111 Comments

I honestly don’t understand how they could decide to shut down their perfectly functioning nuclear plants in the middle of an energy crisis. I had the idea - probably a cliché but still - that Germans were more pragmatic than other people, but this degree of stupidity is beyond belief.

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It's ideology rotting people's brains.

The Greens have made it their religion to be anti-nuclear, even though when you look at the facts, the success of the environmental NGOs at slowing down and stopping nuclear over the past 40 years has probably done more to accelerate global warming and cause air/ground/water pollution (from coal) than anything else.

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Current German culture still has a strong strain of the German Romanticism, which can be very not pragmatic. You can read about it at the Substack LucTalks. Here’s a quote from the article The German Soul. “Germans do love nature; if we listen closely, the Romantic period still fills our hearts…. Germany has been ground zero of the modern Green movement, and for good reasons: it is another ugly, deformed outgrowth of a truncated German soul, deprived of the very object of its inherent transcendent longing and reasoning.”

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It's ironic that the Green Party (whose anti-nuclear fanaticism was the chief driver of this stupidity) is now the most pro-Ukraine of Germany's political parties, when it was that very fanaticism that helped cement Germany's dependence on Russian gas to the point that Russia was emboldened to invade in the first place!

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Sep 21, 2023·edited Sep 21, 2023

Nuclear power only provided 4% of Germany's electricity consumption in 2022. And only 8% in the years before the war started. Note that that's *electricity* only and not total primary energy consumption. The key use for Russian natural gas/oil for Germany industry was for heat and for petrochemicals. Even consumers use natural gas primarily for heating. There is no replacement for these lost fossil energy imports except LNG, which is far more expensive and required a whole infra build-out to even be able to buy. Nuclear power affects electricity prices on the margins (which certainly moves prices), but it's not the factor that it's been made up to be in the American press.

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Nuclear was 26% of Germany's electricity before they started turning their plants off.

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Sep 21, 2023·edited Sep 21, 2023

I mean, yes, it was higher a very long time ago, and especially prior to 2010 (but it only still constituted a quarter of supply in the few years immediately after 2000).

Which means that Germany has now spent more time phasing out nuclear than it spent scaling it up. Most of the plants in Germany, as elsewhere in the world, were built from the 1970s, only 20-30 years before the 2000 phase-out began.

And, to put that into perspective, by the mid-2010s (long before the Ukrainian invasion), renewables already constituted a larger source of the electricity mix than nuclear ever did, even in its pre-2000s heyday. This more exponential scale out of renewables is suggestive of why they are Germany's preferred solution today: renewables are now (much) cheaper, more modular, and with far shorter commissioning timelines.

Renewables aren't perfect. And, as I've commented above, they're not a like-for-like replacement for the base load that nuclear (or coal/natural gas) offers. Because there isn't one. The optimal energy mix for the future is going to require a rethink of the model that predominated in the 20th Century. A model which isn't viable any longer, and not just because of Climate Change.

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The fact that they made the mistake long ago doesn't make it not a mistake.

They've invested over 550bn euros in renewables and they still need coal plants and tons of gas to back it up. That money would've been better spent on more nuclear, a safer and more reliable grid with lower prices, which would've helped their manufacturing sector (which they're losing now).

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They've gotten a lot of value from that big investment in renewables: https://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/germanys-energy-consumption-and-power-mix-charts

France has 58 reactors today producing 77% of its electricity. Care to do the quick math on how much would it cost to build 58 reactors in Germany right now? A lot more than 550B. Each plant costs between $15-30 billion. So, in order to go all-in on nuclear, Germany would be looking at spending anywhere from $870 billion to $1.7 TRILLION, probably over many decades.

That scale buildout is unprecedented, mind you. Even China only has half the number of live reactors as France, and as many in the pipeline to build. If all of them are finally built, China will still have fewer reactors than France.

And, if we looked at the cost base in Canada, the story is even worse: to refurbish its *already existing reactors,* Ontario is spending about $12-13 billion each.

So, no, no matter how you look at it, it just doesn't make sense. And, it makes even less sense when you look at outcomes.

Here, you can compare Germany's energy transition with other large OECD countries in terms of decarbonization (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/powering-up-britain/powering-up-britain-net-zero-growth-plan). Germany's been the second best after the UK up through 2021 with their supposedly naive and flawed approach.

Take a look at how Canada is doing by the same measure, regardless of what's happening in Ontario. (Hint: Not good).

And, as you see, "they still need coal plants and tons of gas to back it up," yes, but WAY less than before. Look again at how much coal Germany used less than a decade ago: https://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/germanys-energy-consumption-and-power-mix-charts

Now, is everything ideal? No. As I have said above, energy is still way too expensive in Germany and undermining German industry and export competitiveness, especially in key verticals where hydrocarbons are a primary input like chemicals. There, nuclear power wouldn't directly help much, anyway.

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The issue is less “clean energy” than a lack of will to use it - no one has bothered to build any power lines to the south where it is needed - Germans like to pretend that our energy mis clean.

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They should've followed Ontario's model indeed. They almost fully cleaned up their grid and have stable pricing and reliability that is attracting back more manufacturing.

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Cutting off a cheap, clean energy source in the middle of an energy crisis is stupid even if it accounts for only 8% of your electricity production.

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I don't disagree, but it's not the 95% of the reason that Germany's facing an impossible energy situation right now.

It's like looking at somebody who can't afford their rent in a city with hyperinflating property and asking why they waste money smoking cigarettes. It seems stupid and maybe even prototypical of the supposed moral failing that got them in the position they're in. But it's not actually the reason. And quitting cigarettes would get them no closer to affording rent.

