More power, but without an atom: where the electricity will come from in the future

It seems a bit contradictory at first glance: On the one hand, there are plans to switch to heat pumps and e-mobility for heating as a replacement for combustion cars, which will lead to a significant increase in electricity demand in the near future. On the other hand, with the last three nuclear power plants in Germany on April 15, six percent of the German electricity mix will be switched off for good. How does that fit together? And is the supply still secure in the future?

Anyone looking for answers to these questions will quickly come across political interpretations. The faction of those who expect a blackout is currently much quieter than six months ago, when the life of three reactors was extended for several months. However, opinions differ widely as to whether renewable energies can reliably handle the output of the former base load power plants and the expected increase in electricity demand. Some pundits, like nuclear proponent Prof. André Thess of the University of Stuttgart, expect coal-fired power and imported nuclear power from France — rather than solar and wind power — to fill the short-term gaps.

Opponents of nuclear power like to point out that nuclear power will no longer play a major role in Germany in 2022 anyway. In fact, the Federal Statistical Office puts the share of nuclear power in electricity generation at 6.4 percent – a halving of the previous year’s figure, when it was still 12.6 percent. At the end of 2021, three nuclear power plants were already shut down as part of the nuclear phase-out. Even if there were no failures, it wasn’t completely silent for the power supply. In 2022, southern Germany was repeatedly encouraged to use less electricity at certain times. While too much energy was generated by wind power in the north and plants had to be curtailed, there was a lack of electricity in the south due to bottlenecks in the transmission lines, which had to be bought from abroad. The situation there was tense, however, since France could not deliver as reliably with its nuclear power plants as in the past. Instead of 9.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2021, only 3.7 billion kWh were imported from the western neighboring country in 2022.

In 2022, coal and renewable energies compensated for the loss of the three nuclear power plants that had already been shut down at the turn of the year 2021/22. The share of coal in electricity generation increased by 2.1 percent compared to 2021. With a 33.3 percent share, coal remained the most important energy source for power generation in Germany. The second most important source of energy was wind power. Their share was 24.1 percent after 21.6 percent in the previous year. Photovoltaics increased from 8.7 percent to 10.6 percent – in addition to further expansion, the many sunny days also ensured growth, reports the Federal Statistical Office.

Of course, compensating for today’s shares of nuclear power is not enough for future supplies. Major expansion targets for heat pumps and e-mobility will result in a considerable increase in demand. Federal Minister of Economics Robert Habeck (Greens) assumes that demand will double from the current 500 terawatt hours to 1000 terawatt hours by 2045 – the year in which Germany is supposed to be completely climate-neutral. By the year 2030 he expects to need 750 terawatt hours of energy, he said at an event on the Climate Neutral Power System Platform (PKNS).

The Federal Ministry of Economics has a clear idea of ​​where the electricity should come from. By the year 2030, the aim is for an 80 percent share of renewable energies in gross electricity consumption to be achieved. At the latest 15 years later, in 2045, fossil fuels will no longer be available as a lifeline if the climate goals are to be met.

The ministry also admits that this won’t be easy: “This requires a completely new, flexible and interacting electricity system.”

The smallest hurdle is likely to be the bureaucratic obstacles that still exist. For example, these often discourage housing associations from installing photovoltaic systems on the large, often conveniently located roofs of their houses. The Ministry of Economics has already published concrete plans for this. Even balcony power plants as a small contribution, which is often an entry into a larger solution, should be allowed to feed in more electricity in the future without having to observe major reporting requirements or technical precautions such as a special feed socket.

The Climate-Neutral Electricity System Platform (PKNS) is intended to seek solutions to the major hurdles in a dialogue between politics, business, civil society and science. This includes, for example, how the necessary electricity for heat pumps can be generated, especially in the dark of winter, when solar systems only produce electricity for a few hours a day, even when the weather is good.

The possibility that the electricity could ultimately be switched off temporarily and perhaps only for individual device classes – as skeptics fear – cannot be completely ruled out. After all, a flowery paraphrase for this has already been found with “demand-side flexibility options”. However, the generic term also includes potential storage options, such as using an electric car as a battery buffer.

The German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) is convinced that solar power in particular must cover the increasing demand for electricity. According to a paper, even without heat pumps, wind energy will reach the expansion limits of 110 gigawatts on land and 30 gigawatts offshore by 2030. The DIW also assumes that electricity costs will increase in view of the necessary massive expansion of renewable energies.

And even if more wind power were possible: If it continues to be concentrated in the north, there is still the problem of transmission to the south. Despite ongoing efforts to build new high-voltage lines between the north and south, the Federal Ministry of Economics assumes that “a completely congestion-free grid construction will not be possible”. It would also be inefficient, they say.

Then, finally, there would be the option of simply importing missing electricity from abroad. About a tenth of the amount of domestic production was obtained from neighboring countries in 2022. Nevertheless, Germany exported more than it imported overall. But by becoming dependent on other countries, Germany would also adopt their energy policies. Since many countries regard nuclear power as the third climate-neutral pillar of energy production alongside wind and sun, that would be a political step backwards – only through the back door. But should the security of supply really be at risk, this aspect would be negligible for the time being.


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