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Home >Mint-lounge >Mint-on-sunday >Germany's great energy disruption: Part 1

In a new multi-part weekly series, Siddharth Singh traces back the current contours of German energy policy to Fukushima, the Cold War and beyond.

In the mid-1800s, coal had a dominant role in the energy economies of Europe and North America. As coal became the lifeblood of military and industry, through the early decades of the 19th century it had evolved into a strategic commodity. In that era, nobody could imagine that ‘king coal’ could be dislodged from this hegemonic position. In as late as 1866, American generals scoffed at the idea that coal could be replaced by anything else.

But merely decades later, coal had been dislodged by petroleum as a transport fuel, limiting coal use to industry and electricity generation. Apart from a few ambitious hustlers, this took everyone by surprise. In 1914, the last of the American coal-fired warships had been built. With the launch of the Ford Model T in 1908, petroleum demand spiked and fuelled road transport as well as railways. Petroleum had proven to be more efficient, easier to transport, and more convenient to use than coal.

Indeed, petroleum had disrupted the energy market and became ubiquitous to the functioning of economies. This disruption was unlike anything global or national economies had seen in that era, and it changed everything.

Today, a hundred years later, the global energy economy is yet again ripe for disruptive change. While technology has evolved to make it possible, the motivations this time around are very different. After decades of scientific studies, science communication, and activism, awareness of climate change has finally permeated into the global mainstream.

Citizens, governments and the private sector at large understand the risks to their health, safety and assets owing to climate change. This is already manifesting itself in the increasing frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events such as cyclones and draughts. The global community—with the momentary exception of US President Donald Trump’s White House—has agreed to act on the issue under the Paris Agreement.

A key facet of action to mitigate climate change is to disrupt and transform the world’s energy system, to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. Germany—one of the world’s most advanced industrial economies—has taken the lead in this Energiewende—refers to the disruptive transformation of the German energy economy.

When I first began to study Germany’s Energiewende as a German Chancellor Fellow in 2016, my assumption was that it would be a rather dry issue. I could not have been more wrong. I also assumed that the process had been triggered by recent events in the energy and climate world. Again, I could not have been more wrong. The Energiewende has a fascinating history that goes back to the days of the Cold War.

This series of articles presents the story of Germany’s energy revolution—the Energiewende. Due to the nature and scope of this text, it is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive. Further, it is interspersed with my own opinions and global developments. But hopefully, by the end of this short book-length series, the story of this revolution in German energy policy will make sense to most readers.

This project could not have been possible without the support and guidance of Timon Wehnert, Dr. Manfred Fischedick, and Kilian Topp, who mentored me at the Wuppertal Institute, which was my host institution during the fellowship. I also thank other colleagues in Germany and New Delhi who have directly and indirectly helped me through the course of the project. Naturally, all mistakes and omissions are entirely mine. Hopefully, I have not done injustice to this story as an outsider in Germany.

What Happens in Japan...

At around quarter to three in the afternoon, on the 11th of March 2011, as passengers landing in Japan were making their way towards the exit gates of Tokyo’s Narita Airport, loud sirens that went off. Passengers were taken aback. First time tourists had no idea what was going on—could it be a fire, or a terrorist attack perhaps?

An announcement quickly followed, “This is an Earthquake Early Warning. Please prepare for powerful tremors." (In Japanese, “Kinkyū Jishin Sokuhō desu. Tsuyoi yure ni keikai shite kudasai.") Just as the travellers made sense of what was happening, the earth began to shake for the first time. It was unlike anything tourists and, indeed, locals had experienced before.

Passengers later found out that this was the most intense earthquake ever recorded in Japan and the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world, at a magnitude of 9.1 on the Moment Magnitude Scale. Each number on this scale corresponds to a 32-fold increase in energy released from the previous number. Thus a two point increase would mean a 1,000 times more energy being released. In other words, this earthquake—originating off the coast of Tōhoku in North-eastern Japan—was 126 times stronger than the 2001 Gujarat earthquake that took between 13,000 and 20,000 lives. The Tōhoku earthquake was so powerful, that Japan actually moved 8 feet eastwards, and the planet’s rotational axis tilted by 10 inches!

However, in spite of an earthquake of this magnitude, passengers at the Tokyo airport were safe. The airport was designed to survive high intensity earthquakes, and the Earthquake Early Warning System had worked just as it should have. SMS alerts were sent out to Tokyo residents up to a minute before the earthquake hit, which also gave enough time to halt high-speed trains.

Three hundred kilometers away in the prefecture of Fukushima, however, an entirely different story was unfolding. One that would have ripple effects in the far reaches of the energy world. The situation was so grave, US President Barack Obama had to be woken up in the middle of the night for preparedness—a practice reserved for the gravest of global emergencies.