We want to make this a morality play about how Germany is naive. The less satisfying truth is that they're in a predicament without a good solution. One that any other country could be in, too, if conditions were a little different for them. Turning back on a few aging nuclear power plants wouldn't move the needle very much at all for Germany. They'd still have the far larger problem that their entire society is build around the need for cheap oil and natural gas (as is the US', except it has both domestically).

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Switching from gas to electric furnaces is both easy and fast. It's not like German mfring can't pump them out in the millions within months.

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That is a completely unrealistic argument. Firstly, no country's manufacturing can retool to pump anything half-complex "out in the millions within months." It's not just flicking a switch on manufacturing lines. Witness how long it took to even get respirators produced during the pandemic. Or how slow the ramp-up to produce simple, NATO-standard ammunition for Ukraine. These aren't pretend challenges.

Secondly, there's the demand-side issue: you're talking about prematurely abandoning decades and tens of billions worth of methane infrastructure (much of it now newly built to accommodate LNG) and millions of consumer end-devices like gas boilers, most of them not anywhere near the end of their lifecycle.

And so we're to ask every German business and household to just write down some of the most expensive capital goods they have? And all buy replacements at the same time (which magically are pumped out in the millions without delay and without supply-chain issues or inflation)? With what money? Is the government going to pay every German $10K+ to do so? Do the math.

And that doesn't even touch the far more difficult issue of transitioning commercial and industrial capital and applications currently dependent upon methane toward something electrified (and presumably fed by nuclear power). What's the solution for industrial heat, for steel production, for petrochemicals?

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I don't think you understand the scale or mfring complexity involved, because they're both small for an industrialized economy. Electric furnaces are about the simplest electric devices you can make. Simpler than ventillators, and the scale would be a fraction of the ammo demand. Besides, comparing our various gov't's efforts during the pandemic were a tragic joke. We used to do these things, and yes, our competency in most institutions, especially the political class, has waned. That doesn't mean it can never return.

The chief bottleneck, by the way, to installing a million electric furnaces in, say, 18 months is not mfring, but installers. In the early 1970s, I lived in Quebec when it did 400K electric conversions a year with a population of 6 million. Germany today with 13 times the population and 22 times the industrial base can't do this today? Get real.

We are not talking industrial conversion, just residential, about 2 thousand per day, for a few years. Those nukes wouldn't contribute much more - they were only 6% of Germany's generation. That's not everything, but a contribution to solving the crisis.

In the 20th century, our politicians and their electorates were more serious people; they worked much bigger problems until they found solutions. In direst need - which we have not reached - all democracies even turned into command economies. Let's not pretend that we have become incapable. Because that's merely a choice we've made to be so, and we can decide to return. We have since erected new barriers for ourselves, but they are artificial and surmountable.

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I'm not saying that it's especially hard to build an electric boiler. It's basically a large tea kettle. But I am saying that retooling a gas stove factory to build electric stoves takes time and involves a lot of sunk costs when you have to discard all the perfectly good gas stove manufacturing lines, parts, and man-hours of experience at perfecting the former. So, it's not just a matter of months to scale up to millions in output.

You can see the auto industry going through the same challenges converting cars that burn gasoline to cars that utilize electric engines. It's more complex than changing the heating element for a water tank, but it's not that complicated. And it's a transition that's taking decades now. Auto manufacturers are often building entirely new manufacturing lines in entirely new factories (with entirely new workforces) instead of re-tooling old ones. It's not a matter of just swapping a few things.

And, more important than the actual physical job is the finances of it. Who is going to pay for all those write-downs? For the factory that has to re-tool and re-train? For the consumer who is compelled to discard their (again, perfectly good) gas boiler for an expensive, new electric one? For the upstream and downstream suppliers to those industries? This is a HUGE financial event.

The state can just mandate it and force all the producers and consumers to take the hit. Or it can dig into fiscal coffers and subsidize it all. Which is the same thing, except spread over a larger group and over time. If you can ensure that the elecricity-powered devices are so much cheaper to run than what they're replacing that there's a positive payoff to the user over time, great, but that's even harder when you also have to factor in the write-down of existing capital with useful life left in it.

For example, I was happy to replace my homes 60-year-old fuel oil heater in my old house, even though the new, electricity-powered heat-pump that replaced it cost me $12K (even with a public subsidy). Why? Well, the old fuel oil boiler was well beyond its useful life, so I'd be looking at an emergency replacement some winter hence, anyway. And the actual fuel was extremely expensive. And it wasn't very pleasant or safe to have all the diesel fumes wafting through the house, either. But what if I didn't have $12K lying around? Even if it would save me enough money to cut even in a few years? Doesn't make that much sense for elderly neighbors of mine, for example, who won't have many more years in their houses, anyway. Multiply that dilemma across an entire society and you see the scale of the issue.

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They simply act in the widely accepted views propagated by highly educated experts and commentators and implemented in our regulations.

Most importantly.

(1) One can have catastrophic accidents at nuclear reactors that kill millions and make large areas uninhabitable.

(2) Nuclear waste is extremely harmful for thousands of years.

(3) Solar and wind are cleaner and safer than nuclear and can replace fossil fuels.

It is bizarre to condemn Germans for actually acting on these widely held views.

The honest approach is to point out that these are lies.

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Sep 21, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

If only some USPresident had warned them about being completely reliant on Russian gas. Nah, they'd just laugh him off ....

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Let's not be naive in assuming that that was merely geopolitical advice from a friend who didn't have a tremendous quantity of oil and natural gas that it would be happy to replace Russian supplies with. See... exactly what happened when Europe divested from Russian energy.

Countries pursue their own interests. Including the United States. Germany wanted cheap fossil energy to keep its industrial economy going. The US has its own. Which it's making a lot of money exporting to Europe right now. It's easy for Americans to ignore this structural fact.

