Clean Power

Published on April 17th, 2011 | by Zachary Shahan


Renewable Energy Passed Up Nuclear in 2010

April 17th, 2011 by  

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It seems that total cumulative installed power capacity from renewable sources passed up nuclear for the first time in 2010, according to the draft version of a new report coming out soon by the Worldwatch Institute, The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2010-2011.

“In 2010, for the first time, worldwide cumulated installed capacity of wind turbines, biomass and waste-to-energy plants, and solar power reached 381 gigawatts, outpacing the installed nuclear capacity of 375 gigawatts,” the draft report says.

Nuclear Renaissance is Hype — Nuclear Declining

While there has been much hype of a nuclear renaissance and I have seen a number of nuclear proponents even try to turn the scenario in Japan into an argument for nuclear, the bottom line is that nuclear has been sliding for awhile. According to the report:

developments even prior to March 11, when the Fukushima crisis began, illustrate that the international nuclear industry has been unable to stop the slow decline of nuclear energy. Not enough new units are coming online, and the world’s reactor fleet is aging quickly. Moreover, it is now evident that nuclear power development cannot keep up with the pace of its renewable energy competitors.

From everything I’ve read, that last sentence nails it, despite the fact that the nuclear industry has received several times more subsidies historically than renewable resources. Renewable energy just makes more sense (I was inclined to write “cents” instead, but thought that might be a little too cheesy).

Nuclear power has been declining for a number of obvious reasons. It is too risky, costs too much, and as such, can’t garner necessary private capital. Even with tremendously unbalanced government support (compared to renewable energy), it is declining while renewable energy is rising.

Nuclear vs Renewable Energy

With nuclear declining and renewable popping onto the scene and growing fast, renewables had been approaching this historic crossover for years:

Annual renewables capacity additions have been outpacing nuclear start-ups for 15 years. In the United States, the share of renewables in new capacity additions skyrocketed from 2 percent in 2004 to 55 percent in 2009, with no new nuclear coming on line. In 2010, for the first time, worldwide cumulated installed capacity of wind turbines (193 gigawatts*), biomass and waste-to-energy plants (65 GW), and solar power (43 GW) reached 381 GW, outpacing the installed nuclear capacity of 375 GW prior to the Fukushima disaster. Total investment in renewable energy technologies has been estimated at $243 billion in 2010.

The natural disasters and nuclear catastrophe in Japan occurred very coincidentally right around the time of this crossover, and it is likely to speed renewable past nuclear much faster:

There could hardly be a more symbolic picture for the tête-a-tête of renewables and nuclear power than the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The disaster shut down 11 of the country’s nuclear reactors, at least six of which are now condemned, but the Japanese Wind Power Association stated, “there has been no wind facility damage reported by any association member, from either the earthquake or the tsunami.”

Within three weeks of the disaster, Fukushima operator TEPCO, one of the five largest electricity utilities in the world, lost more than three-quarters of its share value, while the Japan Wind Development Company nearly doubled its stock price.

Is nuclear going to bounce back? I don’ think so. It may inch back for a short time, but I don’t think it will ever bounce back and regain its relative position in the world energy market, even with coal on the decline as well.

Going back to the unbalanced government support for nuclear versus renewables, the report includes this fact:

In the United States, even though nuclear and wind technologies produced a comparable amount of energy during their first 15 years (2.6 billion kWh for nuclear versus 1.9 billion kWh for wind), the subsidy to nuclear outweighed that to wind by a factor of over 40 ($39.4 billion versus $900 million).”

Wow, imagine if we subsidized wind (or solar) as much as we subsidized nuclear.

Unfortunately, governments around the world seem addicted to nuclear. Despite the numerous downsides, they seem to have an ongoing hope that some miracle breakthrough will occur (or they are just bought):

Even with the demise of new orders for nuclear power and the rise of other energy technologies, nuclear continues to enjoy unparalleled access to government research and development (R&D) funding. Analysis from the IEA shows the dominance of nuclear power, both fission and fusion, within R&D budgets—commanding nearly two-thirds of total expenditures in recent decades.10 (See Figure 11.) Compared with renewables, nuclear power has received roughly five times as much government R&D finance since 1986 across the countries of the IEA.

Government Research and Development Budgets across IEA countries 1986–2008 (billion $2008).

