For the first time in a while, our portfolio of renewable power sources has surpassed power production from nuclear generation. According to the latest Monthly Energy Review from the Energy Information Administration, the most sustainable forms of energy now produce more for us than the most hazardous, largely due to rises in wind, solar and hydro production.
In the first quarter, renewable energy clocked in a total of 11.73% of our total power production at 2.245 quads (quadrillion BTUs) or 5.65% more than nuclear power. From the same period last year, solar power generation was up 104.8 percent, wind generation increased 40.3 percent, and hydro expanded by 28.7 percent. Power generated from biomass decreased by 4.8 percent. By comparison, natural gas generation increased by 1.8 percent, nuclear by 0.4 percent, and coal-fired electrical generation declined by 5.7 percent.
*It is important to note that this represents total power production for the country, not only the generation of electricity, which leads to why the number for coal looks low and oil looks high. While renewables produced 12.7% of our electricity in the same period, nuclear power accounted for 22.1% of our electrical needs, meaning that there is a large portion of renewables that are producing energy (notably heat) but not electrons. Coal still reigns supreme with 47.9% of grid fodder. Oil actually produces a very small amount of our electricity (3.9%) which is good given that it is the second dirtiest form of power generation we have.
There are likely just as many people saying “How is this possible?” as “Well it’s about time,” but in either case the milestone is an important one for attributing credence to the growth of the renewable sector and the wealth of unused potential. The events of Japan’s nuclear disaster is just one more nail in the coffin of the world’s most expensive type of energy to construct, making it unlikely that nuclear power will be clawing its way back anytime soon.
Some have pointed to the topic of renewable strength as misleading, saying that although “renewable” sources include a group of technologies such as wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and hydroelectric, they do not contribute equally and it can attribute an image of strength to parts of the marketplace that are still providing negligible amounts of energy for us. This is not untrue. Biomass was the all star, marking a resurgence to provide 48 percent of all renewable production. Hydro followed with 35.31 percent. Over three quarters of all “renewable” power comes from two sources that are not heralded as the cutting edge technologies that are forecast to reshape the face of the grid. Meanwhile, solar power gives the country less than one percent of its total power needs. Renewable production increased 36% from the same period in 2009, which is admirable but far from enough. If these technologies are to provide significant portions of our power, we need them to not just increase, but multiply from current levels.
That being said, I am optimistic of what the next 12-24 months will hold for advances in renewable energy production. While solar may be the ugly duckling right now, DOE loans are coming through for a new breed of solar installations, much larger than what typically exists now. Solar arrays of 100-150 MW provide only a fraction of their standard coal counterparts, but newer fields of 500+ MW start to offset meaningful amounts of energy from fossil fuels. National Solar Power is planning 400 MW of solar capacity while First Solar received DOB backing for three California projects of 230 MW, 250 MW and 550 MW. Together the four projects total roughly $6 billion of investment.
Wind has similar prospects on the drawing board. The world’s largest land-based wind farm, Shepard’s Flat, is currently under construction in Oregon, boasting 338 GE wind turbines for a capacity of 845 MW with operation slated for the end of 2012. This next generation of clean energy projects could signal that investors and grid managers are done dipping their toes in the water and are more prepared to take the plunge. Passing nuclear was a nice stepping stone, but catching up to oil is next.
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