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How much gas could they extract if they had invested in fracking as the US did?

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Not that much. We're talking estimates reserves of 20% of current demand, with only half of that economical to extract, max: https://www.dw.com/en/will-fracking-make-a-comeback-in-germany-in-face-of-gas-crunch/a-62814035

Hardly a game changer.

Natural gas and other hydrocarbon supplies are very unevenly distributed across the earth. The United States is uniquely gifted with a unusually large and easily-extracted geographic endowment. A few other places in Europe are, too (like Norway, and, to a lesser degree, the Netherlands and Scotland--but both the latter have fast dwindling reserves). But, outside of the select few place in Northernmost Europe, these resources just don't exist in any significant quantity.

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Yes countries pursue their own interest. Sometimes pursuing those interests leads to stating true claims. And sometimes countries are so stupid that when another country makes an extremely obvious true claim, they laugh it off.

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A small little anecdote: in Germany It is illegal for an employer to write a negative letter of recommendation about their former employee. Obviously the workaround is now in the amount of praise someone gets in their letter. Unnecessary bureaucratic ineffeciencys everywhere.

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Sep 21, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

"He was someone who made quite an impression. He won't be forgotten for years to come."

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“I strongly recommend this person with no qualifications whatsoever.”

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People would often say that he was outstanding in his field. In fact, we could see him standing out there through the office kitchen window.

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Wow - as an academic I've learned to read the differences between American, British, and French letters of recommendation, but hadn't encountered German ones so much!

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Oh boy, hearing about the Arbeitszeugnis code was a doozy.

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As a southern european living in northern europe I can't help but feel a mix of schadenfreude and sadness at seeing Germany's complacent decline. I can see absolutely everything that Noah mentions in the piece, my only caveat is that the situation is actually worse than he describes.

German underinvestment can be felt everywhere, but perhaps nothing is as painful and exhasperating as their train service. Recent statistics on train punctuality are staggering. Most of what counts in Germany as high speed would be considered in Spain, France or Italy a bucolic ride through the countryside. This would be almost endearing except for the fact that those trains are always late. More than 40% of trains run with delays, where the equivalent statistic for any other western european country is below 5%. Does that mean that the remaining 60% of the trains run in time? Glad you asked. Absolutely not, because the statistic does not consider delays of 10 minutes or less. (needless to say, most of those "on time" train are actually late in this sense).

I have (sadly) had to take several long distance trains through Germany this year and none of them has been remotely on time. The assumption that german travellers themselves make is that any connection with anything less than an hour in between trains is just impossible. Not only is your first train guaranteed to be delayed, it is not even guaranteed to arrive at the destination. Have a connection in Frankfort main station? Too bad, this train goes no further than Frankfort airport. Would you like your money back? No problem, file this paper form and send it via post to Deutch Bahn, where it will be processed in 4-6 months. Or maybe never. After all, the only record that you ever filed a complaint is in the hands of a train company that can't run trains. What could go wrong?

Another problem with the german economy that follows from underinvestment is that of lost capability. Three decades of underinvestment in all sectors has led to the sad state of affairs where, if something is not a solid hunk of metal and/or has a diesel engine strapped to it, the competence for providing that is simply not present in the german economy, regardless of what the government does or wants today. In this category fall minor things like IT, digitalization, governance and infrastructure.

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What do you think the reasons for underinvestment are? I wonder if its not all related to the stubborn and fundamental problem of declining demographics in Germany, which deteriorate its future growth prospects and future expected fiscal situation?

For a while, int the 2000s, exports to China and other emerging markets seemed a solution to this predicament. But now that's over, and the opportunity even at its peak was *complicated* and involved all sorts of long-term sacrifices for short-term gain.

Like, who would invest in a Germany that has one of the lowest birth-rates in the entire world? And who's going to innovate them out of their stagnant market positioning on anything that "is not a solid hunk of metal and/or has a diesel engine strapped to it" when the generations unborn are smaller and smaller?

I guess Japan, again, offers an alternative for a fast-greying but still-innovative and value-added industrial society. But even Japan's famously low birthrate is significantly higher than Germany's!

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There's plenty of examples of countries with low birth rates that are at the forefront of innovation. Japan, ROK, Taiwan and China come to mind. Despite what Peter Zeihan would have us think, demographics is not the explanation for everything. Besides, as the economic engine of Europe for the last 20 years, Germany has attracted loads of workers from all around Europe, both high and low skilled, and some from the middle east. The German-born population might be getting old fast, but the working-age population has remained rather young. If Germany had its marbles together they could easily make up for low birthrates with immigration indefinitely.

Macroeconomically Germany does not look particularly bad. High political stability, big consumer market, access to loads of foreign workers, local banks with loads of capital thanks to a very high private savings rate, ]and on and on.

Nor do I think the reason for their chronic underinvestment is microeconomical. Hiring and firing can be somewhat hard, but so it is in France or Sweden. Salaries in Germany have generally risen less than in the rest of the EU. Energy has been cheap until very recently and cannot explain all the underinvestment that happened before 2022.

I think the reasons are purely cultural. I'm not German, so take this with a grain of salt, but in my opinion the issue is a generally small-c conservative population, very suspicious of a vigorous state that takes the lead (understandable given their past, although maybe a bit too much learning from the past), allergic to any form of spending money, which is a remnant of their protestant morality. Essentially, they are Hobbits. They want to labour in peace, keep things the way they are, not do anything dramatic and stay out of trouble.

This translates into elites that have no incentive to lead, stand out, sell the notion of Germany as anything other than a business-friendly nice place to live, make difficult decisions or take personal responsibility for their blunders. After all, they are just implementing what the general consensus previously agreed.

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I love Sweden. I nearly moved there once, so I wouldn't compare it to a cheap peace of plastic, but I get your point.

