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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

CleanTechnica Watch

CleanTechnica Watch will be an ongoing series of articles that discuss their antinuclear energy articles, which are typically either republished from other antinuclear energy sources or written by an assortment of antinuclear guests.

You can think of these articles as a form of public peer review.

Their policy of hoovering up antinuclear pieces to put on their website is a convenience for me in that they have become my go-to source for nuclear energy misinformation material.

In a nutshell, CleanTechnica promotes the belief that the planet can decarbonize without help from nuclear.

Reality Check

The German Energy Transition

Studies, and there is no shortage of them, have limited value. As any experienced engineer knows, real world data trumps theoretical calculation.

Luckily we have the German experiment (often referred to as the Energiewende or Energy Transition) which has been testing the hypothesis that a highly motivated, wealthy, industrialized nation can rapidly decarbonize its electrical grid by displacing nuclear energy with wind and solar.

The experiment isn't complete, but it has already provided a wealth of real-world data.

Putting the cost into perspective

The roughly $30 billion dollars being spent annually to expand wind and solar in Germany could build enough third generation AP 1000 nuclear reactors to fully decarbonize their grid over a ten year period (similar to what France did decades ago).

$30 billion a year would pay for forty custom built $7.5 billion Generation III AP1000 reactors over ten years.

$30B/year x 10years  = $300B

$300B/$7.5B = 40 AP1000 reactors

Add those to existing reactors and they could supply about 97% of Germany's electricity by 2025.

From the German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, second in command to Merkel, who was also the Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety from 2005 to 2009:

I don’t know any other economy that can bear this burden [$30billion a year]...We have to make sure that we connect the energy switch to economic success, or at least not endanger it. Germany must focus on the cheapest clean-energy sources as well as efficient fossil-fuel-fired plants to stop spiraling power prices."

While renewable aid costs are at the “limit” of what the economy can bear, Germany will keep pushing wind and solar power, the most cost-effective renewable sources, Gabriel said. Biomass energy is too expensive and its cost structure hasn’t improved, he said.


Growth of biomass essentially stopped when its subsidies were truncated. It currently provides roughly four percent of Germany's total energy (electricity, heat, transport) consumption.

Given the discussion about the sustainability of biomass, the question is therefore whether the Energiewende itself is sustainable. That’s one reason why the German government has slammed the brakes on biomass.


There was a time not long ago when many renewable enthusiasts thought biofuels were going to save the world and diesel cars were all the rage. Now they think it will be wind and solar.

The focus is on reducing carbon emissions, but the German biofuels sector itself understands the change to be a challenge to its own market. In other words, biofuels for mobility probably do not have a bright future in Germany.


Growth of biogas has also ended:

Biogas additions are to be kept below the replacement rate, meaning that the share of this electricity will eventually shrink.


Hydro electricity output, having little or no growth potential, is highly dependent on precipitation patterns and has declined for the last two years to 19.3 TWh after reaching its peak of 23.1 TWh in 2002. It provides roughly one percent of Germany's total energy (electricity, heat, transport) consumption. Source: 2016 BP Statistical Review.


Growth of solar dropped 90% this year as a result of its subsidy ending. It currently provides only three percent of Germany's total energy (electricity, heat, transport) consumption.

And with only one third of those ceilings actually built, the result is a complete disaster. I recall that Germany used to build 7 GW of solar a year under a market-based feed-in tariff. Now we get close to nothing.

Onshore Wind

The growth of onshore wind will soon be curtailed with the removal of its subsidy.

A lot of offshore wind power is to be auctioned off by 2020 regardless of the share of electricity. The result will be a dramatically shrinking auction amount for onshore wind power. A back of the envelope calculation reveals that around 2.0 GW might be the new maximum annually gross – meaning that decommissioned turbines will not be subtracted.

