23 Jan 2024, 13:40
Julian Wettengel

IEA head says German nuclear exit “historic mistake,” criticises bet on hydrogen in short term


Germany's decision to phase out nuclear power was a "historic mistake," Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) told business daily Handelsblatt. The move has "negative effects on the availability of electricity and the possibility to reduce emissions," he said. Germany should have at least left the remaining nuclear power plants online, instead of shutting them down last year, he added. Birol also criticised Germany and other countries for betting on green hydrogen, at least in the short term. "Only seven percent of global hydrogen projects will be completed by 2030," he said. The costs would be "very high" and it remained "completely unclear" who would demand the fuel. "The current overblown expectations could distract from the fact that there are more important problems to solve before then," he said.

Germany's last nuclear power plants were shut down in spring 2023, marking a key milestone of the phase-out, a controversial and highly politicised process that took more than two decades to prepare. Several groups continue to demand a return to nuclear energy in Germany – also as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – including the conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDU), who decided the phase out in 2011 following the Fukushima nuclear accident. Proponents of the nuclear exit argue that the move itself caused a much faster expansion of renewable energies in the country, helping to reduce emissions. For its future energy system, the German government bets on renewables like solar and wind power, as well as gas-fired power plants which would be converted to run on renewables-based hydrogen. Coal – which produced about 26 percent of the country's electricity in 2023 – is set to be phased out at the very latest by 2038.

Birol also told Handelsblatt that Germany should not attempt to bring the solar industry back to the country with subsidies. "Governments should focus on the areas in which they can be competitive," such as high tech in the energy sector, he said. There were hardly any opportunities in the solar industry because of China, which still had "huge overcapacities."

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