Germany’s phase-out of nuclear energy a model for Ontario, says expert

“To imagine what could be, we must look from yesterday and today into tomorrow,” said the general chair of the World Council for Renewable Energy at the kick-off for York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies Sustainable Energy Initiative (SEI) Seminar Series in September.

This key insight of how Germany’s experience could inform Ontario’s transition to sustainable energy was presented by Harry Lehmann in his keynote address to a roomful of leading energy sector professionals in Toronto. The SEI Seminar Series is designed to promote discussion amongst networks of researchers, educators, politicians and professionals, around issues of renewable energy.

Robert Haché The series launch marked “an important occasion,” said Robert Haché (left), York’s vice-president research & innovation. It reflected the University’s desire to “share and disseminate new knowledge that will contribute to a better understanding of how Ontario can continue to strengthen its sustainable energy initiatives.”

Lehmann, an expert researcher who has experience in the phasing out of nuclear energy in Germany, outlined the history that led to the successful transformation of the German energy grid and highlighted useful insights for the Ontario context.

He identified several historical tipping points which propelled the German government to critically re-examine its energy future. He recalled the 1973 oil crisis, which led to a driving ban one day per week in many European countries. In the 1980s, Germany also became concerned about the changing climate, causing several institutions, policy advisors and analysts (including Lehmann himself) to urge political Harry Lehmann addresses an avid audience at the launch of the seminar seriesparties to reflect on energy strategy. After dealing with the traumatic fallout caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, the country’s perception of nuclear energy was forever altered. It was no longer debated “if” a nuclear phase-out was in Germany’s future, but simply “when”.

Right: Harry Lehmann addresses an avid audience at the launch of the seminar series hosted by York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies Sustainable Energy Initiative

With Germany’s government and political parties on board, the transition to renewable energy required patience and careful planning. Lehmann explained the balancing of numbers involved as older nuclear technologies were slowly phased out of Germany’s energy grid, but only after the infrastructure was established for renewable energy coming from solar, wind, biomass, water and geothermal sources. Co-generation, making use of the heat already created within power plants and harnessing that by-product for additional energy generation, was also key to replacing the obsolete energy infrastructure.

Lehmann also discussed the improved feed-in tariff system introduced to Germany in 1999, which has increased the share of renewable energies to 20 per cent of the overall national grid. The feed-in tariff system provides payment to anyone who owns a renewable electricity-generating system, for every kilowatt hour generated and contributed to the grid. A similar feed-in tariff program was introduced in Ontario in 2006 (and revised in 2009), to which Lehmann cautioned, “It takes five to six years at the beginning. Be patient, these years are necessary, then it will explode.”

However, success in Ontario is not entirely dependent on the feed-in tariff, Lehmann said. He spoke of the increasing demand for skilled, knowledgeable people to support a growing infrastructure, emphasizing that the formula for success involves a “connective strategy” – interlinking information, education, administration, a good feed-in tariff system and investors. This strategy has allowed Germany to transition its energy grid to be 20 per cent sustainable today, with a realistic goal to be 100 per cent sustainable by 2050. Lehmann advised, “It is about educating people, it is having a discussion, bringing [everybody you need] into this game.”

Barbara RahderA similar message was echoed by FES at the event. FES Dean Barbara Rahder (left) highlighted “the growing need for skilled and knowledgeable expertise in energy efficiency, conservation and demand management,” noting that the SEI has attracted an unprecedented number of adjunct professors and students interested in contributing to sustainability. To that effect, several curriculum developments and experiential opportunities within the Faculty were mentioned, including a forthcoming undergraduate certificate program in sustainable energy.

The SEI will also continue to facilitate a crucial discussion that Lehmann noted is essential to achieve change in Ontario. Through upcoming events in the SEI seminar series, York University will become a hub of much-needed policy solutions and practical ideas.

The next event, “Post-election De-brief: Future Directions for the GTA and Sustainable Energy”, will take place Wednesday, Oct. 26.

For more information, visit the Faculty of Environmental Studies website.