Another good example of a quasi-Germany that went on a very different route is Switzerland. My experience of Zurich, where I lived for a couple of years, is that it is culturally German. Same protestant morality, blind faith in the government, boring politics, low-key conservatism and devotion to rules. And yet, Switzerland invests through the nose. True, they have huge amounts of capital available, but they are willing to put it to work. Studying at ETH the running joke was that one could walk out of engineering school and into a bank with nothing but a diploma and a vague idea and the bank would agree to give you a quarter million francs by the time the coffee arrives. Of course the joke wildly exaggerates reality, but the feeling was that if you had something in mind and the chops to develop it, you could count on the support of Swiss institutions, public and private.

Of course many a Swiss-German will disagree with being culturally German, just like many a catalan (I'm catalan) will insist there is a cultural chasm between them and somebody from Madrid. The reality, however, is that the differences are minuscule in the grand scheme of things.

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How much of this has been sado-austerianism? NOT investing in projects with NPV>0 is fiscally irresponsible!

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There's another issue with German universities: very often the premier research is actually conducted in research only Max Planck Institutes/Fraunhofers/Leibniz Institutes which may have minimal ties with universities. These in turn are often built around particular research leaders, who are very very generously funded for their work. This is seen in France too, with the independent CNRS and Inserm institutes. To be fair, this is slowly starting to change in both countries (https://www.mpg.de/805003/research-groups-at-universities; https://www.cnrs.fr/en/research), but in terms of gaming university rankings that are heavily research oriented, German and French universities lose out because of this institutional bifurcation.

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Loved the article. It kinda summarizes why I moved out of Germany.

We lived in Germany for two years, 2018-2020. We left precisely because the country seemed to live stuck in the past and quite happy about it. For example, you still had to fill out tons of bureaucracy and in some cases submit it by fax (!!); waiting 3 months to get a DSL line installed was deemed as totally reasonable. 

We lived just outside of central Berlin, a very nice village with public transport problems, social issues like everywhere else in the world. However, at the local elections, most parties were only concerned about "saving the bees" (not making it up) or, in the case of the AfD, about kicking out refugees.  

Also, in some 'karma is a bitch' way, they kinda deserve it - as a wake up call and as a reaction to the pain they unnecessarily inflicted to Greece and the EU as a whole during the Financial Crisis. And of which, to be fair, they are really, totally unaware of.

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The bureaucracy is unreal I agree, and there's little awareness of how absurd it is compared to most other countries. Germany could learn a lot from it's Scandanavian and Baltic neighbours to the north in terms of modernising their bureaucracy and services.

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I just noticed you now live in Estonia so you've got a great comparison!

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Yes, ECB inflation policy was even worse than the Bernanke-Yellen Fed. The eurozone is more heterogeneous than the US so a financial shock like 2008 would logically require targeting MORE inflation that the US. Instead it targeted less!

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Sep 21, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Was it trust?

Or just greed?

Isn’t the latter a simpler and more believable explanation for everything?

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My prior is that every western country is "greedy" (in the broad sense of being self-interested), but only Germany has Germany's problems. So I don't think greed is sufficient to explain the German slowdown.

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Germany has no monopoly on greed or short-termism, but the difference is the astounding persistence of the perception (both external and internal) that Germany is a very conscientious place where things that we explain as normal ol' greed-driven dysfunction elsewhere just must be the result of a kind of naiveté in Germany's case.

For example, why did Germany "extend that trust to countries and institutions that don’t deserve it" like China and Russia? Because it was extremely profitable to do so! Russia offered German industry the cheap and reliable primary energy source that it didn't have domestically, aside from coal. The alternative was a vast, expensive, and politically-contentious energy transition. Arguably, this wasn't a bad bet at the time, given the alternatives. After all, Russian natural gas was at least lower-carbon than German coal. Germany was just doing the same thing as the US: transitioning from an electrical and heating gird powered by coal to one powered by natural gas. And what should they have done instead? Invested tens of billions in nuclear power that was politically unpopular, financially un-ecomomic, and notoriously plagued by decades-long construction delays? See anyone else doing that? How long are we going to stick with the "everyone is stupid" explanation for why nuclear isn't scaling? Or should Germany, instead, have undergone a country-wide (non-nuclear) renewable transition in one of the largest consumers of energy on earth in an impossibly short timescale?

One completely without precedent, btw, since maybe the only other examples of countries having done this in Europe might include the likes of Sweden and France, both of which wholly embraced nuclear power for similar structural reasons: Neither Sweden nor France had indigenous fossil fuel resources (Germany could at least rely on coal). But both of them also had inputs for renewables that Germany doesn't: Sweden hosts some of the most copious hydropower resources on the planet and France had ready access to nuclear fuel through its colonial relationships in Africa (and in Chad, in particular). And even France struggles to keep that singularly impressive fleet of reactors humming, and has an astoundingly high deferred maintenance bill. Germany isn't at the same starting line--especially not now, fifty years later. So, again, Germany moving away from imported fossil energy at rapid speed without killing off its industry would have been and will still be an unprecedented feat. So, even without the greed of German leaders, business, and consumers looking for the cheapest energy, it's an outstanding question whether all this is even possible or practicable.

And what about Germany getting "tricked" by the nasties in Wall Street during the Great Recession: "In the leadup to the crash of 2008, German banks very often behaved as the “dumb money”, buying whatever toxic mortgage-backed bonds their American counterparts sold them, and trusting the ratings agencies that lent their imprimatur to those bonds." In other words, German banks did the exact same thing as American, British, French and even Swiss banks did: chasing the heard with the same greed-driven mistake in the process. We were only surprised that Germans would be the "dumb money" because our prior was that Germans were more staid and conscientious than that, even in Frankfurt. But they weren't. They got soaked like everyone else. And then soon recovered with very little ramifications. Such is the infuriating nature of the business cycle.

