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Germany takes first big step toward renewables

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By Sherry Robinson

Everybody remembers where they were the day of JFK’s assassination and the day the towers fell in New York City.
Some of us also remember where we were in March 1979 when the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant suffered mechanical failures.
At the first news, a PNM coworker and I dashed down the street to read the reports clacking out of an Associated Press teletype machine. PNM was and still is part owner of a nuclear power plant.
The furor decimated the nuclear industry with plant cancellations and new regulatory hurdles, and it was particularly painful for New Mexico. Grants, the uranium capital, slipped from boom to bust as mine after mine closed until they were all shuttered.
Watching the horrifying scenes of destruction in Japan and the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, I also wondered if, just as nuclear is making a strong comeback, we would see another economic tsunami, with new impacts on New Mexico.
So far, construction of new reactors has slowed, and regulators are studying safety requirements, but the industry is still standing.
It helps that respected leaders like Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, said on nationwide television, “We have depended on nuclear power for many decades to meet much of our electricity needs, and I think we will continue to in the future. And I do believe we can produce power safely. We’ve done that.”
The first real fallout was last week, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a plan to shift to renewable energy and close her nation’s 17 reactors by 2022.
It’s the first major industrialized nation to take the nuclear-free path. And, ironically, the same nation that almost bested us in the race to nuclear weapons.
Good for Germany, not because I agree or disagree, but because somebody had to go first. Our so-called energy debate is a ping pong match between conventional and renewable energy advocates. Germany, the early adopter, will settle the bets.
The big question is cost. According to MIT’s Technology Review, costs aren’t yet black and white. One quarter of the power mix is nuclear.
The German government estimates increases to consumers of about one cent per kilowatt-hour, or $50 to $57 per household per year, assuming the government subsidizes the cost of building offshore wind farms that will replace most of the nuclear generation within two decades.
Short term, replacing power from the eight oldest reactors, ordered offline in March, could be tricky during the peak demands caused by cold snaps, when Germany’s solar output is minimal and the old standby, purchased power, is also more difficult.
Merkel’s plan would keep some of old reactors in reserve while the nation doubles renewable power to 35 percent by 2020.
Germany would also expand the power grid, something we talk about here but never quite do; work has already begun to test high-voltage underground cables.
The plan also calls for simplified permitting and compensation to affected communities. The latter is a nice touch – nothing reduces opposition like cash.
Merkel would pay for new wind farms with a new tax on nuclear fuel.
One major provider of nuclear power has said it would respect the will of the people but wants compensation for its shuttered reactors. The others could go to court over the tax.
What about the German economy? The conversion could be a boon to Germany’s solar and wind companies, which are some of the world’s largest, according to Renewable Energy World.com.
That includes Schott Solar, which has a plant in Albuquerque.
But German manufacturers oppose the 2022 deadline, and their trade group accuses the government of jeopardizing the nation’s energy supply and economic growth for political expediency.
As we make our own decisions here in the Land of Energy, it’s helpful that somebody else is breaking trail.

Sherry Robinson
New Mexico News Services 2011