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Germany to phase out nuclear power. Could the US do the same?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has endorsed a plan to end all nuclear power in Germany by 2022. Increasingly, studies suggest this is not a far-fetched idea, even for the US.

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• A 2010 Synapse Energy Economics study concluded that the US "could replace coal-fired electricity generation with energy efficiency and renewable energy, and we could reduce our use of nuclear power" by more than one-quarter by 2050.

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"Our takeaway from this study is that we could have this quite different electricity generation future that's much preferable in terms of resource mix and reliance on coal and nuclear – but at very little incremental cost," says Bruce Biewald, president of Synapse, a Boston-based energy consulting firm and a study coauthor.

Problems of variability in renewable energies are being addressed. "Smart grid" systems are coming that will balance loads with power generation. Natural-gas fired power plants could provide ready backup for wind and solar; they can start and stop quickly. Wind power variability can be greatly reduced by spreading wind turbines over a bigger geographic area. Thermal energy storage systems can give industrial-scale solar the ability to operate around the clock as a baseload source.

“I think baseload capacity is going to become an anachronism," Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff said in 2009. "We may not need any [new coal or nuclear plants] ever.”

Of the nation's 104 nuclear reactors, 66 have already had their licenses extended 20 years, while another 18 are under Nuclear Regulatory Commission review. The nuclear power industry expects four to eight new reactors to begin operating between 2016 and 2020.

Freezing US nuclear power or reversing it could have negative consequences, some say. Next-generation nuclear power plants will be cleaner and safer and could have great commercial value to the US, says James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute and a major advocate for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

“We still have the best expertise in that technology, and we should develop it because it's something we could also sell to China and India,” he writes on his blog. "They are not going to be able to get all of their energy from the sun and from the wind."

Merkel plans to prove him wrong. And what happens in Germany could have a huge impact on nations worldwide, including the US.

A just-released study by 120 researchers working with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that close to 80 percent of the world's energy supply could be met by renewable energy sources by mid-century if backed by public policy.

"The US certainly has enough resources to power the entire country with renewable energy many times over," says Mark Jacobsen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering whose 2009 study in Scientific American found the US and the rest of the world could supply all its energy needs with renewable energy.

[Editor's note: The original version omitted the year in which new nuclear or advanced coal-fired plants are estimated to be able to curb greenhouse gases.]

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