The growing number of large solar and wind energy projects resulted in renewable generation beating out nuclear energy last year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said on Tuesday.
The nation has seen a steady rise in renewable generation, with the biggest share from solar, which is expected to continue because of the lower cost and greater safety of this intermittent power resource, clean energy advocates say. That is despite the Biden administration’s multi-billion dollar program to keep online baseload nuclear power plants scheduled to retire.
Natural gas supplies the biggest share of electricity in the county but its share is also expected to decrease over the next three decades. EIA projects solar will replace it as the dominant source of generation in the U.S. by 2050.
Utility-scale renewable generation in the U.S. reached 795 million MWh in 2021, compared to 778 million MWh of nuclear generation.
“This is a 'good news' story,” said Ralph Cavanagh, Natural Resources Defense Council energy program co-director.
The news gets better for renewables when considering that private investments in clean technology rose to over $27 billion in 2021, up from about $20 billion in 2020, according to a report by the American Investment Council released last week. Private equity companies over the last decade have invested close to $150 billion and backed more than 1,000 clean technology companies in the U.S., it added.
The biggest mover on the U.S. generation front has been solar as installation costs have dropped 70% over the last decade. That has led “the industry to expand into new markets and deploy thousands of systems nationwide,” according to a Feb. 11 joint statement by the Edison Electric Institute, NRDC and the Solar Energy Industries Association. Supply chain issues pushed up prices last year “but did not eliminate solar power’s competitive advantages in retail and wholesale markets,” the organizations wrote in their joint statement to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.
EIA’s April 26 analysis does not include rooftop solar or other smaller renewables serving predominantly onsite demand. Factoring in just “end-use solar, the milestone for surpassing nuclear generation would have been reached earlier,” said Syne Salem, an EIA engineer. The tally also excludes small-scale wind and some industrial and commercial combined-heat-and-power systems.
U.S. nuclear electricity generation fell to its lowest level in a decade, EIA reported, with the retirement of one reactor in 2021, New York’s Indian Point 1040 MW Unit 3. Nuclear generation made up 19% of the electric generation last year and it’s expected to fall to 12% by 2050, EIA concluded.
Since 2013, a dozen nuclear units have retired in the U.S. and the decline is projected to continue despite the Department of Energy’s$6 billion program to help extend their operating life.. The owners of three plants that could tap into those DOE funds, Entergy and Pacific Gas & Electric, are continuing to decommission them. The only new nuclear plant being built is the 2,228 MW Vogtle project in Georgia that has seen big cost overruns and delays.
DOE funding will likely extend the life of some nuclear power plants, said John Geesman, counsel for the California-based Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility. The “more significant question for the nuclear industry is the number of orders for new plants.”
“There isn’t enough subsidy appetite in Congress to move the needle for new plants,” Geesman, a former investment banker, said, pointing to cost overruns at Vogtle and the abandoned V.C. Summer facility in South Carolina.
Nuclear power’s role has been declining, according to NRDC’s Cavanagh, “not from ideological resistance but merit-based economics: energy efficiency and other zero-carbon alternatives cost less, both in up-front and operating expenses.” He added they “can be installed much more quickly, and improve electric system reliability in coordinated operation, by virtue of their smaller scale and diversity.”
Looking at the overall 2021 electricity generation picture, generation increased only slightly and natural gas was the dominant source, according to the EIA. It supplied 1,474 million MWh in 2021. Coal-fired generation continued its overall decline because of retirements on economic grounds. But the recent surge in natural gas prices led to the first increase in coal-fueled electricity since 2014, EIA reported.