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EU: Nuclear moratorium opens the door to renewables

Germany's decision to shut down some of its nuclear power stations following problems with Japanese plants after the recent earthquake could spur long-term growth in renewable energy.

Germany's decision to shut down some of its nuclear power stations following problems with Japanese plants after the recent earthquake could spur long-term growth in renewable energy. But, for now, it will mainly be coal and gas that will fill the gap, increasing carbon emissions.

In mid-March, German leader Angela Merkel closed the country's seven oldest nuclear stations for at least three months to carry out safety inspections and said some reactors may be decommissioned earlier than previously planned. Merkel also called for her country to speed up its move towards renewable energy to help fill any gap in electricity supply.

BEE, a German renewable-energy industry association, said it was confident its members could ensure renewable supply would meet 47% of German electricity demand by 2020, compared with 17% of a total 585 terawatt hours of power in 2010, when nuclear generated 23% of the total.

But even if that was achievable, there is little chance renewables can cover any significant loss of nuclear power in the immediate future. One problem is that Germany is virtually saturated in terms of onshore wind-farm locations and is moving to develop much more expensive offshore projects, which have longer lead times. Another is that supply is much more readily available – and generally at a lower cost – from fossil fuels.

"There is spare capacity in coal and gas plants in Germany – because of the economic downturn and the extensive development of renewables in recent years – which can be used immediately. So any nuclear phase-out will be met by those power sources. Building enough new renewable capacity would take far too long," said Stefan Wächter, an analyst at Thomson Reuters Point Carbon, an energy consultancy.

Point Carbon estimates Germany's three-month nuclear moratorium would result in an extra 8m tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, assuming fossil fuels fill the gap. And that figure could total 435m tonnes by 2020, if the closed nuclear power stations do not reopen and plans to extend the life of some younger nuclear reactors – outlined last year – are revoked. The company estimates German emissions for installations covered by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme in 2010 totalled around 447m tonnes.

But the crisis does seem to have focused minds on long-mooted plans to upgrade electricity grids in Germany and across Europe to enable them to handle intermittent wind and solar energy, as more comes on line. In addition to Merkel's call for faster renewables development, Rainer Bruederle, Germany's economy minister, has called for greater efforts to win public approval for new transmission lines and a faster planning approvals process. He said the challenge would be similar to that faced in reuniting east and west Germany – a process estimated to have cost nearly $2 trillion.

Germany's power grid infrastructure cannot cope with electricity delivery from its more exposed, windier northern states to populous interior areas hundreds of miles away, so much of the power generated on the windiest days goes to waste. Surges in wind power have also resulted in closure of cross-border grid connections between Germany and Denmark – another wind-power leader – because electricity-transmission systems were unable to manage. Germany may need to build as much as 17,000 km of new domestic transmission grid to cope with its changing energy mix, according to some estimates.

But the country's problems are a microcosm of those facing Europe as a whole, where many renewable resources also tend to be on the periphery, far from potential markets – there is generally more wind in the north and west, and more solar potential in the south and, possibly, North Africa.

The most effective answer would be the long-mooted European supergrid, based on new and upgraded cross-border power connections, which could direct power to where it was most needed across the continent.

The EU's first leaders' energy summit, in February, produced some feisty words about this more unified approach: "Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 80-95% by 2050 compared with 1990, as agreed in October 2009, will require a revolution in energy systems, which must start now," the meeting's communique said, adding that no EU state should be isolated from European gas and electricity networks after 2015.

But there was no specific mention of a supergrid and little talk of public funding. "The bulk of the important financing costs for infrastructure investments will have to be delivered by the market, with costs recovered through tariffs," the communique said.

Some of the measures needed are already being implemented. For example, connections between windy Spain and nuclear-driven France have been improved and plans to develop a North Sea regional grid to harness offshore wind power are gathering momentum.

But persuading the private sector to invest a large chunk of the vast sum of money required to link Europe's electricity grids is a tough task in the present economic climate. So unless the project is regarded as a public-spending priority by EU governments – something that could happen if anti-nuclear sentiment grows – building the European supergrid could be a long, drawn-out process.

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