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Exit from nuclear power is affordable – but entering a new energy system is challenging

10.06.2011
The much debated date for phasing out nuclear power in Germany has little impact on consumer prices of electricity, according to scientists.

An exit before 2020, however, could push up emissions of the greenhouse gas CO2 in the short term. Yet security of supply is the crucial point. This security can only be guaranteed if both renewable energies and fossil power generation along with power grids are scaled up, shows a study which for the first time presents a comprehensive calculation of the effects. Deploying power plants fired by gas instead of coal could, at an equal price, lead to less emissions and more competition.

“The greatest challenge isn’t phasing out nuclear power but triggering a new energy system which is sustainable, efficient, and acceptable for society. That’s a real feat of strengh”, says Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). This Friday he presents the findings of the study in Berlin. Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), will give a political assessment of the study which was commissioned by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. The study was carried out together with the Institute for Infrastructure and Resource Management of Leipzig University, the project coordinator is Brigitte Knopf (PIK).

“For decision-makers, our study points out several paths to a new power system. It makes clear which conflicts of objectives exist but also which options for action are available”, says Thomas Bruckner, director of the Infrastructure Institute in Leipzig. “No other recent study focusing on these issues is based on such a wide range of scenarios up to the year 2030 and including the differential effects of power plants fired by gas instead of coal to replace nuclear energy.”

Phasing out nuclear power in 2020 compared to 2022 – the latter being the date envisaged by the German government – would cost an average consumer’s household in 2020 just an additional 90 cents per month, the study says. Even an exit as early as in 2015 would increase electricity costs for an average household by only an additional amount of 2 Euros per month, compared to phasing out in 2020. The price for electricity on the spot market would rise from today’s approximately 5 cents, in the case of a nuclear phase out date of 2020, to 5.9 cents in 2015. In the case of an exit date of 2015 the price would rise to 6.7 cents. Both scenarios show that the price would roughly go back to the original 5 cents in the year 2030 – provided that in particular the expansion of renewable energies proceeds faster than current plans forsee.

Power prices will stay low only if energy efficiency as a matter of fact gets boosted just as planned by the German government. However, increasing prices of fuels and CO2 emission certificates are other factors of uncertainty that might lead to higher costs for the consumer.

CO2 emissions would rise only in the short term under a phase-out of nuclear power by 2020 instead of 2022. A complete phase-out by 2015, however, would push up CO2 emissions considerably, according to the researchers’ calculations. The emissions would be 64 million tonnes higher than in the case of exiting in 2020 or 2022, increasing Germany’s total CO2 emissions from power generation by one quarter in 2015. The additional emissions could be decreased by 20 percent if more power plants were deployed fired with gas instead of coal would. Climate change mitigation would not be affected, contrary to some widespread beliefs. There is a cap for European greenhouse gas emissions. When one country increases its emissions, they have to be reduced somewhere else.

However, this would inflate prices of emission certificates in the European trading scheme, resulting after all in yet higher electricity prices for consumers – so this represents one of the conflicts of objectives. Increasing prices of fossil fuels and CO2 emission certificates pose the greatest uncertainty factors. They could, depending on the scenario, result in an additional increase of power prices by 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour. The authors see this as another reason to reduce dependence on fossil energies and scale up renewable energies. However, this requires an adequate development of power grids including an acceleration of the already planned expansion of transmission lines. Also, additional mechanisms to guarantee network reliability have to be considered.

Replacing nuclear energy requires massive upscaling of renewable energies plus building up fossil power plant capacities faster than previously planned. Whether nuclear power is phased out by 2015, 2020, or 2022, a fossil power generation capacity is needed that surpasses the capacity of those plants which are currently being built by 8 Gigawatt in order to cover demand peaks. As long as it is not intended to extend the lifetime of older fossil power plants, new fossil power plants have to be put into operation which today are still in the planning stage. This means a huge challenge, according to the researchers, making it necessary to critically evaluate plans of phasing out as early as in 2015.

To bring about a change in energy policy, establishing an independent council of experts would be advisable, says Ottmar Edenhofer (PIK). “It is crucial that such a council doesn’t suggest just one path to reach climate change mitigation and energy security but several viable alternatives.” This would increase the transparency and legitimacy of political decisions and in doing so create acceptance for the change in energy policy, the authors conclude. The European level also has to be addressed. One option for action is the enhancement of the EU emission trading scheme as to encompass the transport sector, another one is the integration of the multitude of support systems for renewable energies in the European member states into one common system. “A national go-it-alone in changing the energy system doesn’t make much sense”, says Edenhofer. “This is particularly true for scaling up renewable energies and building power grids across national borders.”

Weblink to short version of the study (German): http://www.pik-potsdam.de/energiewende

For more information please contact:

Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)
PR-office
Phone: +49 331 288 25 07
E-Mail: press@pik-potsdam.de

Mareike Schodder | PIK Potsdam
Further information:
http://www.pik-potsdam.de/energiewende

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