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Checking in on the energy transition in the US

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Michael Mariotte

In Germany it's called the Energiewende − the energy transition. It's a deliberate decision to move away from nuclear power and fossil fuels in favor of renewables and energy efficiency. And it's working. Renewables are skyrocketing, nuclear reactors have closed and more shutdowns are on the way, and coal use is declining too1, despite the misleading claims of renewable energy haters.

Here in the US, it isn't called anything −  if we have an "official" government policy at all it's "all of the above", which is the same as saying meaningless. But an ad hoc energy transition is nonetheless taking place in the U.S.

In April, 100% of all new electric generating capacity in the US was wind and solar –511 MW of wind and 50 MW of solar.2 For the year so far, renewables account for 84.1% of new capacity, with natural gas supplying the rest. The amount of solar is understated, however, since it doesn't account for rooftop solar and other distributed generation. Nor, of course, do these numbers, compiled by the Energy Information Administration, attempt to quantify the effect of energy efficiency on avoiding the need for new generating capacity. There has been no new capacity from nuclear, coal or oil.

This is an energy transition already underway, quietly, with some government support but without an actual transition policy − indeed, with a policy that is inherently hostile to the transition.

As Ken Bossong of the Sun Day Campaign points out, "Renewable energy capacity is now greater than that of nuclear (9.14%) and oil (3.92%) combined. In fact, the installed capacity of wind power alone has now surpassed that of oil. In addition, total installed operating generating capacity from solar has now reached and surpassed the one-percent threshold −  a ten-fold increase since December 2010."

But it's an energy transition with a long ways to go. Germany is the clear global leader in solar power −  despite its relatively low solar potential −  with 38,200 MW of solar installed as of the end of 2014. The US ranked fifth then with 18,280 MW of installed capacity, also behind China, Japan and Italy −  although the US likely has passed Italy by now. Given solar's low capacity factor, that's only about 4.5 large nuclear reactors worth of power installed in the US.

And it looks worse when you look at solar from a per capita basis.3 The US barely cracks the top 20 of installed solar capacity per person, at 19th in the world, the US is behind nations like Bulgaria (8th), non-nuclear Austria (13th) and even nuclear-dominated France (15th).

Still, the US is a big country with a lot of generating capacity (China is even bigger, and thus doesn't even make the top 20 on a per capita basis). It takes a while to install that amount of any form of generating capacity. And solar is growing faster than any other form. Remember that 10-fold increase in solar capacity in less than five years. With no indications of slowing down, there's good reason to believe that before the end of this decade another ten-fold increase will occur. That would put solar alone above 10% of our electricity generation, and wind will provide even more.

Another ten-fold increase after that would be impossible of course, since it would make solar the only generating source in the US. But this is how the energy transition in the US is occurring: without formal policy, without significant government support. Even though the nuclear and fossil fuel industry hacks continue to carp about subsidies for renewables, the reality is that their industries have been far more heavily subsidized over the years than renewables. If renewables do get the majority of the subsidy crumbs left on the table by the budget-slashers these days, and that's by no means clear, it's simply because it's their due for being ignored so long while untold billions of dollars were heaped on dirty energy technologies.

The US can, must, and all indications are will continue to bring renewables online rapidly. And as that happens, higher-cost and dirtier nuclear and coal plants inevitably will continue to close. The rationale for keeping them open with ratepayer bailouts becomes thinner and thinner even to those expected to be warm to utilities clinging to expensive and outdated dirty power plants. In the last week of May alone, the Illinois legislature deferred action on Exelon's 18-month pursuit of a nuclear bailout4, while the Ohio Public Utilities Commission has put off its action on a similar request from First Energy to bail out the Davis-Besse reactor and some coal plants.5 Whichever way those entities end up deciding on those issues, it's clear that the old arguments aren't working for the utilities. Even skeptics are now having to acknowledge the economic and environmental benefits of clean energy technologies.

And so the transition continues, largely out of sight to the average American and perhaps even less so to the average politician. But that doesn't make it any less real.

Michael Mariotte regularly writes at