Hinkley Point will be the first nuclear power plant to be built in Europe since the meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima reactor in 2011. But while the British government sees nuclear energy as a safe and reliable source of power, Germany is going in a different direction.
As a result of the Fukushima, Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to switch off all nuclear power by 2022 and fill the gap with renewables – a process known as the energiewende (energy transition).
Germany’s push for renewables grew out of the anti-nuclear protests of the 1980s and currently more than a quarter (26%) of its electricity comes from wind, solar and other renewable sources, such as biomass, although 44% is from coal. The country’s government wants to increase the share of renewables in electricity to 40% to 45% by 2025.
No other country of Germany’s size has attempted such a radical shift in its power supply in such a short space of time. Described by Merkel as a herculean task, the transition is Germany’s most ambitious economic project since die Wende – the phrase used to describe the fall of the Berlin wall and subsequent reunification of east and west – with an estimated cost of €1tn (£742bn) over the next two decades.
However, Reinhard Bütikofer, the Green party’s spokesman for industry in the European parliament, said the really “mind-blowing” energy transition is happening in the UK, where the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant in Somerset will cost electricity customers at least £4.4bn in subsidies. “They are cutting down on solar, PV [photovoltaics], purportedly for cost reasons, while on the other hand they pledge to guarantee the nuclear industry and energy price twice the market price for the next 30 years. That’s crazy.”
The energiewende is not uncontroversial, not least due to the rising cost of subsidies paid by ordinary bill payers, which has triggered complaints that poor households are subsidising affluent dentists to put solar panels on their roofs. But the transition is not opposed by Germany’s main business lobby, the BDI, despite lingering concerns about what the transition means for the country’s manufacturing base at a time when confidence in the Made in Germany brand has been knocked by the Volkswagen scandal.
“There is broad consensus in society on the political targets – to reduce CO2 and increase energy efficiency and the share of renewables,” said Carsten Rolle, the BDI’s head of energy and climate policy. “We see the main question in managing the energiewende.”