Europe looks like it will become a live laboratory for the some of the biggest questions facing the energy world.
Reacting to a historic election backlash, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will effectively transform Germany into a nuclear-less country by 2022. Germany has already suspended eight of its reactors in the wake of Fukushima and now will phase out all 17 of its reactors in 12 years. These reactors provide 23 percent of the country's electricity.
Renewables -- mostly wind and solar -- provide approximately 13 percent of Germany's power. Depending on the wind and weather, renewables can provide 17 to 27 gigawatts to Germany's grid. In February, Germany cut its feed-in tariff for renewables by 15 percent. Since then, however, the political situation has begun to favor the future of renewables. Germany has a goal of getting 35 percent of its power from renewables by 2020.
Just as important, renewables wield political power in Germany. The country remains home to several solar and wind companies. German universities and research centers like the Fraunhofer Institute are also leaders in renewable research. Approximately 17.67 billion euros were invested in renewable energy in the country in 2009, according to a study in 2010. The turnover, or revenue, from German-based renewable energy manufacturers came to 16.1 billion euros; 40 percent of that total came from the wind industry and 34.7 percent came from solar. Some estimates predict that renewable employment will come to 500,000 by 2020 or earlier.
In 2009, approximately 294,000 people were employed in renewable energy, with 87,000 of the total jobs coming from wind while 64,600 were employed in solar. The figures do not include the farmers who've dedicated acres of fields used for growing corn and wheat to solar. Indirectly, trucking and construction firms benefit from solar, as well. Coal mining employs about 47,000 in Germany, according to one recent study.
By contrast, nuclear has faced strong opposition in Germany since the '70s. The Green Party was born there, after all.
Can Germany pull this off? The 35 percent goal represents a massive overhaul of infrastructure and will require breakthroughs in solar, batteries and storage technologies. (Natural gas plants to balance solar and wind will also likely benefit, even though increased gas consumption might increase the power of Russia in Germany's energy affairs.) Naturally, solar stocks are up today, but resistance and complaints could build if power prices spike or blackouts occur.
An energy pinch could also favor nuclear. France and the Czech Republic could both export nuclear power from their grids to Germany. France gets 80 percent of its power from nuclear and the French government owns most of Areva, the large nuclear developer. Areva has offered to take nuclear waste from other countries where it builds reactors and process it in France.
But nuclear, too, is dependent on the weather, according to this report from Reuters. Nuclear plants need water for cooling, a tragic fact highlighted in the Fukushima disaster. France in recent years has weathered unusually hot summers and regional droughts. In both 2003 and 2006, EDF, the country's large utility, stopped some reactors because of heat waves, according to Reuters.
More heat waves are expected this year.
Nuclear plants are also expensive and take far longer to build than solar farms. An Areva nuclear plant in Finland, due to open next year, ballooned in cost from $3 billion to $5 billion. If total capacity is an issue, the nuclear industry simply can't react quickly.
If the renewable industry can meet the challenge, the profits and revenue coming from a German overhaul could not only help Germany. They might also inspire a similar overhaul in the U.S. (One can already imagine "Help America -- Hire a U.S. Solar Contractor" bumper stickers.) Or will hot summers or winter blackouts force politicians to reach for coal and nuclear?
Europe has long been a leader in energy technologies -- now it seems primed to become the place where renewables will be put to the test.
This really is a debate about the Two Chief Systems of the World.