On 11 March 2011, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 struck the east coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami that killed over 15,000 people. Amidst the ruins, as the full scale of the disaster was slowly dawning, media coverage started to focus on the Fukushima nuclear plant, where the reactors had gone into meltdown and were threatening to release huge amounts of radiation into the surrounding environment. For a time, it seemed possible that the only country to have experienced the atomic bombing of its civilian population was going to suffer a nuclear catastrophe on the scale of Chernobyl.
Almost six months after the event, the reactors have been cooled with sea-water and it appears the worst-case scenario has been avoided. Nonetheless, the disaster has severely shaken public confidence in nuclear energy. In Italy, a referendum on restarting the country’s nuclear power programme was defeated by a staggering 90% of voters on a turn-out of around 56% – an unambiguous rejection of the technology. Similarly, Germany has announced it will be abandoning nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima.
We’ve received several comments supporting the switch from nuclear to renewable technologies – but what are the risks involved? Are renewable technologies ready to pick up the slack? Or do we face a future of black-outs and uncertain energy security? Certainly, if one looks at the figures for Germany, renewable energy will struggle to fill the gap left by nuclear – and the risk is that more polluting sources of energy (such as coal) might be used instead.
Debating Europe spoke to Will Pearson, energy analyst for the Eurasia Group, to ask him whether renewable technology was ready to replace nuclear:
Not one-for-one. What’s more going to pick up the slack could be natural gas – but that’s going to be a very challenging policy question. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has called this a golden age for gas, but it brings up a whole new set of questions.
We’ve heard a lot of talk about “shale gas” as a possible substitute. Is that a solution to Europe’s energy needs?
Shale gas is a longer term proposition and though one of the policy questions confronting European countries is about how to regulate the industry, gas imports from Russia and Norway or via LNG terminals are more likely to impact markets in the next decade–the policy question here is on gas pricing and supplier country preferences for long-term contracts with oil-indexed pricing. Importing countries in Europe are seeking gas-indexed prices.
But the future looks bright for gas right now? Renewable technologies are going to struggle to replace nuclear in the short-term?
Renewables are not going to be able to replace nuclear in the immediate short-term… In Germany, for example, policy makers say they will focus on being more energy efficient. But really, in the short term, we’re looking at increased imports from the Czech Republic and France which are often nuclear, or coal and gas.
What about coal? Are we going to see an increase in the use of coal as an energy source, with all of the associated costs in terms of pollution?
As far as an increase in the use of coal– in Germany we’ve already seen an immediate increase since reactors were shut down this spring and we’ll continue to see ongoing higher use of coal there in coming years to replace lost nuclear power.
But what about all the legal restrictions on the use of coal? Could we see a loosening of environmental policy across Europe?
I don’t think yet, but let’s say in five years time – if increased output and pressures on demand lead to higher prices. People don’t like paying a lot for energy, and utility prices will rise, so there’s a chance that – fuelled by public pressure – all these policies constricting the use of coal could be unwound. Again, we haven’t seen any sign of that yet.
How viable, then, is wind technology? In the debate on resource efficiency, we had a comment from Joe Thorpe arguing that:
Wind farms have a habit of producing unwanted energy & no energy when it is most wanted. Again, my taxes should not be wasted on this farce. You have to keep conventional power generating systems running in tandem with wind for when there isn’t any wind, so we are actually wasting energy not saving it.
Is this a valid criticism? Is wind energy a “farce” and a waste of tax-payers’ money?
It depends on the market. Oftentimes it’s true that wind blows stronger at night. You can’t count on wind when you need it. Wind is inherently variable, so there are a lot of organisations looking at storage technologies. There’s pumped hydro, for example, or there could be some game-changing technology that could alter the outlook for wind or solar, but right now that doesn’t exist. Electricity utilities cannot rely in total on wind or solar.
This seems to be a depressing prognosis. Germany, then, despite rejecting nuclear, is going to have to rely more on energy imports from neighbouring countries – in part powered by the very nuclear technology it has publicly abandoned. Worse, it seems like renewable technologies are not yet up to the task of providing for Europe’s energy needs, so more polluting energy sources will have to fill the gap. Will renewables ever be ready to take-over from conventional technologies?
In the near-term, I do think that the share of renewables is going to increase. These things tend to be very incrimental, but a wholesale change of the energy mix is unlikely to occur in the next 20 or 30 years. The overall share of renewables will increase, though. You can’t rule out a system that is based entirely on renewables, but you have to factor in significant technology gains that don’t exist right now. Whether it’s storage technology or transmission, for example. You also need a significant decrease in the cost of these technologies. It’s something that could happen, it’s an exciting thing, and it’s where the funding for research and development is worthwhile.