew by 27.4 TWh in France, while nuclear shrank by 14.7 TWh (and demand stayed flat). During the same timeframe in Germany, nuclear shrank by 64.6 TWh – but solar and wind alone grew by 91.8 TWh.
The current French situation suggests that, if you remain committed to nuclear, nuclear power nonetheless shrinks; to make matters worse, the growth of renewables struggles to close the gap. Germany suggests that, if you stick with renewables and phase out nuclear, renewables growth outstrips the drop in nuclear nearly twofold, and you reduce emissions by 2 percentage points annually in the power sector.