Renewables Could Beat Nuclear For U.S. Electrical Generation In 2020

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An analysis by the nonprofit SUN DAY Campaign of data released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) confirms continued strong growth in electrical generation by renewable energy sources – wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and hydropower – in 2018.

According to the latest issue of EIA’s “Electric Power Monthly” (with data through Dec. 31, 2018), renewables increased their electrical output by 4.46% and accounted for 17.64% of the nation’s electrical generation in 2018.

SUN DAY says non-hydro renewables grew by 9.83%, with geothermal up by 5.0%, wind by 8.1% and solar by 24.4%. Biomass electrical production remained virtually unchanged.

However, these gains were partially offset by a 2.9% drop from 2017’s level in hydropower electrical generation. Moreover, total generation by all energy sources – including nuclear power and fossil fuels, and especially natural gas – grew by 3.67%. Thus, renewables’ share increased only slightly – up from 17.51% in 2017, according to SUN DAY’s analysis.

However, the seemingly modest gains reported by EIA for renewables in 2018 mask the dramatic growth in wind and solar over the past decade, the nonprofit points out.

Notably, wind-generated electricity was five times higher in 2018 than it was in 2008. And electrical generation by solar – utility-scale and distributed, combined – in 2018 was more than 100 times greater than that reported by EIA a decade earlier. (SUN DAY notes that EIA did not begin to report estimated small-scale photovoltaic generation until 2014, so its 2008 numbers reflect only utility-scale generation. If you compare only utility-scale solar in 2018 to only utility-scale solar in 2008, the increase is 77 times.)

Meanwhile, geothermal, hydropower and biomass have each increased their electrical output by just over 1% annually – on average – during the past 10 years.

Further, wind is now neck and neck with hydropower, with the latter outpacing wind by just 6% during 2018. If wind generation continues its current rate of growth (8.1% in 2018), it will likely close the gap with hydropower at some point in 2019 or early 2020 and become the No. 1 renewable electrical source – even if hydropower returns to its near-record 2017 level, says SUN DAY.

EIA’s numbers also reveal that solar ended the year topping 2% of domestic electrical generation for the first time (specifically, 2.29%). SUN DAY notes that solar has enjoyed explosive growth during the past decade, and if it sustains the rate of growth it experienced in 2018 and earlier, solar could triple its output and account for nearly 7% of the nation’s electricity within five years.

Finally, hydropower seems poised to return to its historically higher levels in 2019. EIA’s numbers, for example, document that hydropower production was 6.0% higher in December 2018 than it was in December 2017.

Consequently, electrical generation by the mix of hydro and non-hydro renewables may soon permanently overtake nuclear power.

Nuclear power grew by just 0.3% last year and ended 2018 only 8.7% ahead of the electrical generation by the mix of renewable sources. If hydropower bounces back and if non-hydro renewables continue to grow at roughly the same annual rate as in 2018 (9.83%), they will collectively generate close to the same amount of electricity as nuclear power in 2019 – and very probably surpass it in 2020, according to SUN DAY.

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