Three more nuclear power plants are going off the grid: With energy to phase out nuclear power

Status: December 26, 2021 11:35 a.m.

Grundremmingen, Grohnde and Brokdorf: At the end of the year, three more nuclear power plants in Germany will go offline. Then there will be three left by the end of 2022. What does that mean for the power supply?

Gundremmingen on the Bavarian border with Baden-Württemberg: On New Year’s Eve, system after system in power plant unit C will be shut down here within twelve hours. From the New Year onwards, the power cables will be physically disconnected from the grid. This is how the technical director of the Gundremmingen nuclear power plant, Heiko Ringel, explained it at a press conference a few weeks ago.

The dismantling will probably take until the mid-2030s. 89,000 tons of material have to be disposed of. About an eighth of this cannot be recycled, but has to be disposed of in one form or another. Nobody should be released. A good 500 people still work in the power plant. There is still so much to do there that seven trainees were hired this year. It’s like that in Grohnde and Brokdorf. These three units will be shut down at the end of the year.

If they are switched off, only three other nuclear power plants will remain in operation in Germany for another year, namely Emsland, Neckarwestheim 2 and Isar 2.

The Brokdorf nuclear power plant will be shut down at the end of 2021 after almost 35 years of operation. But that’s not why Germany is sitting in the dark.

Image: dpa

Three nuclear power plants make 1000 wind turbines

So far, the six power plants together have supplied around twelve to 14 percent of electricity production in Germany. If half the capacity is lost on New Year’s Eve, something else has to be added. In purely mathematical terms, the installed capacity of the units that are now to be shut down corresponds to that of 1000 wind turbines. But of course the wind doesn’t always blow.

After all: 30 years ago the share of nuclear energy was still almost 30 percent, and essentially wind and sun have actually replaced that. And what’s more: the drastic decline in coal-fired power generation in the past few decades has been offset by renewable energies. Their share in electricity generation has risen from just over zero 30 years ago to 40 to 50 percent. Despite the nuclear phase-out, CO2 emissions from German electricity production have also fallen by around 40 percent since 2010. But the expansion of wind parks and solar systems is no longer as dynamic as it used to be. The new federal government wants to change that again. By 2030, 80 percent of electricity is to be generated sustainably. So far, that’s only one goal.

Energy exchange for the benefit of everyone

The expansion of renewable energies initially meant that Germany generated much more electricity than it consumed. In the 2010s in particular, the country became a net electricity exporter. A few years ago, 50 terawatt hours more were exported than imported. That corresponds to what four to five nuclear power plants produce.

But this surplus has been reduced significantly in the past three years. The balance is currently just under ten terawatt hours.

The exchange of energy has become more and more intensive across Europe over the years. That was of benefit to everyone. France has problems with the electricity supply almost every winter during acute cold spells – despite its 56 nuclear power plants. It then imports German wind power. Conversely, when there is no wind, Germany purchases nuclear power from France.

If there is a surplus of solar and wind power, Germany exports power to Austria and Norway – and conversely, if there is a shortage, it is supplied by the local water and water storage power plants. That this is in the interests of both parties can be seen from the fact that the electricity trade balance is roughly balanced in terms of value: Germany does not give away its electricity and does not have to buy it back overpriced.

How stable is the supply?

The fear of a power failure grows with the proportion of renewable energies in the grid and with the elimination of so-called base load power plants such as nuclear power plants. In fact, there is also a new concept for power supply behind the energy transition. In the past there were permanently running power plants that provided the so-called base load, coal for the medium load and quick-starting gas power plants for the so-called peak load. Drivers of the energy transition consider this to be out of date. Claudia Kemfert from the German Institute for Economic Research calls this yesterday’s “energy thinking”. The energy system of tomorrow is said to be flexible, digital, highly dynamic, decentralized and intelligent.

The German weather service DWD has also shown that wind and sun complement each other. That already applies to Germany and even more so in the European network. However, this cannot be taken for granted. This requires grids, storage and a lot more wind turbines and solar systems. The federal government is also relying on other gas-fired power plants that could even be built from scratch – provided they are also suitable for burning “green” hydrogen or “green” methane made from it. These gases could be used as storage media.

The demands on the system and the control are increasing. Not only does enough energy have to be generated, but there also has to be enough available in the right place for grid stabilization at all times. So far, the power supply has become more and more secure, despite a growing share of renewables, but with considerably higher coordination efforts.

Whether the decision to phase out nuclear power was right or wrong is a question of political judgment. There was and is a stable majority in Germany that basically considers the exit to be the right thing to do. Whether the shutdown is good or bad for the climate is also controversial among scientists. If the electricity from the three units, which are now going offline, had been generated by lignite power plants this year, German greenhouse gas emissions would have been around 30 million tons higher. But that is hardly the alternative. The shutdown actually increases the pressure to promote the expansion of renewable energies.

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