So, yes, maybe it's time to stop pretending like Germany is so different. Germany is a normal country. Germany has some unique constraints. But Germany's not suffering from uniquely bad leadership. It's hemmed in by predicaments. The next leaders of Germany, whoever they are, will face those same predicaments. And we'll be tempted to tell them to "stop messing around," too.

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Sep 21, 2023·edited Sep 21, 2023

Good response. I agree that the presumption of unbreakable German integrity is misplaced. I guess our difference is as much semantic/philosophical as anything; blaming greed has always seemed to me to be a pointless endeavour, since greed is inevitable and universal.

Problems are always multicausal, and when analysing them to find solutions it's always more useful to look at the variables we can actually vary. So, German faith in bad actors seems a more promising starting point than German desire for material prosperity; the latter is never going to change, the former might (and currently is, as Germany is being betrayed by Russia & China).

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Yes, I am being provocative by using the word "greed." The reality is more value-neutral than that. People are greedy and lazy. Which is just another way of saying that we're biological organisms that are both energy-maximizing and efficiency-optimizing. You can explain most of our behavior that way. But, since we complicate things with our own unique consciousness, we want to tell moralistic stories about it.

I find the morality narratives interesting (I am human, after all), but it's not really very helpful to resort to them. Germans want to maximize their total factor energy usage (in service of personal consumption, industrial competitiveness, geopolitical power, etc.) but don't have a lot of great alternatives to do so. Russians and Americans do. The lucky ones can flatter themselves for their superior cleverness and morality. But Americans didn't earn living overtop of some of the world's premier wells of hydrocarbons, anymore than the Russians did.

Germans have to make due with what they have, which is coal, and all the downsides thereof. Germans don't even have the abundant renewable energy resources that the United States has (and mostly neglects). So, they stumble through some difficult predicaments, to the chagrin of everyone jealous of their past success.

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They need not have shut down any nuclear plants. They could have fracked.

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Framing their shut down of nuclear as part of a degrowth policy seems wrong. Instead, the German government have the same view of the energy transition to net zero that many others in the west have, which is that solar and wind are much better than new nuclear as the latter is slow, expensive and has all sort of safety issues including waste. The problem is that Germany acted diligently on these beliefs. They did not appreciate that much of the received wisdome about nuclear, solar, wind and storage is highly misleading. In one respect your column is correct. They trusted the many experts and opinion writers who claim that 100% renewables is entirely feasible. Too much trust.

Not closing down nuclear reactors would simply postpone the problem. We need to build new nuclear. This applies to all countries. Sadly the irrational regulatory regime on nuclear at makes this almost impossible. Unless this changes there will be no transition to net zero. No country will accept the industrialization of their landscape that replacing fossil fuels with wind, solar and storage requires, nor will they tolerate the very high electricity prices.

Complaining about NIMBYism is unfair. It is rational to object to actual environmental damage. Trying to motivate people to accept this by hugely exaggerating the current impact of climate change is deeply dishonest.

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Sep 21, 2023·edited Sep 21, 2023

Solar and wind may be much better than new nuclear, sure. If Germany were choosing between new nuclear plants and renewables, and chose renewables, that would have been fine. But it wasn't new nuclear they got rid of, it was existing nuclear; and it wasn't renewables they replaced it with, it was bloody coal!

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Solar and wind aren't perfect replacements for nuclear because they aren't base load. But they're also different from nuclear in that they don't take decades to build. They're what Germany can scale out now, within the timeline of this acute energy crisis. They're today's (imperfect) solution for something that the real solution only can come in decades' time.

Unfortunately, there's just no ready base-load replacement for coal or natural gas that you can build now. And Germany, unlike the likes of Norway and Sweden to its north, can't even fall back on a hydroelectric base load. If, tomorrow, it suddenly had a change of heart about the utility and desirability of nuclear power (despite the up-front cost and associated financial risk for something as volatile as energy), they couldn't actually fire up anything until the last 2030s, best case, when Putin will be long-dead and Scholz may well be, too.

Should Germany have kept those few aging reactors going? Arguably. Does it make any different? Not much. Nuclear power accounted for 4% of Germany's electricity production and a minuscule portion of its total primary energy consumption. (Remember that coal and natural gas are used to create heat, as well as electricity). In an energy market, the price on the margins matters, but people are really exaggerating the impact of this policy decision.

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Shippingport took 4 years to build.

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If no other country on earth is scaling out nuclear, it's a reasonable assumption that the reasons why aren't just down to "everyone is stupid." There are major, very material (or, rather, financial) issues with nuclear power today that have nothing to do with safety or red tape. Let's start with this one: In an environment with volatile energy prices (and a much wider range of energy futures than before), you cannot privately finance such a capital-intensive good with such long delivery timescales. How can you financially model something that will produce its first electrons in 20+ years? Would you care to guess the electricity prices in the 2043? Perhaps SMRs will reduce this timeline (and associated risk), but they're not at the commercialized scaling phase yet. That won't come for a decade or more.

What if we stopped being such pansies about safety? Wouldn't that reduce costs and delays? Well, most nuclear plants in the West were built in the 1970s, before the Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents... and long before Fukushima. But even then, with a much larger capacity than now and fewer environmental and safety regulations, nuclear plants were extremely slow to commission, with the time between design and commissioning taking 10+ years. Advocates of nuclear power seem immune to this basic fact.

