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German Push for Renewable Energy Lowers Costs, Saves Lives

A sign seen at an anti-nuclear demonstration in Japan in 2012.  (Photo:  Matthias Lambrecht)

The headline splashed across page 1 of the Sunday New York Times on September 14 leading off a long article said it all: “Sun and Wind Alter Global Landscape.”

The focus was on Germany’s push to develop renewable sources of energy in the past few years.  It is a huge success. Shortly, 30% of German electrical power will be from renewable sources, mostly sun and wind, the most of any large nation.  There will be no letup to the transition; the country has set an ambitious goal of 85% from renewables by 2050, just 35 years from now.

The German story shows that any willing society can build a large renewable energy portfolio in a short period – while ridding itself of toxic, unhealthy sources.  The Times article mentions that its nuclear reactors will be phased out within a decade.  A nuclear phase-out and the emergence of renewables in the U.S. will result in cheaper, cleaner energy – at long last.

Costs– Short Term Investment, Long Term Savings

The current major sources of energy have not delivered on their promises to keep electric bills low.  The most infamous promise was delivered by Lewis Strauss, chair of the Atomic Energy Commission.  In a 1954 speech, Strauss told a group of journalists that nuclear power would produce energy “too cheap to meter” in the future.

But from the outset, nuclear proved to be anything but cheap.  The earliest reactors were often shut for repairs, operating at only 58% as late as 1986, U.S. reactors.  Stricter regulations tried to eliminate sub-standard reactors.  But that only made the cost problem worse; it took much longer to build reactors, and more staff to operate them.

The financiers of nuclear power saw their investments turn out to be far more expensive than promised.  Wall Street lenders made fewer loans for new reactor projects, and stopped altogether in 1978.  Since the mid-1980s, few new reactors opened, the last one in 1996.

In the 2000s, nuclear leaders declared new reactors could solve global warming because they don’t emit greenhouse gases, and proposed 33 new units.  But high costs stymied any chance of a “nuclear renaissance.”  Wall Street looked the other way, and Washington gave only a small loan guarantee.  Of the 33 proposed reactors, only five are now being built – very slowly.  Estimates of $10 to $15 billion per reactor, taking about a dozen years from proposal to operation, are the legacy of the “too cheap to meter” prediction.

A total of 104 U.S. reactors operated since 1998, a pale number compared to the prediction of 1,200 made by the Atomic Energy Commission in the early 1970s.  Five (5) have shut since last year, with more to follow.  Reactors are expensive, and that many actually lose money in a de-regulated market.  And after shutdown, the enormous cost of decommissioning plants will kick in.  The nuclear bill was always, and remains, very high.

For years, many have claimed that renewables were far too costly to ever be a major force in the energy mix.  Germany’s transition proved otherwise.  The largest, 60-story wind mill cost $30 million; up to 500 of these matches the cost of a single new nuclear reactor.  The program has been financed by a fee of just $280 per home per year (now being offset by declining electricity bills).  Because of the large amount of wind and solar power now in place, per-unit costs are plunging – not just in Germany, but worldwide.


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Safety—Clean Energy Means Healthier People

Energy sources like oil, gas, coal, and nuclear all release toxic chemicals into the environment and have long been the subject of a battle over just how harmful they are.  The intensity of this debate has probably been greatest over nuclear power, capable of devastating meltdowns.

Nuclear reactors would never have been built in the U.S., were it not for government intervention, No insurance company would underwrite a policy covering costs of a meltdown, until the 1957 Price-Anderson Act set a limit on the amount a company would have to pay; the rest would be footed by taxpayers.

Meltdowns proved to be real.  The 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, plus full meltdowns at Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) were a back-breaker for an industry trying to present itself as a clean alternative to fossil fuels.  Regular emissions of radiation from reactors that enter the food chain inspired dozens of scientific articles in journals showing high rates among local residents.  And even if all reactors close the hot radioactive waste now kept at each plant must be stored for thousands of years.

Even the attempt in the 2000s to revive nuclear power as being “carbon free” belied the truth.  The processes of generating uranium for nuclear fuel – mining, milling, enrichment, fabrication, and purification – each requires substantial fossil fuel use.  Transportation between each step requires more fossil fuels.  And the eventual decommissioning would burn even more.  Nuclear power is not the answer to global warming.

Matching the German Model Reduces Costs, Global Warming, Disease

Wind and solar, plus other renewable forms of power, have existed for a long time.  The claims that they would never play a large role in the energy mix have been proven wrong.  

The per-unit costs that were higher than nuclear and other pollutants plunged as more orders were made.  Large wind or solar farms were completed in a year or two, compared to a dozen or more years for a nuclear plant.  There are no fuel costs of wind and solar.

Germany’s energy future, highly dependent on safe renewable sources like wind and solar, will pay great dividends.  Its people will see lower electric bills.  Fewer will suffer from costly diseases like cancer.  Effects of global warming will be slowed.  The U.S. and other developed nations should observe the German effort and step up efforts to build an energy mix based largely on safe, renewable sources.

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Joseph J. Mangano

Joseph J. Mangano, MPH, MBA, is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project in New York.

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