Renewable power sources reached a symbolic milestone in the United States in January, surpassing nuclear power in its contribution to the country’s energy generation mix, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said.
The most recent power supply report, called “Electric Power Monthly,” said that renewable power sources, including wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and hydropower, contributed 20.20 percent of the U.S. electricity supply in the first quarter of the year to nuclear power’s claim to 20.75 percent. But in November and December, renewable power sources hit 21.6 percent and 22.98 percent, respectively, while nuclear power contributed 20.34 percent and 19.19 percent, respectively, the EIA said.
Presumably, the trend will only escalate in the coming years. The nuclear power industry has been in a long-term slowdown in the United States and with aging reactors costing more for critical maintenance and upgrades – and with a glut in natural gas undercutting wholesale prices for electricity – a slew of nuclear plant owners are shutting down their multi-billion dollar behemoths that are no longer turning a profit.
Only four commercial nuclear reactors are being constructed in the United States and two of those – at the V.C. Summer power plant in South Carolina – may not even be completed due to financial concerns. Contractor and lead designer of the two AP1000 reactors being built there are Westinghouse Electric Company, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on March 29.
The other two reactors under construction at Plant Vogtle in eastern Georgia, also Westinghouse products, will likely be completed, as Westinghouse parent, Toshiba has pledged $3.6 billion to see the project there to completion.
Before that, only one nuclear reactor has been completed in this century, Watts Bar Unit 2 in Tennessee, which was completed in 2015 more than 40 years after construction was begun. Before that, Watts Bar Unit 1 was the last commercial reactor completed in 1996.
Utility companies are now backing away from plans to build new nuclear power plants due to weak economic conditions and slack demand. In addition, 12 different plants have either closed recently or are expected to close by 2021, including Crystal River in Florida, Kewaunee in Wisconsin, San Onofre Units 2 and 3 in California, Vermont Yankee and Fort Calhoun in Nebraska, all of which have closed. Owners of an additional six reactors have announced more closures, all of them to shut down before the terms allowed on their operating licenses and all due to the unlikely prospects for turning a profit.
Renewable energy is now surpassing nuclear power, a major milestone in the transformation of the U.S. energy sector. This gulf will only widen over the next several years, with continued strong growth of renewables and the planned retirement of at least 7 percent of nuclear capacity by 2025. The possible completion of four new reactors will not be enough to reverse this trend, with total nuclear capacity falling by 2,806 MW – 3 percent – through 2025,” said Nuclear Information and Resource Service Executive Director Tim Judson, as quoted by CleanTechnica.
Renewable power, meanwhile, is on the upswing. Renewable power’s share jumped 12.1 percent from the last quarter of 2016 to the same period in 2017. In that same time span, nuclear power’s output declined, down 2.9 percent.
Over the same period, solar power alone rose by 37.9 percent, followed by wind, which climbed 14.2 percent. Hydropower rose 9.5 percent year on year, while geothermal gained 5.3 percent.