The world can’t go without nuclear power, yet

Until renewables are ready to meet the world’s future electricity demand, there will be a place for nuclear power.

“Decarbonisation is the great task of our generation and Costa Rica must be one of the first countries in the world to accomplish it, if not the first.”

In 2021 Costa Rica celebrates 200 years of independence from Spain.

The country’s new president, Carlos Alvarado, wants to mark that occasion by making Costa Rica the first carbon-neutral country in the world by the end of that festive year.

”We have the titanic and beautiful task of abolishing the use of fossil fuels in our economy to make way for the use of clean and renewable energies.”

This goal, though ambitious, is not as crazy as it sounds.

Last year Costa Rica went 300 consecutive days in which 100% of its electricity came from renewable energy sources.

While the Central American country is hopeful it can do without non-renewables in a few years’ time, it’s a different story for another country with ambitious plans.

Germany is going to fall short of its climate goals for 2020. Despite investing billions in green energy, renewables simply can’t meet energy demands – not by a long shot.

Though the country seems determined to phase out nuclear energy, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Germany – like the rest of the world – can’t go without nuclear power yet.

Getting rid of “dirty energy”

Climate change is in the headlines again.

This summer’s extraordinary heatwave in Britain and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere is believed to be a consequence of global warming.

Meanwhile California is ablaze with forest fires and Sweden’s highest mountain is melting because of extreme weather.

It’ll make governments more conscious that something really needs to be done, with more media attention adding to the pressure to act on climate change.

No other nation has arguably done more to promote a global switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy than Germany.

Since the start of the century, a wide coalition of German political parties has supported far-reaching plans to overhaul the country’s energy system.

Germany is leading by example. It doesn’t just want to reduce (and ultimately ban) coal produced energy, it also wants to phase out nuclear energy.

By showing the world that a major industrial power like itself could wane off fossil fuels, it hopes other countries will follow suit.

But Angela Merkel’s government may have overreached.

It’s clear by now that Germany is not going to come close to hitting its climate goals for 2020. Even after billions of investment, renewables aren’t up to the task yet.

Now, it’s easy to be cynical about Germany’s energy agenda. Yes, the government is (in all likelihood) going to fail.

However, we should keep in mind that these self-imposed goals were highly ambitious and they still have a positive impact. Renewables are close to overtaking coal as the primary source of energy while natural gas use is falling.

What’s really causing Germany to miss its targets is the decision to shut down nuclear reactors as well, following the 2011 meltdown in Fukushima.

“The challenge looks really difficult,” admits Andreas Löschel, who heads the government commission that monitors Germany’s energy transition, in Bloomberg.

“There was too much confidence that renewables would do the trick. It’s about getting dirty energy out of the mix.”

If it’s about getting rid of “dirty energy” then there’s still a place for nuclear power.

Nuclear energy, which is largely carbon emission-free, is a more reliable energy source.

It could be a most suitable addition to the supply of renewable energy, while it would still allow governments to meet CO2 targets.

The world is changing its mind about nuclear

The German government has a choice to make.

One option is to stand by its decision to close all nuclear reactors by 2022.

Though a majority of Germans supports this measure, it would make the even tighter climate goals the country has set for 2030 nigh impossible to reach.

Or it could make its clean energy targets a priority, which would require a rethink of its nuclear energy strategy.

Germany is no Costa Rica. Relying fully on renewable energy may be possible for a small Central American country with fewer than five million citizens, but that’s not comparable to supplying an industrial nation of more than 82 million.

If Germany shuts down nuclear plants, the country could be in real trouble during the dark days of winter when solar and wind power are at their lowest levels and demand at its peak.

“The inability of renewables to satisfy the full extent of future electricity demand has put Mrs Merkel in a bind,” says Strategic Intelligence’s investment director David Stevenson.

“And because Germany is switching off nuclear, that country – how ironic! – may need to resort to using more coal, the ultimate polluter, in order to keep the lights on!”

It’s not inconceivable that Germany’s struggles to meet its own climate targets have wider implications.

Every country apart from the US has signed the Paris Climate Agreement to counter climate change. But with green energy insufficient to meet German demand after billions of investment, other countries may turn to alternatives.

In fact, this is already happening.

Rather than following in Germany’s footsteps, a lot of countries have decided to go the other way and invest in nuclear power plants.

“Other countries around the world have been much savvier about nuclear energy,” David notes.

“India and China, for example, are making major investments in new power plants. In total, 57 new reactors are under construction worldwide, according to the World Nuclear Association, with a further 152 planned.”  

The UK government has also done a U-turn on nuclear energy policy recently.

It’s helping finance a new nuclear power station in Wales after successive governments refused to directly invest in nuclear projects for decades.

We’re all fans of renewable energy. We all hope every country can become like Costa Rica one day and rely completely on clean, renewable energy.

But until that day arrives, nuclear power can’t be off the table.

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