June 25, 2024

German Firms Move Toward Postnuclear Economy

In the early 1990s, the company placed a bet on the renewable energy sector and started to make compressors for the emerging biogas industry. Jörg-Peter Mehrer, the fifth generation to run the business, says he believes he made the right move — especially after Chancellor Angela Merkel announced last month a safety review of Germany’s nuclear industry in light of the disaster in Japan.

“This is a market that keeps expanding,” Mr. Mehrer said. “The government’s decision is very positive.”

Mehrer, which was exhibiting its products at the Hanover International Trade Fair last week, was just one of many companies, large and small, that were seeking an opportunity in what may turn out to be a significant reordering of energy sources in Germany, Europe’s largest economy.

The show highlighted the different paths European countries are taking toward energy security. While some of Germany’s neighbors, like nuclear-dependent France, home to the giant contractor Areva, criticize Mrs. Merkel for what they call an exaggerated, knee-jerk reaction, Germans seem determined to move toward a postnuclear economy — even though they acknowledge the switch will be expensive.

Many companies at the exhibition said that they had begun to position themselves in the market more than a decade ago, even before the former left-leaning government passed a law in 2002 to close all of Germany’s nuclear plants by 2022.

The conservative Mrs. Merkel, pushed by her pro-business coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party, reversed that decision last year by agreeing to keep the nuclear plants operating well into the 2030s.

She argued that nuclear power would be a “bridge technology” until the renewable sector was sufficiently developed. Nuclear energy now supplies 22.3 percent of Germany’s electricity while coal provides 42 percent, natural gas 13.6 percent and renewable energies 16.5 percent, according to the Environment Ministry. The change, however, caused confusion among companies and gave the opposition Green Party, long opposed to nuclear power, a new sense of purpose. The disaster last month in Japan reignited the debate, which reached a pitch not seen in any other European country.

In response, Mrs. Merkel ordered seven of the 17 nuclear plants closed for three months while the rest underwent stringent security checks. Some of the oldest plants are expected to be closed permanently, whatever the outcome of the inspections.

But it was not enough to prevent her party, the Christian Democratic Union, from losing power last month in Baden-Württemberg, a wealthy southwestern state it had led for 58 years. Instead, the once-negligible Greens emerged triumphant and will lead a state government for the first time in Germany.

In part, this reflected the deeply ingrained respect for the environment that transcends political divides in Germany.

Yet such a revolution is even more telling in a state where many of Germany’s famed Mittelstand companies are based. These small and midsize family businesses, like Mehrer, are the backbone of the country’s export-dependent economy.

Mr. Mehrer, 40, says he is not sure what policies the Greens will pursue now in Stuttgart, the state capital. But for him, one thing is certain: “Growth is in renewables.”

The view was echoed around the vast trade fair, where the latest in industrial technology was displayed.

Sebastian Sax, a project manager at Schneider Electric, the global electrical systems company, said Mrs. Merkel’s decision was good for his business, too. “We focus so much on energy efficiency,” he said. “It’s something we have been doing for many years.”

ABB, a Swedish engineering company with a large presence in Germany, was also enthusiastic.

“Closing nuclear power plants is good news for ABB,” said Ake Andersson, technical manager of one of the company’s motors divisions. “This is about developing ways to use energy more efficiently.”

Of course, support is not universal. Big nuclear energy companies like RWE and Siemens, which built all of Germany’s nuclear power plants, have balked at Mrs. Merkel’s turnaround.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=eb07f0d999207f0dc14aed708db7773c

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