So, the actual nuclear power you can have today is more like the Finland's Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant, which we're certainly grateful to have finally now in Scandinavia, despite its 20-year delay. But nobody's stupid enough to actually finance a new such project now here in Sweden, despite all the political slogans demanding it and the very real need for and utility of base load in the populous southern half of the country. it still just doesn't add up. Even if it were publicly-funded, the generation-long delivery times preclude any political benefit to the leader who champions it for real: many of their voters (not to mention the politicians themselves) will be long-dead by the time the thing produced its first electrons! Which is why no politicians are seriously suggesting subsidies at the scale that would be required.

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Actually, Canada (Ontario) is starting to scale out traditional nuclear again, as well as building out the first string of SMRs . Even Quebec, which is like Germany, is considering restarting old reactors. Now that Ontario has bitten into SMRs, a number of other countries are taking even bigger bets. No guarantee they all get there, but the long winter of nuclear is clearly over.

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Historically building nuclear has achieved BY FAR the fastest reductions in emissions associated with electricity generation.

It is true that the regulatory regime that originated in the USA, combined with the fiction that we can reduce emissions cheaply with solar and wind, has convinced most countries to pursue that path. But given the REAL problems associated intermittant renewables (low energy density and intermittancy) which are nowhere close to being solved, and the fact that the environmental devastation is also real, that will almost certainly never happen. I am prepared to wager that.

In contrast, the barrier to nuclear are easily overcome as they are primarily psychological. We know this because we have built nuclear fast in the past and other countries are building fast now.

My main concern is actually not climate change, which we will easily survive, although I would rather avoid the tail risks of extreme outcomes.

My concern is the inevitable popular backlash when this deluded attempt to replace fossil fuels with solar, wind and storage fails catastrophically. The current ‘educated’ elite, which you, Noah and I are part of will be totally and deservedly discredited. We have to hope that we are treated with forgiveness for our extreme arrogance.

As a side point, are you aware of the fact that our regulatory regime treats a death resulting from nuclear power at least 100 times and up to 10,000 times more than a death from air pollution? Evacuations from the Fukushima exclusion zone were not only unnecessary, they resulted in up to 1000 avoidable deaths, and placed people in cities where the risks of air pollution was greater than the risk of exposure to radioactivity.

There is reason than coal power has a 1000 times higher mortality than nuclear power.

All this evidence is there for those prepared to seek it. But sadly they don't see it because it violates their own narrative.

Happy to provide references if you areninteresred. I suspect you won't be.

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Sep 22, 2023·edited Sep 22, 2023

1/ I do agree. And I'm happy that we have nuclear power. For most countries, this has been the only way to actually decarbonize in the 20th Century. The likes of Norway and Sweden could enjoy their uniquely copious hydro. Iceland has geothermal. But a country like France didn't have either, or even a local source of hydrocarbons, so they leaned heavily into nuclear power. The problem is that nuclear power is something that's useful, but not economically viable, if that's the criterion (which in a capitalist market economy it is). There are many public goods like this which have clear utility, but that nobody wants to pay for. Which gets me to my next point about the argument among pro-nuclear advocates that it is only not cost-competitive and practicable today because of onerous regulation and flawed public perception...

2/ The costs with regulatory compliance and risk-reduction aren't the only or even the main cause of runaway costs and construction delays. Nuclear power was ALWAYS expensive and time-consuming to provision, even in the 1960s and 1970s, before such public disasters as Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl, and the new risk-reduction procedures put into place (https://nei.org/resources/fact-sheets/timeline-safety-enhancements-to-us-nuclear-plants) . As a result, the industry has always relied heavily on state support and subsidy to create conditions that were financially viable. China today sees energy security (and weaponizable nuclear energy knowledge) as a national security priority and is willing to pony up for this with public monies, in the same way the US was during the first half of the Cold War. But to pretend that private industry would be clamoring to build these projects if the state would just get out of the way is to ignore history and reality.

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The economy is the conversion of energy to economic activity. In this view, Energy Return on Investment (EROI) is the actual metric of the economic value of any energy source. In analyzing EROI, we naturally use monetary inputs to compare energy investments, but that is a proxy that doesn’t analyze the future value of energy sources.

My take on the pro-nuclear view is that the real existential threat to a human population in the billions is the decreasing EROI for fossil fuels production, particularly petroleum and natural gas. As this process advances, the material intensity of low energy density renewables will show them to be a wishful thinking byproduct of the age of abundant fossil fuels. Only the high energy density of nuclear fission has an EROI that will scalably offset a decreasing EROI of fossil fuels. The conviction that nuclear is too expensive (or complex!) will eventually be obviously wrong.

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Are you seriously arguing that valuing a life lost to radioactivity 100-10,000 times more than a life lost to other pollutants like air pollution has had little impact on the costs of nuclear power?

As many countries have shown already, building nuclear power station can be a cheap way to reduce emissions, despite the regulatory barriers, provides that designs are kept constant and they are built in series retaining the same expertise.

Electricity markets have been so perversely distorted that it would be insane for any company to build a nuclear power plant now. The implicit subsidies for intermittent renewables are enormous and they destroy the viability of nuclear.

You are just a more recent and more sophisticated version of antinuclear propaganda which is what is making climate change and an energy crisis more certain.

You have made up you mind about nuclear power and have to find ever more sophisticated reasons for not supporting it.

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Actually, I think that a overestimation of the risks of nuclear power is pretty universal. And its overengineering away the every more remote risks that makes nuclear power so expensive. It is not a unique problem, (and it does not make a lot of sense to argue about whether the sentiment is worse in the US or Germany or Japan or Timbuktu) but that does not mean it is not a problem. As we say in Spanish, "Mal de todos es conseulo de bobos." Or as your grandmother probably said, "If your friend jumped off a cliff should you do the same?"

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This argument about there being too much red tape and risk-aversity is what is overstated.

