The photo from the battle of Lützerath will be remembered in history, but the story behind it is more tragic than one photograph can depict.
Some people will blame Germany’s need to return to coal mining on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but that isn’t the case. Germany’s downward spiral began in 2011, when, in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant meltdown in Japan, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel opted to phase out Germany’s nuclear power stations (as well as its coal-fired power stations).
“Now we have to stop using gas cookers after 5 p.m.,” my German friend tells me. “Never in my lifetime have we had to do this before. And this is in the south! What happens when the last three reactors close?”
My friend is a filmmaker who is on a work trip to England. There, he filmed an interview with me for a documentary on nuclear energy, due to air in April 2023, when Germany’s last reactors shut down.
All eyes have been on Germany for some time now. In a country that was once hailed as a climate leader with a powerful Green party leader but is now heavily dependent on fossil fuels and clearing villages to mine for coal, it is clear that something has gone badly wrong.
Research institutes are predicting factory closures caused by the ongoing energy crisis, and the state-owned bank Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau has warned that Germany faces “an era of declining prosperity.” The head of the German Trade Union Confederation, Yasmin Fahimi, warns of deindustrialization and significant layoffs.
Few are mincing their words. Power tools entrepreneur Nikolas Stihl warns that “the danger of de-industrialization cannot be dismissed out of hand.” German industry has been struggling for some time, and it may never recover. Thanks to soaring energy prices, 530 workers at the ArcelorMittal steelworks in Hamburg have been working reduced hours since October 2022. That was just the beginning.
Head of the German chemicals trade body Verband der Chemischen Industrie, Markus Steilemann, has commented that Germany risks “turning from an industrial country into an industrial museum.”
This was the dream: Energiewende, or “energy turnaround”—Germany’s plan to run on only renewable energy by 2038. Integral to this was complete closure of nuclear power plants, because the German Greens don’t like them.
Problems were identified along the way. In 2016, an analysis by Agora Energiewende found that the aim of a 55–60 percent share of renewable energy in gross electricity consumption by 2035 was “unachievable” with the plans for renewables expansion.
Germans were advised that they would likely miss their own Energiewende targets. A study in 2019 asserted that “Germany can still prevent 16,000 deaths and 1100 MtCO2 emissions by 2035 by reducing coal instead of eliminating nuclear as planned.” But they blundered on.
Germans’ commitment to close nuclear power stations was actively harming their climate ambitions. Still, they continued to shut down reactors and send nuclear energy workers home.
In 2019, Germany’s Federal Court of Auditors criticized the €160 billion cost of Energiewende over the previous five years, stating that the expenditure was “in extreme disproportion to the results.” At that point, the cost of electricity to the German consumer was almost double that of French electricity, where nuclear energy provides the bulk of their supply. German electricity prices were among the highest in Europe.
Another study found that if Germany had postponed the nuclear phase out and phased out coal instead, it could have saved 1,100 lives a year, and $12 billion in social costs.
In December 2021, Germany shut down three reactors, which reduced energy output by about 4 gigawatts—equivalent to the power produced by 1,000 wind turbines. And in 2021, a general audit report warned of a supply shortfall risk after nuclear reactors were switched off. The report found that the economy ministry’s approach had been “too optimistic and [its assumptions] partly implausible.”
Then the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to a significant decrease of access to fossil fuels around the world and the Nord Stream pipeline was lost. Germany could not weather those things. The country returned to coal.
Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, agreed to extend the remaining three reactors until April 2023. How Germans will get through the following winter remains to be seen. Gas prices are not projected to drop to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon, and high prices mean continuous challenges for German manufacturers. “The winter [of 2022] will be difficult, but the winter of 2023 could be even worse,” First Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Gita Gopinath has said.
Many Germans remain hopeful that renewables will fill the energy gap. Yet the wind industry itself has admitted that Germany will need to erect six wind turbines a day to meet its 2030 goal. That would require as much as 3,300 metric tons of steel per day (almost half an Eiffel Tower). At the moment, the country erects less than one wind turbine a day.
Hoping and dreaming are not enough. Data clearly show that no industrialized nation in the world has been able to decarbonize without nuclear energy, except where there is a geographically available abundance of hydropower.
The focus of much of the world over the past year has been on energy: sources, availability, and rationing. But when humankind is energy-poor, we lose out in other ways too.
The pursuit of knowledge is at the heart of scientific inquiry. A vast amount of energy is needed to push the boundaries of what we know—whether we are talking about exploring space, experimenting with fusion technology, or something else. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, seeks to understand the fundamental structure of matter. Its temporary shutdown due to the energy crisis is a stark reminder that without abundant energy, we get stuck.
I’ve been in environmental groups that see projects like the LHC and space exploration as wasteful and unnecessary. I disagree. Discovery and exploration are part of who we are. The international collaboration required for such projects brings out the best in all of us.
The assertion that we should prioritize reducing energy usage over building clean reliable energy is at odds with the reality of scientific progress.
Imagine if we had treated one of our very first technologies—fire—this way. The discovery of fire propelled humankind forward. Fire gave us heat and light, and it warded off predators and flies. Fire enabled us to gain more nutrition and calories from food through cooking it, which made our brains grow larger. Linguists think that we learned to communicate through spending time around the hearth. Energy gave us life. We went from stone age to bronze age to iron age, then to coal, oil, and gas, which enabled the Industrial Revolution and the lifting of many people out of subsistence living. Fire was the literal flame that ignited an explosion of science and technology.
But we now know that the process of obtaining energy through fossil fuels helps to drive climate change. We need a “Fire 2.0”: energy-dense and reliable, but clean. That’s the power of the atom.
Germany’s biggest mistake was not necessarily its knee-jerk reaction to the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown. Japan reacted that way too, but it has now reversed its decision to phase out nuclear energy and is making new commitments to nuclear energy. No one died because of the meltdown, but knee-jerk reactions have led to increased greenhouse gas emissions and increased deaths from air pollution. Blackouts take lives too.
Nor was Germany’s heavy investment in renewables necessarily a mistake. It was a worthy experiment. The country tried. It failed. That’s how experiments work sometimes.
Germany’s biggest mistake was ignoring the data along the way because its leaders had wedded themselves to wishful thinking and ideology, which made them blind to negative results. Politicians could not accept that their experiment had failed. In this way, they rejected the learning process that science can offer us, just as they rejected clean energy because they don’t like it.
What could we achieve if we aimed for an energy-abundant future?
While some countries are heeding these lessons and building more reactors, others are following in Germany’s footsteps. The question that remains is this: Will future generations look back at this time as a turning point when we realized that energy is life and can propel us to new heights, and chose to invest in it? Will they see us as pioneers, or look back at industrial museums?
For the sake of humankind, I hope it’s the former.