[Activity Review] ”Better practice in other countries—Germany's experience in energy transition and nuclear waste disposal” Forum activity

Hsu, Chien-Ming

After Fukushima nuclear disaster, Germany quickly closed down eight old nuclear power plants, and scheduled to close all nuclear power plants in 2022, showing its commitment to the development of renewable energy to the world with actions; now Germany’s national renewable energy generation capacity has reached 33%, twice as much as that of nuclear power generation, even affecting the traditional coal-fired power industry. Renewable energy seems to have become Germany’s developmental path to the future.

However, German experience did not happen overnight. The forum “Better practice in other countries—Germany's experience in energy transition and nuclear waste disposal,” held by Mom Loves Taiwan, NTU Risk Society and Policy Research Center, and Yilan Charlei Chen Foundation, took place on 30th June at NTU Tsai Lecture Hall. The principal speaker was Ms. Bärbel Höhn, a senior member of the German Bundestag who devoted long-term focus on energy, non-nuclear policy making and execution. Other invited joint discussant included Kuang-Jung Hsu, the president of Mom Loves Taiwan, and Tze-Luen Lin, the deputy CEO of Energy and Carbon Reduction office from Executive Yuan. Ms. Höhn, a member of German Parliament from Alliance '90/The Greens, brought to Taiwan valuable German experiences in energy transition.

Ms. Höhn began by explaining the reason why Germany decided to transition. She believes that Germany learned from the mistakes in history that nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons are inseparable: if nuclear weapons are not wanted, neither is nuclear power. It is the idea of student movement in early years, as well as that of Green Party. However, without nuclear energy, naturally the alternatives should be proposed. The alternative is renewable energy. In 1998, the Greens had an impact on politics and began to expand this discussion: how to completely remove nuclear energy. The German term of energy transition “Energiewende” is a special way of saying, meaning the kind of energy transition where it is affordable by people, running without nuclear power, people being empowered, energy democratic, and participated by civil society. Ms. Höhn believes that if energy transition is joined together with people, it is more in line with the true meaning of democracy. Germany also wants to be the pioneer in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

She further stressed the issue of sustainable development. As the Greens, she fundamentally believes that the earth is borrowed from future generations, we should take good care of the Earth, and pass it to the next generation, without exceeding the amount that we should use. Thinking for the sake of our next generation is what Green Party believes. She cites study by Swedish scholar Rockstrom, indicating that the Earth has been carrying burdens exceeding its limit, such as the loss of biological diversity. Ms. Höhn suggests that sustainability should not only be contemplated, but also be put into action. She mentioned that scientists have already pointed out that in order to avoid temperatures rising by 2 degrees Celsius, we cannot use all known reserves of carbon, but can only use about 20% of them. If we do nothing, the future price to pay will be so high that even rich countries cannot afford.

After the Fukushima incident, the global interpretation towards German development has been changing. In the beginning, the world thinks Germany is mad. But after the Paris Convention, the world began to feel that the German approach is very interesting. Ms. Höhn pointed out that 92 percent of Germans support energy transition, even if most people do not have thorough understanding of the Paris Convention. Starting from year 2009, Germany sees the growth of renewable energy slowly overtook nuclear energy; now 33% of its energy is from renewable energy sources, only 15% from nuclear power. Even so, time is running short. Only 35 years to go before Germany’s year 2050 goal.

Ms. Höhn further illustrated that coal-fired power project is not a good investment. She cited year 2009 as an example, when oil price and energy cost were both high and investors wanted to invest in coal-fired power plants. At that time, she asked investors not to do so, and pointed out that the business will lose money in the future. In addition, these factories had been protested against. In the end, the last two thirds of investment plan were not carried out. Now they all understand that these coal-fired power plant investments are all losing money, today's Germany has fully turned to renewable energy, and people like renewable energy. When investing in renewable energy, people are more supportive, especially solar energy.

Why do people support it? It’s because production capacity is in the hands of people. Ms. Höhn used the term “Prosumer” (Producer + Consumer), suggesting people are both producers and users in terms of renewable energy. Renewable energy industry has created 370,000 new jobs. In contrast, coal mining in Germany probably hires around 10,000 people, and nuclear power plants 10,000 too. By comparison, renewable energy creates jobs 10 times more than the original. In addition, there is need to discuss with both leaders at municipal level and civil leaders in order for it to succeed. This can create tax revenue and improve quality of life. For some farmers and those remote areas with low-income, this can help to increase their income.

