We’ve written volumes about the failure of Germany’s Energiewende, the nation’s transition to a carbon-free economy by 2038. We’ve also repeatedly written about Germany’s head-scratching decision to pivot away from nuclear energy even as the country’s carbon emissions rose. Now, the energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may force the German government to make an energy decision that makes sense.
Russia once provided more than half of Germany’s natural gas, but now supplies about a quarter of German energy needs. Since invading Ukraine, Russia has severely reduced its exports to Europe’s largest economy, leading to an energy crisis that will only worsen this winter. That leaves Germany with only two options, which don’t seem consistent with the country’s aggressive energy transition goals: 1) reopen mothballed coal-fired power plants or 2) keep existing nuclear plants online.
With the backing of the Green Party, German legislators initially elected to restart several coal-fired power plants while working to increase renewable energy production. The move makes sense on the surface. After all, coal is highly reliable and the country already has ample coal reserves. Additionally, restarting a coal plant is a far less intense process than renewing the lease on a nuclear plant.
However, national leaders signaled a possible shift earlier this week by saying they would analyze whether leaving those facilities running longer could help boost energy security. The current leases for the country’s last three nuclear plants expire at the end of this year. The government intends to run a stress test of the electric grid to determine whether power supplies could be guaranteed this winter, especially if there are severe disruptions, including Russia cutting off natural gas shipments entirely. The results of the test may reinforce the need for a nuclear option.
If Germany commits to using nuclear energy to keep the lights on, it would hardly be the only European country to do so. For example, the U.K. has committed to building eight new nuclear plants by 2050. The European Union has even signaled that it would classify some nuclear projects as green investments to help meet carbon reduction goals. Germany initially criticized the EU’s move, but now it may finally see the wisdom in the classification. Ultimately, nuclear energy is a reliable energy source that produces no carbon emissions.
“In view of the current situation, we should take a pragmatic, non-ideological view,” says liberal Free Democrats lawmaker Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a prominent voice on the war in Ukraine. “We know that the [nuclear] plants won’t run forever, but just at this moment, when it’s a matter of providing the population with the energy it needs, we shouldn’t be ideological.”
Whatever solution German leaders decide on, it’s clear that quick action is needed. Renewing the existing nuclear leases could take months and winter is coming quickly.
Unfortunately, despite repeated warnings by voices like ours, Germany has backed itself into a corner. The country relies too heavily on both imported energy and intermittent renewables. For the sake of the German people, let’s hope there is enough heat and power to go around this winter.