Moreover, the building of new nuclear power plants, which is being proposed for the first time in decades in some developed countries, will require further government subsidies or support schemes, such as production tax credits, insurance for cost overruns, and more. With increasing constraints on public-sector spending, state support for one technology will mean less support available for others.

Will governments change course on this subsidy imbalance? I certainly hope so.

Nuclear-Solar Cost Crossover

As I reported last year, some analysts have found that nuclear and solar have also gone through a historic crossover on real-term prices.

Solar and Nuclear Costs: The Historic Crossover

And beyond cost (but surely related to it), it should be noted that nuclear power plants take tremendously longer to get planned, approved, and built than renewable energy projects, and they are less viable in many places. “According to the Global Wind Energy Council, some 50 countries are home to more than 10 MW of installed wind power capacity, compared to 30 countries operating commercial nuclear reactors.”

But nuclear is needed in order to provide baseload power for renewables, right? In response to that, this is a great quote from Siegmar Gabriel, then-Federal Environment Minister of German:

If someone declares publicly that nuclear power would be needed in the baseload because of fluctuating energy from wind or sun in the grid, he has either not understood how an electricity grid or a nuclear power plant operates, or he consciously lies to the public. Nuclear energy and renewable energies cannot be combined.”

Now, this general renewable energy topic — baseload — is one I will have to get into in another post, because this post seems to have gotten long enough as is. But you can read a thorough explanation of why nuclear and renewables don’t actually jive in Worldwatch’s report.

What the Worldwatch Institute Report Includes

The report goes on to discuss in detail how and why the nuclear industry has been declining and how it is clear that there is no nuclear renaissance on the horizon. In particular, it is divided into the following sections (beyond the executive summary and introduction):

  • General Nuclear Power Overview Worldwide
  • Potential Newcomer Countries
  • Nuclear Economics
  • Nuclear Power vs. Renewable Energy Development
  • Post-3/11 Developments in Selected Countries (as of 8 April 2011)

The report a tremendous summary of the nuclear situation today and the likely situation tomorrow. I highly recommend reading more. View the draft version here: Nuclear Power in a Post-Fukushima World: 25 Years After the Chernobyl Accident

All images retrieved via the report.

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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.

  • Anonymous

    Well, this isn’t for 2010, but thanks for sharing it.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, my comment ended up in the wrong place, it wasn’t meant as a reply to yours.

  • Anumakonda Jagadeesh

    Yes. Renewables have equalled Nuclear power and soon will be surpassing the latter. Let us look at Indian Power Scenario:

    About 65.34% of the electricity consumed in India is generated by thermal power plants, 21.53% by hydroelectric power plants, 2.70% by nuclear power plants and 10.42% by Renewable Energy Sources. More than 50% of India’s commercial energy demand is met through the country’s vast coal reserves.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    Wind Energy Expert

  • Had the U.S. spent the $650 Billions+ lost to the Iraq fiasco on conventional Solar Thermal technology in the South Western U.S.A. Today they would have enough cheap electric power to compete on a level playing field with Chinese manufacturers. They did not. Now, they stand defeated on the real battlefield of the world, the economic battlefield, and China is the clear winner.

  • Had the U.S. spent the $650 Billions+ lost to the Iraq fiasco on conventional Solar Thermal technology in the South Western U.S.A. Today they would have enough cheap electric power to compete on a level playing field with Chinese manufacturers. They did not. Now, they stand defeated on the real battlefield of the world, the economic battlefield, and China is the clear winner.

    • Anonymous

      Wow, very well said. Perfectly said.

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  • Thank You, David. As I’ve replied to someone else already, the focus of the article/finding was capacity, because that is the point that was crossed. When output is crossed, we will write a similar post, I’m sure.

    But beyond our simple coverage of the matter, the Worldwatch report is much more comprehensive, discussing this matter and many others in much more depth than a blog post can do.

    Thank you for your interest.

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  • You list sources “wind turbines, biomass and waste-to-energy plants, and solar power”, but you left out small hydropower which comprises about 80 GW of your stated 381 GW number.

  • Anonymous

    1. I suppose that depends on what you mean by “more available”. Certainly Japan is experiencing a big hunk of ‘not so available’ nuclear power at the moment. Germany is turning their reactors off. And in today’s news…

    “A nuclear reactor at Georgia’s Vogtle Electric Generating Plant has been taken off line indefinitely until investigators determine the cause of an automatic shutdown earlier this week, according to a statement released Friday by Southern Company, which supplies power to much of the state.”

