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Will Germany really phase out nuclear by 2021?

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Germany's electricity mix is rapidly changing, with renewables on the way in and nuclear (potentially) heading out. But, given nationwide concerns regarding energy affordability and fairness, the future remains unclear.

Today, approximtley 15% of Germany's electricity comes from nuclear power. But, under the country's national energy transition plan (Energiewende), nuclear power will be phased out by 2021. At the same time, the nation is aggressively pushing to reach its goal of supplying 80% of its electricity needs with renewables by 2050.

In support of this goal, measures including the Renewable Energy Sources Act have provided a feed-in-tariffs and other forms of financial support for renewable electricity resources. Last year, the government approved new measures to support the use of energy storage for distributed solar PV systems. In 2003, renewables represented approximately 8% of Germany's electricity mix. A decade later, this number has risen to just over 23% and is expected to continue along this positive trajectory moving forward.

With the aggressive addition of subsidized renewables comes concerns, in particular when combined with a plan to phase out nuclear power. This situation was recently analyzed in an article by Professor Raimund Bleischwitz*, where he identified two of the primary challenges facing the German government:

"The newly appointed [German] Minister, SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel, has moved the topic away from the Ministry for the Environment and merged it within his portfolio of Economy and Energy. In doing so, he faces at least two tough challenges:

External competition: Energy prices have risen for industry and private households in Germany and the EU, while the new supply of unconventional fuels in Northern America has led to more favorable energy prices in the US. Therefore, it is no wonder that energy-intensive industries are speculating about relocation. Green industry also causes concerns: German solar cell producers (along with others) face stiff international competition, and significant scrutiny that has been exacerbated by a recent financial scandal within Prokon, a giant German wind farm planning firm.

Internal burden sharing: The previous government was generous in relieving industry from paying its share, with some 1,900 companies being declared ‘energy intensive’ and therefore exempt from the “Energieumlage“, a surcharge paid by German electricity consumers for clean energy production. The publication of details related to these exemptions created a public outcry during the election campaign in late summer 2013. At the same time, the European Commission has started a complaint against Germany under the suspicion of unbalanced state aid."

Late last month, the German government responded to the European Commission's concerns - by filing its own lawsuit. It is unclear how this situation will be resolved. But, it is clear that Germany is facing a challenging road ahead in its energy transition.

Photo credit: Photo of nuclear power plant at Grafenrheinfeld in Germany by Christian Horvat, via Wikimedia Commons.

*Melissa C. Lott and Raimund Bleischwitz are both members of the University College London's Institute for Sustainable Resources.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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