Solar power gains strength as moratoriums on nuclear power stations are passed across Europe
Fukushima: as the smoke continues to billow from reactors at the crippled nuclear power plant, many nations across the world are reconsidering their nuclear options. The disastrous fallout at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant has resulted in the contamination of land, sea and air and the release of 11, 500 tons of radioactive water into the ocean. Italy stands alone as the only Group of Eight nation that has no nuclear power. In 2008, the Italian government signed a deal to build nuclear reactors which would be operational by 2020; Fukushima changed that.
The contamination levels in all areas, aside from the 20km no-entry zone surrounding the Fukushima plant, are said to be at levels below limits set for surface radiation. However, nuclear specialist Helen Caldicott claims that the epic nuclear fallout at Fukushima will cause a major medical catastrophe. External radiation, says Caldicott, may be below recommended levels and is harmless to humans and animals. However, when this radiation is internalized through inhalation, skin absorption or ingestion, the consequences are dire. Radioactive elements are absorbed by animals and plants and passed through the food chain to humans. This radiation is insidious; causing mutation in cells until the carrier contracts leukemia after five years, or cancer a decade after initial exposure. Too remote are these consequences to join the dots back to the original radiation. The EPA states that up to 25% of people exposed to the Fukushima radiation will develop cancer.
Reports like this one have prompted the Italian government to impose a year-long moratorium on nuclear development. The picturesque Italian town of Montalto di Castro is home to the shell of an old nuclear power station. The power station was abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear incident prompted a similar moratorium in 1987. The skeletal remains of the power plant act as a reminder to the residents of the possibility of a nuclear future. The current moratorium has not appeased residents of Montalto. Deciding to take fate into their own hands, they have approved plans for one of Europe’s largest photovoltaic farms in the hopes that providing renewable sources of energy will put the kibosh on government nuclear ambitions. Solar technology has improved dramatically over recent months, surpassing nuclear as the cheapest way to produce energy.
Italians are not alone in their aversion to all things nuclear. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, a former proponent of nuclear power, announced a three month moratorium on nuclear development and ordered the temporary closure of the seven oldest nuclear plants in order for security checks to be carried out. The plants are scheduled to be phased out in favour or renewable energy sources by 2030. Switzerland followed suit by suspending plans to build three new nuclear power stations.
The remaining European countries have been reticent to join the fray, agreeing only to test 143 nuclear plants to ensure safety. Europe has, of late, relied heavily on nuclear power to end its dependence on fossil fuels and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. However, as popular opinions sour, anti-nuclear protests are springing up and putting pressure on their governments to seek other means of powering Europe.
How Germany’s Feed-in-Tariff System has Saved Over 52 Million Tons of Carbon Dioxide
There’s more to Germany than beer and bratwurst ̶ it is also the greenest country in Europe. The German government had enough insight to start a feed-in-tariff system in the late nineties. The feed-in-tariff system, also employed in Ontario, provides subsidies for business and home owners who install solar power systems. The property owner contacts a local solar installer to fit a 10kW photovoltaic solar power system to their roof. The solar power system is connected to the grid and the property owner is paid handsomely for the energy their system provides. Feed-in-tariff schemes boost local solar installers (in Ontario, 60% of the solar power system must be locally manufactured,) which drives solar prices down. In 2010 alone, new solar power systems contributed an additional 8 gigawatts of energy to the German grid. The feed-in-tariff scheme has been a huge success in Germany which now produces 12% of its energy from renewable sources. This is expected to increase to 20% by 2014. The industry has created a quarter of a million jobs locally. Towns compete to be the most eco-friendly. The town of Freiberg (population 200 000) alone produces as much energy from solar power systems as the whole of Britain. It’s not even the most solarific town in Germany ̶ the town of Ulm has that distinction. This kind of competition has led to the cost of solar power systems being halved in the last seven years.
On Thursday, Germany announced that it will cut its feed-in-tariff rates by up to 16%. The proposed cut in subsidies will see a boom for industry in the first half of the year as Germans scramble to take advantage of the subsidies before the cuts become effective July 1st. Participants in the feed-in-tariff system sign a 20 year contract with the government, thereby ensuring the rates over that period. The cut in subsidies will see a reduction in the number of solar power system installations leading to the closures of local businesses and the loss of jobs. This boom and bust cycle created by subsidies in the green industry places the government at the centre of a delicate balancing act.
The fledgling feed-in-tariff (or microFIT) subsidies in Ontario have been equally well received. The generous rates offered for electricity produced by solar power systems, as well as a reduction in the costs of these systems, makes it a no-brainer for property owners. The government has, however, made it abundantly clear that Ontarians will not enjoy the subsidies for long. Plans to curb Ontario microFIT rates could be implemented as soon as next year.