The oldest nuclear plant in the United States until recently, the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey, was built in the 1960s, when nuclear "incidents" were common on a technology still groping for scale and reliable designs. It took the decade to design and commission, with six years for the actual construction. That's back when there was a huge skills base of American nuclear know-how, explicit government support, no famous nuclear disasters to spook the public, and little of the "red tape" that pro-nuclear people point to today. In other words, that's the best-case.

Nuclear power plants are big, complicated, technically-challenging projects. They are hard. They inescapably take time. They took time in Soviet Russia and China, too, despite their total disregard for safety. They took time during the cowboy years of Cold War America. And they will take time now especially and in the near future, when we have very little of the accumulated experience and capacity as back then.

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What do you mean by nuclear incidents?

There is a pervasive view that any release of radioactivity from a nuclear power plant would be catastrophic and so designs have to ensure this never happens.

This is an absurd view given what we know about radioactivity. Fukushima proved that even the worst nuclear accident conceivable in a western style reactor was pretty harmless, with not a single person being killed by radioactivity.

Instead of taking that as conclusive proof that we are far too cautious, the opposite lesson was learnt.

Is it really possible to be more stupid than that?

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This may be true - but 10 years is not a physical restriction is it? Unless there is some specific saftey test that requires you to wait 10 years before getting the results? If not -then its all just paperwork and money. You can cut paperwork and spend more money, period. It doesn't *have* to take 10 years to just get shovels in the ground!

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It's not just paperwork and money. That's my point. These are incredibly complex infrastructural projects. Even in the "Wild West" days of early nuclear power experimentation in the 1950s through the 1970s, these projects took a decade. Could you speed that up with a Manhattan Project or Apollo-type whole-society effort? Sure. But at what cost?

And, even still, there was a physical limit on how fast you could execute against those projects, with practically unlimited funding and state-backing. Maybe you could get it down to 6 years?

So, somehow you reverse all the current regulations, plow through the politics of it, and emerge with a "whatever it takes!" execution plan, that: 1/ waves aside the hyper-inflationary cost-of-money today 2/ disregards supply chain issues (or, rather, the total absence of a scalable nuclear supply chain outside of a few countries, including France, South Korea, Russia, and China) and 3/ reaches deeper into deficits to fund it at a time when governments have already maxxed their national credit cards. And the prize is that you get some new nuclear power plants in ...2030.

At which time this business with Russia might be over. And when electricity might just be really cheap, again, further undercutting the need in retrospect for this extremely expensive supply glut that the state borrowed at high interest to fund. Which is doubly inconvenient because, btw, Germany's demographics are also really terrible and they're already having a hell of a time funding that increasingly large percentage of the population who are aging out of the workforce.

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They did not take a decade. Some reactors took as little as 3 years.

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Sep 21, 2023·edited Sep 21, 2023

2030 is about as sure a bet as you can get on rising electricity demand. It's not a coincidence why nuclear funding is picking up during the decarbonization drive.

For a lot of jurisdictions, they'd have to work harder NOT to employ nuclear than to do so, given the rise in future need for baseload in the 2030s-2050s and beyond.

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I lived in Germany for almost two years - allbeit this was over ten years ago. I feel that the business culture is little understood in Anglo countries. My experience of working in a company in both Germany and the UK was that there was a much stronger sense of togetherness within the organisation in Germany amongst the staff. Work in Germany is much less of a transactional endeavour and people expect to be cared for by the organisation a lot more than in Anglo countries - hence why things more super slowly. I saw an underperforming employee get moved around five different departments and spend a couple of months in each before he was finally let go - it's really hard to do this. So what I'm saying is that in Germany things take a long time, sometimes too long. There might need to be some big event like the AFD nearly winning power or something like that for things to really drastically change as they need to, as it's just not their culture to do anything at anything like the pace we would expect.

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How you describe things sounds humane and exactly what larger businesses should do. It’s the bigger picture stuff that should be addressed before throwing people to the gutter.

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Making it harder to fire people makes it harder to hire them as well, since you 1) need a vacancy to hire and 2) will be less willing to take a chance on someone if it’s hard to cut ties when it doesn’t work out. It’s unlikely that the low-performing employee will make a turnaround, either. Turnover is already expensive, so if there were easy solutions, employers would already be incentivized to use them. In my opinion the end result of these kinds of “protections” is sclerosis without appreciable benefit to workers; it’s a transfer of welfare to bad employees from their coworkers.

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Take it to the extremes and think of it as a social program that keeps people off the street and out of rehab and jail. I think I’d rather live in that society even as a “good employee”.

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EU rules. Almost impossible to terminate someone for cause and even layoffs have to be painstakingly negotiated with the works council. It may be worse in Italy and France (I’ve managed teams in all three countries and have done layoffs in all three). Severance costs are egregious (which is a reason why temp employment has become the norm for young workers in many industries).

It is even difficult for an employee to voluntarily leave a job in Germany to go to a competitor due to mandatory notice periods. Also makes hiring difficult.

The EU was seemingly established so countries could navel-gaze and ruminate, so competition would be restrained and national champions protected. Was it Buckley who said conservatism is to stand athwart history yelling “stop”? The EU has, in most areas, taken that preservation theme to heart because Germany and France embrace it even if the Skandis and E Europeans often do not.

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Honestly speaking stricly as an employee/worker Germany is a fantastic place in many ways (Sweden too is also great). But it's reallly embedded within the culture and not something which can be eaisly replicated elsewhere. The one thing which is very different is there's still a lot of promotion based on time in role rather strictly on ability - a little like in Japan - but this isn't always such a bad thing, and Germans really value accumulated knowledge. See for instance how many at Exec Management level have a Doctorate.

Many workers in Germany still take a one hour lunchbreak and it would be usual for colleauges to walk around the office asking who wanted to join to goto a few cheap local restaurants, whereas in London people run and grab a sandwich and hurriedly eat it before getting back to their desk.