In Germany, renewable energy is becoming competitive. Even without subsidies, people are willing to install solar panels, and supermarkets are willing to install in order to subsidize cooling system, because it is cheaper than direct purchase. Compared to this, fossil energy is getting more expensive. Because renewable energy is getting cheaper, giving Taiwan and Asia has a great advantage. From year 2006 to 2014, the solar panels are getting cheaper and cheaper. This is like a present from Germany to the world, and now we can begin to develop from a very low price. In contrast, when German’s Renewable Energy Act has just been enforced, Germany paid a terribly high cost for power grid and 20-year wholesale market rates. From the figures, the German people are very supportive of renewable energy. 47% of installed capacities are from citizens and cooperatives, four major energy suppliers account for only 12% of it, and they now face a great crisis. At the same time, its 100 cities decided to reach 100 percent renewable energy in their own cities. Here appear many active local officials and civic activists. German’s next step is to terminate the use of coal-fired power, and increased the use of gas to further reduce carbon emissions. However, even to an industry-oriented country like Germany, to achieve the target in 35 years is a big challenge.

After the first phase of the lecture, Professor Kuang-Jung Hsu pointed out that behind the power shortage problem is Taiwan's high electricity consumption, and heavy financial burden. Both Renewable Energy Development Act and Greenhouse Gas Reduction and Management Act leave ample rooms for manipulation and lack incentives to develop. Calculated by too high GDP annual growth rate, Taiwan’s voluntary reduction commitments (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, INDC) turn out unreasonable reference (BAU). Professor Tze-Luen Lin, the newly appointed deputy CEO of Energy and Carbon Reduction office, addressed the German experience shared by Ms. Höhn and pointed out that energy production can become everyone's business, which can flip the entire energy structure. He further pointed out that, on the one hand, there is need to solve problems in renewable energy; on the other hand, there is also need to propose new energy policy. In fact, energy transition is plausible, but there’s need to avoid copying the previous dispute. In the future, we should aim for a sharing system, which shares the profits generated by green energy, rather than a system built on sacrifice. He further hoped that in the future the office involve stakeholders and make them more interactive.

During the second phase of the speech, Professor Kuang-Jung Hsu began by introducing Taiwan’s current status of nuclear power. She pointed out the disputes about older nuclear units, site choosing, which triggers disputes of radioactive contaminated buildings and low-level nuclear waste on Orchid Island. On the other hand, high-level nuclear waste is facing problems where used fuel rods have nowhere to retreat, while people lose confidence in high-level nuclear waste dry storage (dry cask).

Ms. Höhn immediately indicated why the use of nuclear energy should be avoided. She used the European experience as an example to illustrate the high cost of nuclear power plants, susceptible to controversy. Before Fukushima incident, the German government had been considering nuclear power plants life extension; however after Fukushima the public opinion completely changed. Particularly the processing of high-level nuclear waste gained considerable attention in Germany. In the 1980s, experts said nuclear waste can be placed safely in Asse. But now the public no longer believes it is safe after seeing the corroded pictures of waste bins. Everyone wants to send the waste as far as possible, and there are people wishing to restart the site-choosing discussion.

Thus, the German government set up a committee, joined by federal government, scientists, representatives of civil society and the state government. They, according to schedule, established index for choosing sites, step by step reached towards the final disposal of nuclear waste. The principle behind is the state responsibility, fair disposal, and polluters pay. Nuclear power plants have to pay to deal with nuclear waste, especially about 50 billion euros will be paid to process nuclear waste, according to a conclusion from the committee. 24 out of 50 billion are paid by the company, and 23 billion by the government. The company must first pay all public funds, 23.4 billion, whereas the cost for the company to shut down nuclear power plants is 21.3 billion euros. The government is responsible for maintaining after the final disposal.

Ms. Höhn reminded us, as much as reminding herself, the falling share price of German energy companies force people to make quick decisions as to who to pay. Otherwise, when these companies run out of money in the future, the government will eventually have to pay. Academician Yuan-Tseh Lee, speaking after Ms. Höhn, also pointed out that the real costs should be reflected on the price, in order to promote energy transition.

After the lecture, Ms. Höhn answered questions about the decommissioning of nuclear power plants in Germany, creating job opportunities, energy education, energy poverty. She firmly said the pace of renewable energy development in Germany will not stop. Even political and electoral reasons have some impact, but the process of German renewable energy development will not slow down. In particular, in the face of issues such as energy education, Ms. Höhn replied, "I am also a grandma. I also want to come out for my grandchildren. I also feel that education is very important!" It seems self-evident that her core efforts lie in future generations care. Lastly, Ms. Höhn reminded us that it is in the hands of the people in Taiwan that whether Taiwan continues its path of fossil fuel subsidies or embark on the road of renewable energy.