The great irony of Germany’s energiewende—its recent “green” energy transformation—has been a sudden revival of the country’s coal industry. In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, Berlin elected to bow to public pressure and phase out its nuclear reactors. At the same time, it heavily subsidized wind and solar energy with guaranteed above-market prices for producers. But this wasn’t a like-for-like replacement. Nuclear energy is a baseload power source, while renewables—which struggle to produce when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining—are best used as a supplementary source for when demand peaks over the course of a day. Which is why, after Germany shut down its (zero-emissions) nuclear power plants, it has had to start digging up one of the dirtiest fossil fuels around: brown coal. And, as the NYT reports, the energy imperative to get that coal out of the ground may bring about the razing of entire villages as a kind of collateral damage.
It may not be the end of the world, but it could be the end of Atterwasch, population 241. While Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised her country a future virtually free of fossil fuels, it may seem strange that this village in eastern Germany, and two neighboring ones, are still fighting plans to wipe them, quite literally, off the map.
But Germany’s sudden hunger for coal has emerged as the dirty side of Ms. Merkel’s ambitions to shut down the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022 and eventually move Germans mostly to renewable energy. In fact, last year Germany burned more brown coal than at any time since its Communist-era factories began closing in 1990, according to AG Energiebilanzen, an association that tracks energy consumption.
When nuclear plants fail, they often do so in spectacular and devastating fashion, as we saw in Chernobyl and Fukushima. But the technology and safeguards in place have come a long way since Chernobyl, and most countries aren’t as dangerously situated along tectonic faults the way Japan is. Properly sited, the risks of disaster are minuscule, which makes Germany’s decision to shut it all down curious (if we’re being kind).
But the German greens got their way, and are now reaping what they sowed: rising electricity costs, rising emissions, and rising coal use. Environmentalists held up Germany as a global green paragon at the start of the energiewende; its spectacular failure is a warning to the rest of the world of the dangers of letting starry-eyed greens push through reactionary energy policies.