One main option for these wind farm operators who cannot rebuild would be to sell electricity from their old turbines on the wholesale exchange, but both wind and solar power will make themselves worthless on the wholesale market because prices will drop when most of this electricity is generated [the Sporadic Power Glut Effect I mention below].

Offshore Wind

Germany plans to cap the expansion of offshore wind power at the start of the next decade to ensure the future growth of renewables keeps step with the construction of new power lines, according to a revision to a new energy law seen by Reuters.

Source: Germany to limit offshore wind power

Their goal is 45% renewable electricity (roughly 25% of total energy use) a decade from now, 80% by 2050 (roughly 40% of total energy use).

But with wind, offshore wind in particular, being the only renewable source left with significant growth potential, how much further can Germany decarbonize?

The Wind and Solar Sporadic Power Glut Effect

When there's too much wind and solar capacity in a grid they can produce more power than is needed at a given time of day, creating a glut that can drive the wholesale value of power down to a level that, if it happens often enough, will eventually lead to fiscal insolvency for power producers. All power companies have bills to pay. It's simple supply and demand economics. A rare penny becomes worthless if someone dispenses a billion of them they discovered in a warehouse. This started out as an economic theory but has since been repeatedly proven in practice.

Sources: (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7)

Let's gave it a name: Sporadic Power Glut Effect. The only way out is to limit solar and wind capacity or to add more subsidies.

Can Germany get there from here?

...and if they can, will it only prove that it takes a very wealthy nation with similar wind, water, and sun resources to decarbonize without help from nuclear? Wind and solar combined produce about 20% of German electricity. If the combination of wind and solar ever reach roughly 40% of electricity production, the sporadic power glut effect will come into play. At this point Germany will have replaced roughly 50% of their electricity with renewables and that will be that.  Moreover, if they follow through with replacing the 14% they get from nuclear with coal, further emissions reductions may never materialize.

Greenhouse gas emissions

After decades of progress, CO2 emissions reductions have stagnated since reaching a low following the 2008 recession.

There is growing concern among some renewables enthusiasts that Germany may give it up at the 45% target a decade from now. Why? Because it's just going to get more expensive to displace fossil fuels without help from nuclear as the low hanging fruit has already been picked.

Even if they manage to replace 80% of electricity production with renewables three and a half decades from today, which is looking less and less likely, about 60% of their total energy would still be coming from fossil fuels. Wind, solar, hydro, and biomass are going to need a lot of help from some other low carbon source of energy if we are to displace the $50 trillion dollars invested in fossil fuels globally.


It's complicated. I happen to live in a city where well over 90% of our electricity comes from renewable energy. It's been that way for decades because it was, and still is, the cheapest way to make electricity. We just happen to be surrounded by mountain streams to dam up. Some places have little water but lots of sun, or wind. Many places have very little of any of those things. The feasibility of using renewables is all about location, location, location. We have no overarching need for nuclear but other places do.

Future low carbon energy grids will, like today, contain a mix of nuclear, wind, solar, and hydro. And because we don't yet have a scalable zero carbon energy source that can replace gas powered load following and peaking power stations, there will also be a need for just enough gas to stitch all of these sources together. The real value of wind and solar are as natural gas (or in the case of Germany, coal) power station fuel flow reduction devices. They can't replace it entirely, but they certainly can reduce fuel use when the wind blows and/or the sun is shining.

Reducing emissions from the production of electricity garners most of our attention because decarbonizing energy used for transportation and heat is even more difficult, and that's where nuclear, especially when used for both heat and power, is likely to prove most valuable after wind and solar have reached their economic limits.

Nuclear, wind, and solar should continue to grow in parallel. We also need to continue preventing the premature closing of existing nuclear power stations (as has been accomplished in New York and Illinois) by low gas prices and antinuclear groups while also continuing to grow wind and solar until they have reached their economically feasible percentages (sporadic power glut effect). And from there, continue to increase use of nuclear to displace fossil fuels, coal in particular and oil in tandem with further electrification of transport.

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