Just a couple of months ago, anyone who had seriously wondered whether the German energy grid might collapse would have been derided as a doom-monger. Only survivalist preppers and other loonies were worried about large-scale blackouts. Yet now that Putin has turned off the gas tap and energy is becoming increasingly scarce, Germany has begun preparing for potential shortages and power cuts. Some places are converting former vaccination centres into so-called “heat halls,” which could provide shelter for the poor and vulnerable if they are unable to heat their own homes.Expectations have been lowered accordingly. Berlin’s mayor, Franziska Giffey, recently opined that the German capital could accommodate large-scale blackouts for a few hours at a time, if necessary. And economy minister Robert Habeck has reassured Germans that we will get through the winter OK, as long as we save energy and “the weather cooperates.”
Since Putin turned off the bulk of Germany’s gas supply, domestic industries have had to slow production and some analysts have cautioned that the country is in danger of deindustrialisation. There is rampant inflation, and a 2023 recession is looming. As the days get colder, some people fear that they won’t be able to afford to heat their homes. Fears of a decline in living conditions have driven protestors—many of them, unfortunately, pro-Russian right-wingers—to take to the streets to demand an end to the sanctions against Putin’s state. But these sanctions are not likely to be lifted anytime in the foreseeable future—and nor should they be, so long as Russia’s marauding army continues to rape Ukraine. Meanwhile, the swift severing of trade ties between Russia and Germany has exposed some of the political delusions of the past decades.
How, then, did Germany become so dependent on Russian gas? And what role has the country’s decision to phase out nuclear energy played in this?
In 2021, Germany used about two thirds of all incoming natural gas to heat homes and power its industrial economy. Many sectors rely on cheap, abundant gas in order to earn a decent profit on exports. Russia, of course, has plenty of hydrocarbons, and the Kremlin was happy to supply them, in return for an annual payment of billions of Euros and the occasional political favour.
To its credit, the German Green Party has been sounding the alarm about Germany’s dependence on Russian gas since at least 2014, when the recent Russian aggression against Ukraine began. They have been the most hawkish party in the German parliament, with few illusions about the nature of Putin’s expansionist police state. During this same period, however, the two biggest parties—the Social Democrats and the Conservatives—were busy forging trade deals with Russia and launching pipeline projects, such as Nord Stream 2, which began construction in 2018—well after Putin had already annexed Crimea and was busy battling Ukrainian troops in the Donbas. Like its predecessor, Nord Stream 1, the pipeline was designed to provide Russia with a strategic alternative to pipelines that ran through Ukraine.
But while they spoke lucidly about the nature of Putin’s regime, the Greens failed to recognise the fact that Germany’s dependence on Russian gas was exacerbated by their own pet project: the Energiewende (“energy transition”). Advocates of the Energiewende want to replace nuclear energy and fossil fuels with an all-renewables grid that runs mainly on wind and solar. Many see natural gas as an acceptable interim solution—a so-called “bridge technology”—to help Germany weather the period between our present dependence on fossil fuel and nuclear energy and the anticipated renewable solutions of the future. These advocates regard hydrocarbons as a lesser evil than either nuclear (which they wrongly perceive as dangerous) or coal (which they rightly perceive as hazardous to both human health and to the world’s climate).
Anna Veronika Wendland is a historian of technology who focuses on Eastern Europe and has become a prominent left-wing, pro-nuclear critic of the Energiewende. In a phone interview with me, she commented that the concept of an energy transition is flawed and remarked that, while the Green Party’s priority has always been to get rid of nuclear energy, “Gas was seen as the clean fossil fuel, an appropriate accompaniment to renewables.”
The Social Democrats and the Green Party took the initial decision to phase out nuclear energy in the early 2000s. After they left government, two of the main advocates of the policy—Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer—became gas lobbyists. Having overseen the planning of Nord Stream 1, Schröder supported Putin in an aggressive push for the construction of an additional pipeline, running through the Baltic, while Fischer lobbied for a rival pipeline to be constructed by Azerbaijan’s government—a proposal that ultimately went nowhere.
As Wendland told me, the Energiewende faction’s first mistake was to aim to use fossil fuels, instead of nuclear energy, as backup for the renewables. This was a huge gift to what Wendland calls the German “fossilocracy”—energy companies that had initially invested in clean nuclear energy but were subsequently willing to switch to increased shares in coal and gas. Following the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 and the emergence of a climate movement, the balance between coal and gas shifted. Coal’s reputation worsened and gas, with its lower emissions, began to look like an increasingly attractive alternative.
