In Germany and Japan less nuclear means more coal but not more renewables

By Aleh Cherp

Many people who love renewable energy hate nuclear power and vice versa. But does it mean that these two sources of electricity compete in reality, and not just in the minds of their over-zealous advocates? In the last entry, I argued that Japan’s huge nuclear industry has little to do with its failure to develop wind power. Here I will show that in the next 15 years nuclear power is posed to compete with coal, not renewables, in both Germany and Japan. 

An interesting set of historic data makes such analysis possible. In 2010, just before the Fukushima accident, both Germany and Japan issued strategic energy plans with ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Energiekonzept involved extending the lifetime of German nuclear reactors so that nuclear energy would still account for 17% of Germany’s electricity in 2030. Japan’s Strategic Energy Plan of 2010  envisioned constructing 14 new reactors and supplying over 50% of Japan's electricity from nuclear power by 2030.

After the Fukushima’s accident in 2011 both countries changed their plans. Germany went back to the nuclear phase-out timeline agreed in 2002, so that it will have no nuclear power by 2030. Japan seems to have decided not to build new reactors and gradually retire the existing ones, so that  about 20-22% of electricity will come from nuclear power in 2030 (somewhat similar to what Germany planned before Fukushima). Thus, we can compare four energy plans from two countries: two pre-Fukushima with more nuclear and two post-Fukushima with less nuclear. 

If nuclear power was an enemy of renewables, the 'pro-nuclear' plans would have less wind, solar and biomass. However, in the pre-Fukushima plans, renewables in both Germany and Japan would grow 2.7 times between 2010 and 2030. This is especially remarkable in Japan, with its planned spectacular nuclear growth. In the post-Fukushima plans and scenarios they grow even more: by 3.1-3.3 times, which does not, however, compensate for the dramatic cut in nuclear power. What does then? 

The answer is: coal. In the pre-Fukushima scenarios, coal-based electricity declines 2.6-2.7 times, but in the post-Fukushima plans and scenarios, it only goes down 7-10% (see figures below).

Nuclear, coal, and renewables (*excluding hydro) in electricity production in Japan. Sources: IEA World Energy Balances (2010). Duffield and Woodall (2011) and METI (2010) (for pre-Fukushima). METI (2014) and Japan's Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC, 2015) (for post-Fukushima).

Nuclear, coal, and renewables (*excluding hydro) in electricity production in Japan.

Sources: IEA World Energy Balances (2010). Duffield and Woodall (2011) and METI (2010) (for pre-Fukushima). METI (2014) and Japan's Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC, 2015) (for post-Fukushima).

Thus, in their less-nuclear plans both countries would produce 17-19% more renewables, but 2.5 times more coal than in the pro-nuclear plans. In other words, the competition between nuclear and coal seems to be much more apparent than between nuclear and renewables. 

Nuclear, coal and renewables (*excluding hydro) in electricity production in Germany. Sources: IEA Energy Balances (for 2010). Schlesinger et al (2010), scenario SIIA (for pre-Fukushima); Schlesinger et al (2014) (for post-Fukushima)

Nuclear, coal and renewables (*excluding hydro) in electricity production in Germany.

Sources: IEA Energy Balances (for 2010). Schlesinger et al (2010), scenario SIIA (for pre-Fukushima); Schlesinger et al (2014) (for post-Fukushima)

Why is this so? A likely explanation is two-fold. The first part is that these two states plan to deploy as much renewables as possible independently of their attitudes to nuclear energy. Both countries planned the same amount of renewables both in the relatively nuclear-friendly pre-Fukushima years and nuclear-hostile post-Fukushima years. This means that their plans for renewables were shaped not by the 'nuclear lobbies', but rather by other factors (costs, grid capacities, etc.) . The second part is that once the amount of renewables is given, it should be supplemented by certain baseload  and peaking generation. While peaking generation can be provided by coal or natural gas, nuclear or coal are needed for baseload generation, at least in the near future. That is why nuclear power competes with coal, but not with renewables.