Around 50 minutes after the earthquake, the first of many Tsunami waves hit the western shores of Japan. The waves hit run-up heights of 39 metres, ultimately travelling as much as 10km in land, destroying everything in their path.

Fukushima—among the first regions to be hit by the tsunami—was the site of the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Curiously, in Japan, all of the around 20 nuclear power plants ever constructed have been located on the coast. This fact sounds startling as Japan is based along the Pacific Ring of Fire, which has historically been prone to intense earthquakes, volcanic explosions and tsunamis due to the position and movement of tectonic plates.

(On reason behind their coastal placement is that in Japan, nuclear power plants use the ocean as heat sinks, unlike in much of the world where cooling towers are used as heat sinks—i.e. to cool down the water that is used to run the steam-based turbine.)

Two days prior to the great Tōhoku earthquake, there was another earthquake of magnitude 7.2, which the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant outlasted without incident. Being on this Ring of Fire, Japan’s nuclear power plants have weathered several intense earthquakes and tsunamis without any significant incidents. These nuclear power plants have been designed to weather such natural disasters.

On March 11 too, over a minute prior to the 9.1 magnitude earthquake, early warning systems alerted officials at the Daiichi plant as it should have. In fact, the plant’s critical systems ran exactly as designed, even though the earthquake exceeded the limits that the plant was built to withstand. The running reactors immediately shut down automatically, and the emergency diesel generator began supplying power to the plant in order to cool the reactor cores.

However, as is often the case with accidents, a lapse of judgement by a human operator triggered a series of events that ultimately led to a nuclear core meltdown when the tsunami hit several minutes later.

An operator overrode the automatic emergency systems in place by turning off a critical valve, which proved to be catastrophic. When the tsunami knocked out the emergency generators a few minutes later, the valve could no longer be controlled remotely, James Mahaffey wrote in his 2014 book Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters.

Portable generators were quickly shipped to Fukushima, but could not reach the power plant due to disrupted roads. With no way to open any valves, one of the reactor containments split open due to high pressure, spraying fission material around. There was a larger explosion soon after which injured five workers and contaminated a larger area within the plant. Over the next few days, one after the other, three of the six reactor cores melted. (You can read a more detailed account of events here.)

While there were no deaths due to the explosions and the reactor meltdowns at Fukushima, this accident dealt a body blow to public perceptions of nuclear energy.

...Changes the Chancellor’s Mind

On the other side of the planet, nearly 9,000 km away from Fukushima where emergency workers were still trying to deal with the disaster, there was fallout of another kind. On the 15th of March German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced what many in the media called a “U-Turn" in Germany’s nuclear energy policy.

Chancellor Merkel was once an enthusiastic supporter of nuclear energy. She said in the Bundestag in March 2011, “I am against shutting down our nuclear power plants only to have atomic power imported into Germany from other countries. That won’t happen on my watch."

Unlike Japan, Germany does not face large earthquakes or tsunamis. In fact, Germany’s largest earthquake was recorded in the year 1756 (261 years ago). That earthquake was a mere 6.1 in magnitude, is 31,000 times weaker than the Japanese earthquake in terms of energy release.

When Merkel arrived in one of Germany’s provinces for a public meeting soon after the Fukushima incident, she was greeted as she often was—by jeering anti-nuclear protesters. For years they had been demanding that the German nuclear programme be shut down. However, as she started speaking, the jeering abated. She claimed that the “alarming events" in Japan had changed a few things, and that she looks to phase-out nuclear energy before 2020. This winding down was even more aggressive than that was then being demanded by Germany’s Green Party.

What changed Angela Merkel’s mind? 

Some critics pointed out that electoral concerns were playing on Merkel’s mind, as three German federal states had upcoming elections where her party was running “neck and neck" with the main opposition party. Her decision was therefore termed as a play in realpolitik.

Regardless, the decision was sudden and surprising, leading German news magazine Spiegel to term this change of stance akin to “the Pope supporting the (emergency contraceptive) Pill". Until that moment, Merkel had been a champion of the nuclear industry. As the environment minister of Germany, she had predicted in 1994 that renewable energy would never exceed 4% of Germany’s power supply even in the long term, Craig Morris and Arne Jungjohann wrote in Energy Democracy.

However, as we will see in the rest of this series, the roots of Germany’s attitudes towards energy and the desire for change in its energy supply has a far longer and richer history. The German “Energiewende", or “energy transformation", has in fact long preceded the Fukushima disaster—even though perception abroad is that the Japanese disaster triggered the phase out.

The story, as we shall see, is far more complex.

Siddharth Singh, a researcher of energy and the economy, wrote this series of articles as a German Chancellor fellow and a visiting fellow at the Wuppertal Institute in Berlin. His Twitter handle is @siddharth3

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