Did renewables overtake nuclear power in 2011? Sort of.
Ken Bossong notices an interesting bit embedded in the latest monthly report from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). In 2011, for the first time in decades, the United States got more of its energy from renewable sources than it did from nuclear power. Not only that, but renewables are growing much faster than any other energy source.
Here’s the breakdown: According to the EIA, renewable energy provided 11.95 percent of domestic U.S. energy production through the first nine months of 2011, compared with just 10.62 percent from nuclear. But the trick is defining terms. Wind and solar actually play a very minor role in this story (1.45 percent and 0.15 percent, respectively). The vast bulk of “renewable” power in the United States still comes from large-scale hydropower (4.35 percent), biomass (3.15 percent) and biofuels (2.57 percent). The two things that most people associate with the term “clean energy” — namely, wind and solar — are nowhere close to overtaking nuclear power.
Going forward, however, that could well shift. The nuclear industry is more focused on replacing soon-to-retire plants than expanding outright. There aren’t likely to be too many more large-scale hydropower plants in the United States — the prime hydro sites have all been taken. And as for biomass and biofuel, critics have raised serious questions about whether either of these sources are as sustainable as alleged. On the other hand, solar and wind were by far the fastest-growing energy sources last year — solar electricity grew 46.5 percent and wind by 27.1 percent (though it’s unclear whether either source can maintain that hectic pace now that Congress has allowed a few key subsidies to expire.)
Of course, there’s more than renewables. The other big story in EIA’s data is that natural gas has been rising fast as an electricity source — growing 1.6 percent in the past year — while coal use has been falling noticeably (4.2 percent). That’s likely to continue in the years ahead, as the EPA’s new pollution rules push utilities to shutter aging coal plants and cheap shale gas floods the market. Indeed, that’s one reason why, as Steven Hayward points out, U.S. coal exports have been surging in the past few years. If we can’t burn the stuff here, then we can always ship it abroad, particularly to Europe and (as it happens) South Korea.