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Tina Casey headshot

Coal-Killing Renewables Take Aim at Nuclear Energy

By Tina Casey

The clean energy organization The Sun Day Campaign has picked apart the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency, and the news is ominous for nuclear energy. For the first time since nuclear power plants began operating in this country 60 years ago, hydropower, wind, solar and other renewables accounted for more electricity generation than the nuclear fleet.

The Sun Day Campaign released its analysis on Monday and the timing is significant. This week is "Energy Week" according to the Trump Administration. In contrast to his vociferous support for coal jobs and the fossil industry, President Trump has been relatively silent on nuclear energy.  The latest figures from EIA provide little in the way of motivation to start talking up nuclear -- especially not when you factor in rooftop solar for residential and commercial properties.

Renewables, rooftop solar and business stepping up

Before we get to the Sun Day analysis, consider that the story of renewables has been consistent for the past ten years, especially for new wind and solar technologies.

The story is simple: costs are dropping rapidly, with a consequent rapid increase in installation and generating capacity.

So far low cost natural gas has been the primary driver of coal power plant closings, but renewables are beginning to play a larger role.

Another aspect to the story is the rise in distributed, small solar. Small scale wind is also edging in, but the big news is the explosive growth of rooftop solar for residential and commercial properties.

The rise of rooftop solar makes an enormous difference in terms of the need to replace aging nuclear units and build new ones.

The U.S. Department of Energy presents a case for increasing nuclear power capacity based on a projected increase in domestic electricity demand of an average 1 percent annually.

However, in 2016 the Energy Information Agency updated its 2010-2040 electricity sales projection to an average increase of 0.7 percent annually, with this key observation:

Residential and commercial electricity sales would be 5.0% and 1.7% higher, respectively, in 2040 without the electricity generated by rooftop PV systems.

EIA also foresaw that energy efficiency would come into play, a factor that is especially evident in the commercial sector:
...Commercial sector electricity intensity (electricity sales per square foot of floorspace) is projected to decline 0.3% per year as total commercial sector floorspace increases 1.1% per year. Federal energy efficiency standards, as well as technological improvements in lighting, refrigeration, space heating, and space cooling, contribute to the decline in electricity intensity.

Now for the bad news...and the good news

Unfortunately, the 2016 EIA outlook was based on adoption of the Clean Power Plan. That Obama Administration initiative was hung up in court and has not yet gone into force. Last March President Trump took steps to ensure that it will never go into effect, and earlier this month he announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

For the present, that means renewables will have to leverage economic and social responsibility advantages to continue making inroads on fossil fuels.

In other words, the business community will have to step up its game if the trendline for renewables is to continue.

The good news is that bottom line considerations can play a powerful role. Businesses are already taking advantage of power purchase agreements to access low cost renewables, provide for greater resiliency and save money on their electricity bills. A similar no-money-up-front financing arrangement is also emerging for energy efficiency upgrades.

In addition, on the heels of Trump's Paris announcement, more than 1,200 businesses, mayors and academic institutions have joined with several state governors and other stakeholders to join Michael Bloomberg's We Are Still In campaign in support of the Agreement.

As for competing with nuclear, the economic case for renewables is clear from an economic perspective. However, the picture is complicated because, despite its risks and costs, nuclear energy is promoted as a zero emission force, and it has some heavy hitters in its corner including Microsoft's Bill Gates.

The Sun Day Campaign runs the numbers

With all this in mind, let's take a look at the Sun Day analysis. Going by the EIA data, beginning of this year left nuclear struggling to keep a leading role:
For the first third of this year, renewables and nuclear power have been running neck-in-neck with renewables providing 20.20% of U.S. net electrical generation during the four-month period (January - April) compared to 20.75% for nuclear power.

Then the hammer came down:
But in March and April, renewables surpassed nuclear power and have taken a growing lead: 21.60% (renewables) vs. 20.34% (nuclear) in March, and 22.98% (renewables) vs. 19.19% (nuclear) in April.

Sun Day notes that the year-to-year figures also look bad for nuclear, as the latest indicator in a four-year downward spiral for nuclear capacity:
Electrical output by renewables during the first third of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016 has increased by 12.1% whereas nuclear output has dropped by 2.9%.

Even if several nuclear construction projects under way are completed, that additional capacity will be more than wiped out by a rash of planned retirements, resulting in an overall drop.

Energy Week!

The issue of nuclear waste disposal throws another monkey wrench into the nuclear mix. Last week during a Congressional budget hearing Energy Secretary Rick Perry struggled to explain how his agency would finally come through with a permanent nuclear waste repository (he also struggled to explain climate change, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms).

With all this in mind, the Energy Department's @ENERGY Twitter account includes some interesting hints about the direction that the Trump nuclear policy will go in.

The Energy Department's Twitter is very active as a matter of routine, and for the past week it has been heavily promoting a new podcast about the history of the famous nuclear weapon initiative, The Manhattan Project. In contrast, the agency's promotion of its nuclear power programs is negligible.

Survey the agency's tweets over the past week and along with a tweet or two about nuclear power you'll see a decent amount of focus on renewables and job creation in renewable energy fields, including at least two recent tweets linking the occasion of Energy Week to a state-by-state energy job report that highlights renewable energy and energy efficiency jobs.

Even the lesser known field of wave and tidal energy gets a mention.

Overall, @ENERGY has been heavily emphasizing the Energy Department's science mission, with numerous tweets spotlighting its foundational research work through the national laboratory network.

At a White House press conference on Tuesday, Perry made a forceful case in favor of ramping up the nation's commitment to nuclear energy. It will be interesting to see how he tackles the topic during his address at the annual US EIA conference.

Image (screenshot): via U.S. Department of Energy.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey