When the world’s fourth-largest economy decides to stop using nuclear power, the rest of the industrialized world should take notice. Germany, the world’s fourth-largest user of nuclear power, has decided to phase out its 17 nuclear power plants by 2022. The move came after the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan teetered precariously close to a meltdown.
U.S. ambivalence about its energy future and shameful lack of a strong policy may actually be an asset, as elected officials are able to watch and learn from Germany’s move toward renewable sources of energy such as hydro, solar, wind and biomass. Switzerland says it will join Germany in being nuke-free by 2034. Japan, following the Fukushima incident, has dropped its goal of supplying half of its electricity through nuclear power.
But Germany may provide a singular case study for the U.S. and other nations. Even before the Fukushima plant’s problems, Germany was taking decisive steps toward renewable energy sources. In 1997, it and other European Union nations aimed to have 12 percent of their electric needs supplied by renewable sources by 2010. Last year, 17 percent of Germany’s power came from sources such as wind and biomass.
Those supporting expanding nuclear power in the U.S. often cite the prevalence of such plants in Europe. Of the 440 active nuclear plants, 197 are in Europe providing about 35 percent of the continent’s power. Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Holland, Spain, Sweden and the UK are among the nations relying on nuclear power.
Yet Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal and several other European nations do not use any nuclear power. Some moved away from nuclear power after the Chernobyl disaster.
France continues to maintain its commitment to nuclear power, with 58 plants providing 76 percent of its electricity. And in the emerging Asian powerhouses of China and India, nuclear power is expected to fuel the burgeoning demand for electricity.
Germany is an industrial nation with the largest economy in Europe. It is not likely to abandon nuclear power in favor of sources with a suspect future. This is why the U.S. policy makers should pay attention to the practical applications of alternative electricity sources.
How big a part can wind power play in a nation’s energy portfolio? Does tidal power have great potential here in Maine? Solar?
And what about hydro power, which these days is largely understood as static, with few new dams likely to come online? New dams are unlikely, but existing dams may provide an untapped potential. The city of Belfast is pondering a purchase of several dams on the Goose River that connects Swanville’s Swan Lake to Penobscot Bay. Under a component of Maine utility law, the electricity produced by those turbines can be traded with Central Maine Power on a one-to-one basis for the electricity the city buys to power its wastewater treatment plant.
Of course, Germany — and the U.S., if it seeks to emulate its approach — will continue to use natural gas and other fossil fuels to make electricity. But for every kilowatt produced through renewable sources, the air is cleaner and more energy dollars (or Euros) remain at home.