Have Renewables Surpassed Nuclear in the US?
Winning by a Wet Nose
By Chris Nelder, GetRealList
July 7, 2010
The latest EIA Monthly Energy Review caused a bit of a stir this week, as a few observers noticed thatUS renewable energy had exceeded nuclear power. Cleantech bloggers were quick to seize on the 2.44 quads (quadrillion BTU) of renewable supply in Q1 2011 vs. the 2.13 quads from nuclear generation as a sign that nuclear power had entered its twilight years.
My own analysis suggests a different conclusion.
The last time renewables beat out nuclear on an annual basis was 1997. There have been a few other recent periods in which renewable power surpassed nuclear generation on a monthly basis—usually by a modest 0.1 quad per month or less—but generally speaking, nuclear has led renewables since 1990.
As always, it’s crucial to understand the definitions. EIA defines “renewables” to include hydroelectric power, biomass energy (including biofuel), geothermal energy, solar/PV (both thermal and electric), and wind energy. Hydro and biomass make up the vast majority of the category.
The EIA annual data shows that since 2001, renewables have steadily closed the gap on nuclear, which remained basically flat:
However, hydropower has been in a long, slow decline since 1997. Subtracting hydro, we see that ex-hydro renewables have contributed more than their share to the “renewables” category, posting an impressive 90% growth since 2001. Surely, then, we are off to the races with renewables?
Zooming in on the last two quarters, we see that in fact renewables only significantly exceeded nuclear in the month of March 2011, with a gain of 0.12 quads.
Further, nearly all of the gains in “renewables” owed to hydro. Ex-hydro renewables grew only 10.5% from September 2010 to March 2011, while hydro gained 85.5% and nuclear fell 5.3%.
In the ex-hydro category, wind accounted for 69.2% of the increase since Q3 2010, and biomass made up 27.3%. Solar production was slightly down (typical for winter) and geothermal posted a very modest 0.0017 quad gain.
Seeing as how we haven’t suddenly built a new set of hydroelectric dams (indeed, we’re generally in the process of dismantling them) in the last six months, one must assume that essentially all of the gains that “renewables” have posted against nuclear are not due to a surge of solar, wind and geothermal generation, but merely a wet winter.
Sorry to rain on the parade.
In absolute terms, renewables just edged out natural gas, growing by 0.188 quads vs. 0.121 quads in the last two quarters, and grew less than all fossil fuels, which increased by 0.248 quads.
Solar contributed 0.14% of the 6.68 quads of energy we consumed in March, while geothermal provided 0.28%, wind 1.53%, hydro 4.59%, biomass 5.52%, and nuclear 10.28%. Fossil fuels still make up 78% of our primary energy supply.
So it’s not quite time to bust out the champagne yet. If we’re going to make up for the decline of fossil fuels—and likely nuclear and hydro as well—we’re going to have to build ex-hydro renewable capacity a whole lot faster than we are. (For calculations on that, see “Seven Paths to Our Energy Future.”) Further, there are many reasons to believe that biomass (meaning primarily corn ethanol) will likely be a difficult source to expand much, so the rest of the renewables will really have to shoulder the bulk of the job.
Unfortunately, the GOP’s romance with nuclear power, its torrid love affair with the fossil fuel industry, and its scorn for renewables leave me with little hope that we’ll be pointing our federal policies in the right direction any time soon…at least, not in this Congress.