Germany’s nuclear shutdown occurred in two phases. The first phase was swift and sweeping: by August 2011, only a few months after Fukushima, Germany had pulled the plug on eight of its nuclear power plants. The second wave of shutdowns, which began in 2015, was more gradual and protracted. The plan was to get rid of the remaining nine nuclear power plants by the end of 2022. Thus, as Veronika Wendland reminded me, even after Putin had made it clear that he did not intend to respect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, German politicians saw no need to rethink their country’s energy policies.
Former chancellor Angela Merkel recently admitted with unusual candidness that gas was central to Germany’s nuclear phaseout. “During the transformation period, it was clear that we would need natural gas if we wanted to eventually achieve completely zero-carbon energy sources,” Merkel commented at a news conference. Yet, she doesn’t seem to realise or care that her decision to forsake nuclear power also directly counteracts her stated goal of a zero-carbon energy system.
Over the past few years, gas’s share in electricity production has been on the rise, although coal has remained Germany’s most important source of electricity, providing for 30% of the country’s total needs in 2021. In that same year, the country’s six remaining nuclear power plants produced just under 13% of the country’s energy, about as much as natural gas and a little more than solar. Since gas is running short and the last nuclear plants are scheduled to shut down soon, we can expect Germany to become even more reliant on coal in the immediate future.
Unsurprisingly, Vice-Chancellor Habeck has been reviving dormant coal plants, while he has only grudgingly agreed to prolong the lifespan of Germany’s three remaining nuclear power plants until April 2023. These are odd priorities for a Green Party politician whose full job title is Minister for the Economy and Climate Protection. Habeck’s initial idea, that Germany should commission floating offshore oil plants in the North Sea, has been rendered redundant for now by the government’s decision to keep the nearby nuclear power plant at Emsland running for a few more months. To meet the German demand for gas, Habeck and Chancellor Olaf Scholz have also been busy attempting to persuade other dictators in fossil fuel-rich countries to supply Germany with liquified natural gas, which costs more and contributes more to global warming. Once again, as Germany dismantles the last remnants of its once mighty network of nuclear power stations, the dirtiest fossil fuels are going to be used to plug the resulting gaps.
Defenders of the Energiewende see nuclear power as irrelevant to the discussion of gas shortages, pointing out that only a small proportion of the natural gas is used to generate electricity. In 2021, only 12% of Germany’s hydrocarbons were used to sustain the German national power grid. Two-thirds of the natural gas was instead used by industry and by individual households. Defenders of the energy transition argue that nuclear energy could therefore not be used as a replacement for gas in most cases.
Yet, at the same time, opponents of nuclear energy recommend the large-scale roll-out of renewables as the solution to our present energy predicament. This will not help the factory workers who are being laid off right now because producers cannot meet rising gas prices. However, renewables and nuclear energy do essentially the same thing: they produce electricity. Together, solar, wind and nuclear power could supply the clean energy we need to ensure an industrial economy that can relinquish fossil fuels and run entirely on electricity. And we will need all the energy we can get since, if Germany were fully electrified, electricity demands would roughly triple.
Over the past few months, Germans have been frantically buying electric heaters as a backup in case gas becomes too expensive or scarce. This will put further pressure on the national electricity grid, which might break down if enough people turned their heaters on at the same time. What we are facing here is not a gas crisis, but an electricity crisis. Every additional nuclear reactor would help stabilise the power supply.
The next ten years are unlikely to be a time of plenty for Germany. Diversifying our energy supply will be arduous and costly. In the short term, we must restart our coal plants, even though this will set the country back in its ambition to reduce global warming. The decision to phase out nuclear energy was an enormous mistake. It is hastening Germany’s deindustrialisation and has made us more dependent on Russian gas than ever.
While Germany’s ruling politicians have been slow to admit that the current Energiewende was a monumental blunder, other nations can learn a few lessons from our mistakes. Never become dependent on authoritarian foreign dictators for your energy supplies. Stop denuclearising and start decarbonising instead. Only when our carbon emissions are as low as those of Sweden should we begin to consider the exact balance of energy sources we use to fuel our low-emission energy grids. We have been adjusting to one crisis after another for years now. When will we finally begin to prepare for a future of abundant, clean energy?