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Sounds civilized and sophisticated as an approach to work in contrast to a hyper-competitive cutthroat approach. This is after all where we spend much of our lives. And Germany has shown that it can work when the right strategic pieces are in place.

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I admire that approach, for sure, it gives me warm fuzziness and tugs at my bleeding heartstrings; and less flippantly, it does obviously bring tangible benefits to society. But surely that's no excuse for Germany to avoid modernising its economy and cut some of the red tape. You can do that without sacrificing workers' rights etc.

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I don't think it's just about workers rights per se. It's something deeper in society. Everything is very concensus orientated and slow moving. The Russian invasion of Ukraine helped to move the concensus A BIT, but it's clearly not been enough!

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Noah, watching the greens in Germany (and Europe) over the last year is part of why I just can't get on your green energy bandwagon. These people aren't serious. They aren't interested in human flourishing. They aren't interested in economic success. They just hate energy. I know you believe in solar and wind and renewables, but your regular trumpeting of the benefits of these things over fossil fuels is just helping to prop up a green movement that is increasingly and obviously anti-human.

Your distinction between the greens and the "de-growthers" is getting pretty hard to see.

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So don't get on Noah's bandwagon. Get on the taxation of net CO2 emissions and elimination of obstacles to generation and transmission the do not pass cost benefit tests bandwagon. :)

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I want lots of energy sources and I want them to be inexpensive. Noah keeps insisting that solar and wind are cost effective now, so this shouldn't be a problem. So yeah, let's get rid of obstacles to generation. I live in California -- let's build a few hydroelectric dams and nuclear power plants so i can stop having my power shut off for a few of the hottest days of the year in summer. That'd be great!

I don't have an intrinsic problem with CO2 taxes. Taxes are a great way to solve what is essentially a pollution (public bad) problem. However I am concerned that those who want to implement CO2 taxes are motivated more by a hatred of energy (de-growthers) than by a legitimate attempt to mitigate real public harm.

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Worry less about motivation and focus on taxation of net emissions of CO2 and methane as just the lowest cost way to reducing the harm of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. It is not a cure-all. We still need to remove regulator obstacles nuclear and geothermal generation (and solar and wind, for that matter) and transmission. Sure in the medium long run we want new technologies that make zero CO2 emitting energy much cheaper than fossil fuels and subsidizing research and development along those lines is much to be desired.

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Now do the other G7 members please.

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Yes. Let the US learn from Gernany's mistakes.

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This well-written piece was an eye-opener for me: I thought Germans were outrageously efficient in every way at every thing, a belief I probably got from Hollywood war movies. Plus, they were the big dog economically in Europe; Americans love, love, love their automobiles. I buy their bulletproof electric shavers and electric toothbrushes.

But, nope, they've got a trainload of dumbass going on over there. Who knew? I didn't.

I did think, though, that shutting down their nuke was a terrible idea, for all the known reasons.

And their naivete? My belief was that in Europe, you had to be sophisticated, because dummies die off quickly in its fast lanes of living. And surely Germany learned many, many painful lessons from WWI and II, right?

Intelligence, wise actions, and keeping up with the nonstop changes are requirements for progress and equipping a nation, or person, to live a good life, which necessitates a sound economy. Apparently, Germany has dropped the ball repeatedly and is beginning to pay for its egregious mistakes, now even plainer to see in hindsight as new data arrives. Scary, yet, overall, good to know: We all must stay on our toes, every day in every way. (Hard to do, though: The mind and body want and need breaks. Running as fast as you can all the time is beyond our ability, although theoretically attractive: Be the ubermensch.)

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Sep 21, 2023·edited Sep 21, 2023

I'm wondering if the nuclear phaseout may be overrated as the cause of German industry's woes, even though I'm strongly pro-nuclear personally (and think the phaseout's original architect Gerhard Schröder should be charged with treason).

Nuclear power (like wind and solar) is currently only useful for generating electrical power, and IIRC Germany was using more natural gas for chemical feedstock or industrial process heat than for electrical power generation.

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True, rising gas prices would have hurt German industry regardless, but decommissioning the nuclear plants has needlessly exacerbated the problem by increasing Germany's demand for gas at the same time it became more expensive.

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Another great post. Just to pile on, much of Germany’s export success was due to the adoption of the Euro, granting Germany with an underpriced currency that allowed the country to export unemployment to less efficient, mostly south European countries. Prior to adoption of the Euro, countries like Italy had currencies that regularly devalued relative to the Deutschmark, making their pro cuts cheaper to export to Germany. But the adoption of the Euro created a new dynamic. Countries could no longer devalue their currencies but had to adopt strategies like internal austerity like lowering wages to maintain a semblance of competitiveness. Thus, part of the success of the German model after the adoption of the Euro was a result of a more or less permanently undervalued currency.

In my view, Germany is also a pretty bad bank regulator, who likes to chide other country’s European regulators. They have two very inefficient global banks. Deutsche Bank is a constantly being fines for various regulatory failures, accumulating 96 fines for almost $20 billion. The Landesbanken system had a disastrous finically crisis, but Germany never really admitted it. (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-banking-germany-landesbanken-idUSBRE98G06720130917).

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Send Herr Trump in. He’ll take on the swamp, take on China , and cut a deal with Saudi for oil and solar . ‘Make Germany functional again ‘. By the way, the Germans ditched solar after the Japan nuclear debacle.

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On the nuclear power plants my understanding is that the Green Party was born out of opposition to nuclear power and I would not be surprised if part of the coalition agreement was shutting them down and if Scholz backtracked they would leave the coalition

Still doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it but not many country’s leaders knowingly give up power (political) if they don’t have too

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