Have Renewables Surpassed Nuclear in the US?

July 7, 2011 at 7:13 pm
Contributed by: Chris

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:

US Annual Primary Energy Production by Source, 1990-2010

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?

Not quite.

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.

US Monthly Primary Energy Production by Source, Q4 2010 - Q1 2011

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.



  1. Can’t argue with your data or analysis. But I think it’s worth pointing out that the only reason renewables are anywhere even close to nuclear is the irrational paranoia-fueled crusade against nuclear that the U.S. has been burdened with since the 70’s. France, Japan and South Korea have all crushed us in their implementation of nuclear plants in the last 30 years.

    Also worth noting, our nuclear capacity has been flat for the last 20 years. The only reason nuclear is still keeping pace with renewables is because of allowances for increased generation. Renewables may be on the rise, but it’s for all the wrong reasons.

    Comment by Nate T. — July 7, 2011 @ 10:38 pm

  2. My objective here was to debunk the casual observation that renewables had surpassed nuclear generation in the US, not to explain our history with nuclear power. You are correct that we haven’t built new reactors since the 70s, but there are many other reasons for that in addition to the “irrational paranoia-fueled crusade,” not least of which being that we still lack a plan for waste management, and have a huge mess on our hands in cleaning up from the reactors we already have. Take a look at the Hanford site cleanup, for example. An enormous portion of the actual expense of building, running, decommissioning, and managing the waste from nuclear plants has been externalized (shoved onto taxpayers) in this country, and nuclear plant builders and operators have never been honest about the true costs, or priced them into the power generated. Without hundreds of billions in federal loan guarantees and ridiculously low liability limits, building a new plant in this country is a non-starter; it’s completely undoable with private money. Consider this news from two days ago:

    Georgia Power officials told state regulators they never would have started to build a new multi-billion-dollar nuclear power plant if they knew the company might be on the hook for certain potential cost overruns.

    Accordingly, the vast majority of the studies that have compared the costs of nuclear power to renewables have been badly, even hilariously, flawed.

    I am not actually anti-nuke; I just think their economics have been represented disingenuously, and that we haven’t been morally or ethically responsible about deploying them. I have a long list of other reasons why I don’t think there is much of a future for the current generation of reactor designs (and rooms full of nuclear engineers have agreed with my assessment when I presented to them) but those will have to wait for a future article.

    Comment by Chris — July 8, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

  3. But the main driver of cost for nuclear construction is the time cost of capital over the many years misguided environmental activists will tie you up in lawsuits. It is therefore disingenuous in the extreme for environmentalists to point to nuclear’s excessive cost as a problem.

    Furthermore, the waste issue is wrong on two counts. First, “thousands of years” is nonsense, derived from a requirement that the activity decay all the way to background.

    Second, and more subtle, is the incorrect assumption that everything else remains the same. How much time do you spend worrying about dying from the Black Death or smallpox? Not much, right? Yet smallpox killed 1/3 of the population under the age of 5 in India not so long ago.

    Ok, now compare medical knowledge even in Ben Franklin’s day, a mere 250 years ago, to now. We are the start of the same kind of revolution in biomedical understanding that took place in electronics with the invention of the transistor, only 60 years ago. Project that 250 years into the future; do you think cancer will be as feared as it is today? I think not, and cancer is the only thing anyone worries about from radiation.

    Check out this link:


    you may be surprised to learn that a prominent European study, ExternE, compared the overall life-cycle risks of all power generation technologies, and nuclear was the safest even if we ignore the risks from CO2 emission. People think hydro is safe, but a dam break in China in 1975 killed more than 100,000 people — more than the tsunami in Japan.

    Now this site, comparing Princeton University’s recent decision to build a 27-acre, 16000 panel solar farm, thus saving 5.5% of its electric needs, to installing a small modular reactor and taking the University off the grid altogether:


    This is the future of nuclear power, I think. Smaller units designed for passive safety. The Henry Ford approach — build ’em all the same. Costs would come down dramatically.

    Comment by DiogenesNJ — July 12, 2011 @ 6:46 pm

  4. Thanks for your comment, DiogenesNJ. I do not wish to turn this comment thread into another long, unproductive pro-nuke vs. anti-nuke debate, which seems to happen under any article discussing nuclear power (for example, the thread on this topic at Renewable Energy World) , so short of saying that I agree with some, but not all, of what you have presented here, I’ll leave it at that.

    Comment by Chris — July 12, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

  5. Thanks for the reply, Chris. Setting aside the nuclear comparison for the moment, if I understand correctly, a fair amount (25% or so?) of what’s lumped into “renewables” is the alcohol blended into auto fuel by Congressional mandate.

    I hae me doubts about whether that even ought to be considered “renewable”, net of the fossil fuels used and energy consumed in the conversion from corn to alcohol, to say nothing of the effects on world food prices. In your analysis of the EIA data, is it just gross energy produced or is there some allowance for the energy cost of producing the renewable resource?

    That’s what I like about the ExternE approach I cited above. They make an honest effort to take all the side effects into account. Whether they do so accurately is subject (as you say) to endless debate, but the conceptual approach seems spot on to me.

    Comment by DiogenesNJ — July 30, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

  6. @DiogenesNJ: If you look at the EIA link at the top of this article, in the Renewables section, you’ll find several different ways that the EIA breaks out and lumps in corn ethanol production. EIA does not offer data on the net energy of anything, as far as I am aware. The generally accepted estimate for the net energy of corn ethanol is 1.2, but methodologies on calculating it vary.

    Comment by Chris — August 4, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

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