For those unfamiliar, Germany decided to shut down all of their nuclear power plants following the Fukushima disaster that has been covered extensively in the media. This drastic measure was cheered by anti-nuclear advocates that erroneously believed this was a sign of a major shift towards renewables. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t quite work that way.
Since I always try to throw something education into what I write, let’s look at why:
Power plants have to provide a base electrical load to supply to the grid. This base load covers things that don’t get turned off. Think of factories, water pumps, and refrigerators. No matter what, these loads must remain powered at a certain voltage and frequency. Each day, there are cycling loads that come on at certain times and tend to disappear at other times. Think of the heaters that come on at night, TVs that come on in the afternoon, and dishwashers that come on after dinner. Each electrical load impacts the electrical grid and must be compensated for.
No big deal, right? Power dispatchers have to anticipate these changes and ensure that there is sufficient generating capability to cover those load shifts. Also, the generating capability has to be sufficient to also cover the base load 24/7.
Renewables are a fantastic idea and I am 100% behind the development of them; however, they come with problems.
The sun doesn’t shine 24/7 on solar panels. Stored heat technologies are still a long way from being economically viable. The wind doesn’t blow constantly and at a constant amount. Geothermal energy is only available in certain areas. Tidal power is expensive and requires constant maintenance. Hydroelectric is very disruptive and gets tons of NIMBY protests.
Those examples deal primarily with the inability of most renewables to provide for a constant baseload 24/7. What about the cycling loads? Can you just throw some more solar panels online? Well, sure but it’s not efficient to run your grid that way. You can open more floodgates on your hydroelectric dam but that might not always be possible. You can unlock some more wind turbines but what if the wind isn’t blowing? Germany did invest heavily in renewables but it’s not sufficient to cover the massive gap left by removing nuclear. It also cost them heavily. Especially since they had to rely on importing energy to make up for the shortfall.
For those reasons, we have to rely on stored energy that is available regardless of climate and time of day for a reliable national power grid. The material with the highest stored energy density is, you guessed it, our friend Uranium-235. Unfortunately, nuclear plants are difficult to start up quickly so we tend to operate them at 99-100% power output and rely on gas turbine plants to be rapidly started up to deal with cyclical loads. And guess what? If it didn’t work, we wouldn’t do it. Nuclear is fantastic for supporting huge, unchanging loads for long periods of time. When nuclear isn’t fast enough, we can burn gas to up our generating capacity. Renewables certainly have their place in supplementing loads to reduce the overall strain on the grid. Every rotation you can squeeze out of a wind turbine is one fewer ounce of fuel you have to burn. However, a smart energy policy requires the integration of all of these resources simultaneously to be most successful.
I can’t say this article surprises me in the least. Even GREENPEACE is against this situation. In case you missed it, they stated that “He [Economy and Energy minister of Germany] has to stop the shocking coal boom. This is the most serious undesirable development in the energy transition that greatly endangers the German climate protection goals.”
By removing the majority of the baseload generating capability, Germany had to turn to another form of stored energy. It’s unfortunate for everyone that it happens to be the dirtiest form of energy we have. All of this because of public perception of nuclear.