After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, Moscow reduced natural gas flows to many economies in Europe, sending the European community into a frenzy. As Russia exports ⅓ of Europe’s natural gas and oil reserves, the continent is in a crunch to find energy alternatives to increase its energy security for the upcoming winter. Germany is in a particularly perplexing position; many of the energy alternatives that its neighbours will lean into (such as nuclear energy and coal), prove ideologically difficult alongside the Energiewende, or energy transition.
Energiewende’s ambitious goal to complete a coal and nuclear phaseout by 2030, has caused renewables and their corresponding green infrastructure to share over 40% of the energy market. However, as renewable energy sources’ output fluctuates, Germany depended heavily on coal for transitory energy security. Considering the resource was more economically viable than natural gas. However, since natural gas emits 45% less carbon dioxide than coal, the German market altered, creating a higher cost for coal consumption, so natural gas could overtake it. Since 2014, Russian imports account for over 55% of Germany’s gas. Germany has failed to diversify other energy infrastructure, because of its misplaced confidence in Russian pipelines. Such as its LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) import capacity, which would allow Germany to regasify LNG from overseas. Germany now plans a gradual loosening of its relations with Russia by 2014 to build critical infrastructure for both renewables and LNG. However, it will have to recommit to either nuclear or coal in the short term – both being setbacks for the Energiewende.
In July, Christian Linder, Germany’s Financial Minister and member of the FDP, proposed the delay of the nuclear phaseout, set to be completed by the end of 2022, with the closure of the last three plants. The two other parties that form the Ampelkoalition – the SPD and the Green Party, stood in opposition, claiming that nuclear technology is too high-risk. Its decommission also plays a central role in the energy transition, as Germany maintains that nuclear energy can not be considered sustainable or renewable, nor can it play a role in the decarbonization of the nation. Christian von Hirschhausen, an expert in energy and infrastructure at the German Institute for Economic Research, reaffirmed this position. He noted that reversing plant decommission, and extending the timeline for remaining plants in the few months before winter would be improbable. This is because the plants’ equipment need updating, and enriched uranium would need to be brought in.
Yet, a letter published on the 13th of October, ¨Dear Germany, Please Leave the Nuclear Power Plants on the Grid,” authored by 25 leading environmentalists, challenged the government to extend the end of nuclear production to benefit the Energiewende. They warn that without nuclear power, Germany will miss its 2030 goal to decrease carbon emissions by 65% of 1990 levels. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Germany already missed its 2020 goal of 40% less emissions. They note that leaning back on coal is an unnecessary backpedal for the nation. Instead, it should focus its efforts on building infrastructure for new natural gas transmission lines and expanding renewable energy. Therefore, in order for Germany to hit its 2030 climate target, it must change its policies, and prioritise the coal phaseout over the nuclear one. Nevertheless, on October 17, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the last three nuclear plants will remain open until mid-April, despite protests from members of the Ampelkoalition .
Yet, a gas-to-coal transition appears to be the most effective solution to the energy crisis. Dormant coal-fired plants do not require a high level of maintenance and repair to refire as nuclear plants do; nor do they need new infrastructure to support them like LNG. Thus, the Ampelkoalition has approved the reopening of 10 dormant stations and extended the November shutdown for 11 others. This will bring back nine gigawatts of coal energy, after the 12 gigawatts of combined coal and nuclear were removed from the grid last year. A non-profit climate think tank following the Energiewende, Agora, stated that the revival or extension of these plants will be responsible for another 20 to 30 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, or about 4% of Germany’s current emissions. This 4% increase would add to the already 28% of coal and lignite energy production sustained in 2021, due to both the rising price of natural gas, and lower winds in the nation.
Despite apprehension about the success of the Energiewende as coal-burning increases, the Ampelkoalition is committed to hitting its set climate targets. In an interview with ZDF, the Economy and Climate Minister assured the nation that despite the reappearance of coal plants on the market, Germany was still on track to succeed. To balance out new coal energy production, the government committed to supplying 80% of electricity from renewables by 2030. To reach this goal and decrease its reliance on Russian gas, the government passed the Onshore Wind Energy Act in July. It mandates that all states allot a certain percentage of land to the construction of wind farms, increasing land availability from 0.5% to 2% by 2032, with an intermediate goal of 1.7% by 2027. This legislation could add up to 115 gigawatts of wind energy to the market, equivalent to the energy capacity of 38 nuclear plants.
Germany has no intention of letting the Energiewende slip. Foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, asserted at the Berlin Climate and Security Conference in early October, “Russia’s war against Ukraine and its attacks on European energy security have not weakened our resolved push for the 1.5° goal.”