    2. You stated “Thermal solar, biomass, firewood and geothermal produce heat and no electricity.” You were incorrect.

    3. I won’t try to “conter-argument” you on each point. Just the ones on which I believe you to be incorrect. As for hydro-generation, I suspect you haven’t read the studies on available hydro, both existing dams which can be converted to producers and ‘run of the river’ potential. I’ll put up another reply with the links, but it will get caught in moderation for a while.

    4. No, I did not paraphrase you. I said something different.

    5. “Installing” is a valid statistic. Yes, there are other metrics, but this one is interesting. At least to me.

    It takes a very short amount of time to manufacture a solar panel. Rooftop, parking lot, urban infill installations get hooked to the grid very quickly. If you build a new nuclear plant you almost always have to create a significant amount of new transmission. Read some cost analyses.

    If you want to build reactors without metal containment domes, then you can build more than three a year. If you want a metal containment dome you’ve got to get in line. There is only one forge in the world which can make domes and it would take several years to build an additional forge.

    If you want to build reactors with untrained construction crews, then you can build new reactors. We do not have trained, experienced engineers and construction experts needed to build large scale. Take a look at how Olkiluoto working out as construction screw-ups continue to take the project far over budget and years past the completion schedule.

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  • Anonymous

    John, it isn’t how much nameplate capacity must be built in order to produce equal amounts of electricity from renewables vs. nuclear, it’s how much in this case how much more power is being brought to the grid from each.

    If you want to argue that the capacity factor (produced electricity) of wind and solar are 20% of nameplate, then drop the blue and green lines in the first graph to 1/5th of what is shown. You’ll see that the lines still rise while the red/nuclear line stays flat.

    “since wind is unpredictable and intermittent it requires constant backup”

    This is an incorrect statement.

    • The graph you referenced shows the amount of new capacity being brought onto the grid each year. While it may be true that the new wind generated electricity is being brought onto the grid at a higher RATE than new nuclear generated electricity, that is not what the headline or story claim.

      The story claims wind/renewable capacity surpassed nuclear, and is presented in a way to create the perception that there is more renewable energy being delivered to customers than nuclear energy. In fact, in 2008 nuclear supplied 13.5% of the world’s electricity while renewables (including wind, but excluding large hydro) contributed only 2.8%.

      Even if the buildout of wind turbines continues at the present pace, which is unlikely because of grid stability concerns and high costs, it will be several years before wind surpasses nuclear in total energy output.

      • Anonymous

        “In 2010, for the first time, worldwide cumulated installed capacity of wind turbines, biomass and waste-to-energy plants, and solar power reached 381 gigawatts, outpacing the installed nuclear capacity of 375 gigawatts,” the draft report says.

        Last time I checked 381 is a larger number than 375.

        Now if you want to discuss produced power vs. installed power, that’s a different discussion.

        Given that the nuclear renaissance has gone belly up, pressure to close the most dangerous reactors increasing, wind technology continuing to improve, PV solar prices dropping rapidly, and several thermal solar plants now under construction I’d put the point where renewable energy passes nuclear, in terms of produced power, about five years out.

      • Given the fact that the nuclear had almost half a decade of a head start… as well as almost a monopoly in an astronomical figures of funding… the 13.5% figure is pretty pathetic.

        Nuclear is just not very efficient or cost-effective.

  • John, as i think you can easily see, that isn’t the historic crossover that occurred in 2010. shouldn’t be too long from now, though.

    there is a ton more on that discussion in the report — i encourage you to check it out.

    capacity vs production, intermittency, and combining of renewable energy technologies is are things i intend to come back to in more detail in future posts.


    i think you did not actually venture into the report or even halfway through my post (but maybe i’m wrong). For #1, I covered that some in the post. There’s much more in the report. Output, of course, is discussed in the report as well, as well as diff types of renewable energy, and planned expansion.

    & i think/hope no one is forgetting that fossil fuels are probably the biggest problem — but that wasn’t the focus of this report. (every article or report can’t be about the same topic)

    • You “covered” it but the main information here is “renewable energy passed up nuclear” (title, main idea in the article) and it is confusing because the real energy unit is kWh, not kW. That’s something I’m trying to show every time I’m talking about energy because there is much confusion in general. Energy is a complex topic, no need to lead anyone in confusion.

