Friday, 22 November 2013

Post nuclear differences

In the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station disaster in early 2011 both Japan and Germany changed their stance on nuclear power generation. Some nuclear plants were shut down immediately and the rest will most likely be decommissioned with the next decade.  Both countries appeared to have widespread public support for this radical change in their national energy policy.
Solar city, science park, Gelsenkirchen.
Source: Green Baroque Ins. Flickr under Creative
Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 Licence 

The effect these decisions have had on these two nations response to climate change is interesting.  Germany was already well into building out its solar & wind based renewable generation capacity before the earthquake and tidal wave wrecked the reactors in Japan. With widespread community involvement in the investment in renewables, and helpful financial and regulatory environment provided by the German authorities,  they've been able carry this forward.  They've still got fossil fuels in their mix but they do still seem to be on target for their carbon emissions targets.  Germany already had a strong anti-nuclear movement and was planning on phasing out nuclear by 2036 anyway so this event really accelerated that timetable.

Japan on the other hand have just announced during the UN COP19 climate change talks that they were going to have to substantially reduce their existing emissions reduction target.  They are building renewable generating capacity of course - practically every developed nation is.  However it will not be enough to cope with losing all the nuclear generating capacity that they are removing,  which prior to March 2011 contributed around 30% of their total generating capacity.  They are having to turn to increasing use of imported fossil fuels as oil, coal and gas to supply their electricity.

I was wondering what we could learn from the different outcomes arising from what, at first, appear to be very similar decisions.  Germany had something of a head start as they were already aggressively building solar PV & wind generators. But they also have a geographic  advantage over Japan: Germany is bigger with more land available.  Solar & wind both have low "energy density" so to get a decent amount generated you need alot of them covering lots of roofs & land. Japan is a relatively crowded country so space is at a much higher premium.  As a comparison Japan is 39th in the population density league table whereas Germany is 58th.  Japan does have potential for many gigawatts of renewable power generation though, as it has amply space in the seas around it for large scale off-shore wind farms.  There does appear to be the need to encourage more community involvement and investment in on-shore renewables though.
Fukushima Unit 4 with cranes working on 
stabilizing the site. Source: IAEA Imagebank under 
Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Licence

Both nations have to bear the costs of decommissioning their nuclear infrastructure, which will mostly likely be a long and expensive task.  Again Germany has an advantage - it only had 17 nuclear power stations operating prior to March 2011 whereas Japan had over 50.  Germany was already well into decommissioning quite a few reactors, especially from the former East Germany.

Japan also has the expense and difficulty of cleaning up Fukushima itself to deal with. That's going to be a big drain on the resources of both its owner Tepco and the Japanese government. The clean up may well be competing for funds, people and time required to ramp up construction of  renewables, even though those renewables are part of the solution to the overall problem. Indeed one wonders if the exclusion zone around Fukushima might well end up being a good place to site renewables with their relatively low maintenance requirements (so fewer people have to spend less time in the potentially more radioactive areas).  At least they might provide some economic payback to the people whose land is otherwise now worthless.

Japan's economy has taken some serious blows over the last few years, which also puts them at a disadvantage against Germany. Germany is the economic power house of the EU, and so it can afford to invest in the capital cost of renewables. Indeed its a positive cycle for the Germans: the more renewables they can invest in the more insulated they are from fossil fuel price rises, which improves their competitiveness and increases their income, part of which they can invest in more renewables.  Japan has the opposite problem - its emergency switch to large scale fossil fuels to replace the nuclear power stations is costing the Japanese power companies an extra 3.6 trillion yen in 2013 over the costs in 2010 before the disaster.  Things are likely to get worse for Japan before they start to get better.

There is one overarching "take home message" I pick up from the different reaction to the change in energy policy in the two countries.  The sooner a nation starts to make a large scale switch to distributed renewable power generation, the better placed it is likely to be to deal with sudden, external changes in traditional centralized power generation.  In this case it was the rapid removal of all nuclear capacity but in the future who knows what it will be?  Gas pipelines cut off as part of national sabre rattling? Wars leading rapid price rises in global oil prices? Coal shipments being disrupted by industrial unrest?  All of these could affect national grids that rely too heavily on one particular fuel source, especially if that fuel is controlled by others.  We all need to be investing in clean, distributed energy generation to make our nations, towns, cities and communities more resilient in the face of these unexpected changes.

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