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A nuclear-free future: if Germany can do it, why can't we?
Camilla Berens argues that the road to sustainability needs to be built by pioneers not procrastinators
To have any hope of reaching a sustainable future, we need to have a clear view of the road ahead. If there are no signposts to illustrate how to reach our destination, it will be virtually impossible to persuade wealthy nations to make the lifestyle changes necessary for significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK, the route to sustainability is still depressingly foggy. In Germany, on the other hand, the government has just drawn up a road map that has refreshing clarity.
At the beginning of last summer, Westminster approved the planning framework for the construction of a new generation of nuclear reactors in the UK. A few weeks beforehand, Germany set in motion a bold strategy for a nuclear-free future. The German government's aim is not only to phase out nuclear power within a decade but to use the opportunity to develop a framework for a sustainable society.
At first glance, the strategy document, Germany’s Energy Turnaround – a collective effort for the future, is a sensible but fairly predictable package of proposals including greater investment in renewables and a national drive to enhance energy efficiency. But deeper reading reveals a vision that sets out the framework for a sustainable future based on a decentralized mix of energy sources, much greater investment in improving energy storage and a well-known technology known as combined heat and power (CHP).
Germany’s pro-nuclear detractors have assumed that a future without nuclear would mean a greater reliance on oil, coal and, oh, the irony, nuclear energy from her French neighbour. But the Turnaround report specifically rules out these options. While continuing to develop its renewables capacity, the report recommends that Germany focuses on developing a mixture of energy-efficient technologies - with CHP playing a central role.
This is not pie-in-the-sky thinking. CHP is one of the most energy-efficient forms of conventional power generation and has a proven track record. (CHP currently provides 53% of electricity in Denmark and 30% the Netherlands). Because most of today’s power stations are based many miles away from our major conurbations, almost two-thirds of their energy can be lost up the cooling towers and down the transmission wires. CHP units are less obtrusive and more versatile.
Because CHP plant is smaller and more energy-efficient, it can be built within the communities or industries it powers. It can also be scaled-up or -down to cater for regional, local and domestic demand. But the real benefit of CHP is that the heat used in the process of generating electricity can be recycled to provide heating in winter and air-conditioning in the summer via district heating systems.
Various fuels can be used for CHP but the German model focuses on a combination of natural and renewable gas as the key sources. This is a good start. Natural gas has roughly half the carbon emissions of coal and oil. The report also stresses the potential for developing biogas. The virtuous circle of producing power from the anaerobic digestion of organic, human and animal waste has scope to considerably lessen our dependence on natural gas supplies. The consensus in the UK’s energy sector is that green waste and ‘poo-power’ has potential to meet at least 10-15% of our domestic heating requirement.
Of course, Germany is facing a different set of economic challenges to the UK. But the idea of replacing ‘new nuclear’ with CHP as a bridging technology has been on the table for some time. In 2006, Greenpeace published a report that compared the viability of a centralised, nuclear-supported future for the UK with a decentralised, CHP-supported scenario. The analysis was based on an economic model developed by the World Alliance for Decentralised Energy (WADE) and concluded that the CHP route would not only be greener but cheaper for the taxpayer. You might think that this is a fairly predictable finding from such a collaboration. But now that Germany is taking the plunge, the burning question is why can’t the UK do the same?
So what’s the catch? No doubt, pro-nuclear supporters will continue to maintain that nuclear provides the fastest road to carbon reduction. But this is far from certain. It can take up to 10 years to build a nuclear power station. Before its untimely demise, the Sustainable Development Commission estimated that a nuclear renaissance in the UK will not begin to have a significant impact on CO2 reduction until around 2024. Even then, the sector’s contribution would only be somewhere in the region of 4%. In other words, too little, too late.
It’s impossible to predict which scenario would be more effective: a nuclear-led reduction that would only start to have an impact a decade from now or an immediate and sustained drive to reduce fossil fuel emissions using a concerted energy-reduction programme, huge investment in making truly renewable forms of energy fit for the 21st century and CHP. In truth, commitment to energy reduction may well be the deciding factor. While our government continues to pander to projections of increased energy demand, Germany is already committed to a comprehensive strategy for scaling back energy consumption-despite its roots in industry.
In terms of cost, creating an effective infrastructure for CHP will need a large injection of capital. The Turnaround report suggests that the move to a decentralised energy model could be buffered through a number of mechanisms. These include growth and innovation in CHP and renewable technologies, public cash injections from the proceeds of auctioned carbon credits and the development of new financial instruments that are hinged around sustainability. This must be a far more enlightened approach to developing our future than Chris Huhne’s thinly-concealed public/private partnership drive to fund the government’s £60bn nuclear renaissance through fixed price contracts and an artificially elevated carbon floor price.
Undoubtedly, creating the infrastructure for new CHP-based district heating networks will cause disruption. Roads will have to be dug up to install the pipes needed to carry heat to private and commercial properties. But we will have disruption whatever energy path we take. If the UK government pursues its ‘all electric’ future, the whole grid system will have to be upgraded and homes re-fitted with new types of heating systems and insulation. Let’s not fool ourselves: whatever road we choose, the transition to sustainability is going to be tough.
Then there is the issue of security of supply - one of the key planks of the pro-nuclear argument. The Turnaround report underlines the fact that a decentralised approach with a broad mix of renewable and energy-efficient technologies can help reduce any future stresses brought about by foreign energy providers. Arguably, if the gas-fed CHP route is taken, it’s possible the Europe might be hit by a repeat of the kind of disruption caused by Russia’s dispute with the Ukraine in 2009. But the nuclear sector faces similar uncertainty. The world’s leading uranium producer is Kazakhstan – a nation that offers no greater reassurance of future energy security than its Russian neighbour.Meanwhile, the long-distance transportation of uranium from mines in Canada and Australia also presents risks in terms of accidents and terrorism.
From an environmentalist’s perspective, Germany’s energy model is by no means perfect. Apart from CHP, the government is proposing to develop carbon capture and storage (CSS) for coal-fired power stations and there are also plans to use biomass as part of the fuel mix for CHP. However, it’s still unclear whether CSS will ever be economically viable in large-scale production. In terms of biomass, several German energy reports stress that biomass must come from sustainable sources and that food security and environmental protection must be a priority. These are both issues that need to be monitored.
But, ultimately, the real issue is about energy democracy. We need to ask ourselves one fundamental question: do we want a future where we continue to be hostage to the profit-obsessed manipulations of the Big Six energy providers? Or do we want to take ownership of our energy by creating a localised mixture of energy sources - which could, in theory, be owned by communities themselves either through their local authorities, or better still, as part of a co-operative shareholder scheme. These questions need to be asked now before the opportunity to literally take back ‘power to the people’ disappears for good.
Inevitably, the pro-nuclear lobby will try to pick holes in Germany’s model but you can play ping-pong with the data until the ice caps melt. The bottom line is this: the decision on future energy provision has to be a moral one. Nuclear energy is a quick fix: it keeps our centralised system in place and cuts out the political headache of having to consider a new energy paradigm. But history has taught us that quick fixes have a nasty habit of turning around and biting us on the rear. In the wake of Fukushima, how many more bites will it take before the UK realises that nuclear power is not a 21st century solution?
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