As Merkel shuts nuclear plants, Munich aims to go totally green

Spooked by Japan, the German Chancellor searches for alternative energy sources.

Shocked by the apocalyptic images of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, surprised many by pulling the plug from seven outdated nuclear reactors but is now receiving even more surprising support from the unlikeliest of backers.

It's clear that the glowing love affair between the atomic industry and Ms Merkel's conservative CDU party is now a liability – too hot to handle – and the Germans are scared.

But the big energy companies, E.ON, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall, are fighting back and are already warning of dark ages for Germany: an energy shortage and exploding energy costs. They want to extend the lifespan of all 17 nuclear plants and get the old reactors back on the grid after the safety checks and the three-month moratorium set by Merkel.

But political support for the nuclear industry, which has received €100bn (£88bn) in government grants, is fading. Soon after the news of nuclear contamination and melting fuel rods in Japan, some 60,000 people demonstrated against the continued operation of the ageing Neckarwestheim plant, forming a 45km human chain from the plant to the city of Stuttgart.

The EU Energy Commissioner, Günther Oettinger, a close Merkel ally, said that Europe needed to consider whether it could live without nuclear energy. His radical U-turn is a big surprise. In his time as CDU premier of Baden-Wuerttemberg, Oettinger was a stout defender of a "safe and clean" nuclear energy. Now he modestly comments on the incidents in Japan with: "We are all in the hands of God".

Merkel, the daughter of a protestant priest, also refers to some "higher forces" in order to combat the fierce attacks of her offended former friends. The hard-nosed nuclear lobby accuses her of sacrificing the atomic industry for selfish reasons, such as opinion polls and elections.

Only a couple of months ago, the powerful lobby suppressed a law that said all of Germany's nuclear power plants were to go off line by 2022 at the latest. This time, after Fukushima, Merkel is determined to remain an iron lady and to finish nuclear power once and for all. She needs new friends – new confederates.

The Chancellor formed a commission last week to discuss the ethics of nuclear energy. Among the members are clerics such as the Munich archbishop Cardinal Reinhard Marx.

The 17 nuclear plants used to deliver about 11 per cent of Germany's energy. This month, seven old reactors were shut down temporarily without causing any black outs.

Germany still exists.

Now the political future of Merkel is closely linked to her capacity to deliver sufficient renewable energy, which needs to double its 10 per cent share in order to replace nuclear energy.

At approximately 30 per cent, oil remains the main source of energy in Germany, followed by other fossils such as coal and gas. This means new CO2 emissions would be unacceptable. New research by the Heinrich Boell Fondation claims that it is possible to replace Germany's appetite for fossil and nuclear energy with wind, water, solar, biomass and other sustainable energy sources and that it could be achieved within the next 30 years. New hybrid sources – together with other future technologies which are able to store wind and solar – have already been backed by Merkel. Help is also coming from the Bavarians, who are famous for their strong beer, their muscles and their hands-on approach. Munich's mayor, Christian Ude, has ambitious plans.

He wants Munich to be the first city with over a million inhabitants to be powered 100 per cent by renewable energy by 2025. According to a documentary aired by the public broadcaster, ZDF, renewable energy is competitive and claimed that "Green" electric power in Munich is already less expensive than nuclear power or the energy mix offered by electricity utilities.

The Bavarian capital plans to invest €9bn in water power and other renewable energies. Munich is also investing in offshore windparks in the North Sea and in solar plants in Andalusia, Spain. Everybody contributes to making Munich a green city. Even the elephants in the local zoo are called on to donate their biomass.