      • Cosy

        For someone who is concerned about people being confused, u contribute more than your share to confusing people!!!
        U stated several times that “renewables produce heat while nuclear produce only electricity”…  Really?  REALLY???
        Nuclear generates HEAT which boils water producing STEAM which drives TURBINES to produce electricity
        Also, u ignored the Worldwatch Institute Report as well as the comments of other people in the stubborn ignorance of trying to drive the conversation in your direction rather than to contribute RELEVANT information to an elaborately reviewed topic…  

  • Here I go again I guess, about the graphic :
    1. You mixed installed power and real produced output energy. Renewable energies don’t have high capacity factors compared to nuclear power plants. Hence a huge difference in the real charts.
    2. Nuclear power produce only electricity. Thermal solar, biomass, firewood and geothermal produce heat and no electricity. No competition here.
    3. In renewable energies you consider hydraulic power, which is mastered and well developed for years. What is really interesting in renewable energies is photovoltaic and wind power. Higher potential and currently low installed capacities.
    4. There is no nuclear v. renewable but nuclear AND renewable v. fossil fuels. When it comes to climate change, carbon is the real deal
    5. Considering the investments until today and looking at the installed power for the last year is pointless : installing new capacities take years. And nuclear power is at the bottom of the curve. With 40 new power plants just for China, nuclear is going to boost a little, not too much compared to renewable but still significant. And once again : nuclear and renewable are friends not enemies.

    • Anonymous

      1. Both are installed power. Nuclear does have a higher output capacity factor than does wind, but nuclear is not 100%.

      2. One of the uses of electricity is to produce heat. Thermal solar,geothermal and biomass produce electricity.

      3. We have a large number of existing dams which can be (and are being) converted to power producers. We’ve also got lots of ‘run of the river’ potential which we are starting to tap.

      4. It’s not this vs. that. It’s how we get off fossil fuels in a timely manner and for the least cost while creating as few significant dangers as possible.

      5. Installing large solar arrays takes weeks. Building wind farms takes from less than a year to a couple of years.

      Bringing a new nuclear reactor on line can take a decade or more. And we do not have the ability to build several at the same time.

    • “2. Nuclear power produce only electricity. Thermal solar, biomass, firewood and geothermal produce heat and no electricity. No competition here.”

      Then what is causing all those meltdowns and possible spent-fuel fires?

      • Anonymous

        Biomass, etc. are used to produce heat for non-electricity purposes. We don’t use nuclear heat to warm our houses.

        Unless we are very unlucky….

  • I posted a comment 2 hours ago and I don’t see it now. How much time do I have to wait ?

    • sorry, i don’t live in the comments section. i’m actually a human. if a comment includes a link, it must be moderated, which means you sometimes have to wait a little while to see it appear.

      • No violence intented in my comment. I was just asking why, that’s all. Keep it easy 🙂

        • no problem. i was just explaining why there is sometimes a delay — part of the approval system is automated & some not. thanks for your reply

  • Ben

    That nuclear/solar crossover chart… is that based on actual output or maximum output?

    A solar panel may be rated at 1kw, but it may only generate 40% of that based on weather and time of day. So, does that chart reflect peak output or actual output?

    • Anonymous

      It’s based on price of produced electricity per kWh. Actual and projected total cost of produced electricity from each source.

    • Anonymous

      Neither, it’s based on fantasy numbers. It claims to reflect generated prices, but it does not use actual nuclear construction costs – instead it makes some wild assumptions about escalation – and it does use actual solar costs, instead subtracting a direct operating grant of about 50% of the real cost from taxpayers.

      So in truth, solar costs are still well over double nuclear costs, construction times per average MW are much much longer, and the power produced requires compensation for variability. And incidentally a GOOD value for solar is about 25% capacity factor – sunny Spain gets this, roughly.

  • Wait for the reverse swing as China’s nuclear program ramps up. It’s also worth noting that wind power output figures are nonsense – a major Green charity in the UK demonstrated they’re inflated by 25-50% using a “wishful thinking” methodology rather than real measurements in the field.

    • Anonymous

      China’s nuclear program will not be enough to turn the trend around. Most of the world’s nuclear plants are badly aging and it’s not clear that new builds will be able to replace retired production, much less increase total nuclear production.

      Additionally China is adding huge amounts of wind and hydro and starting to install large amounts of solar. China plans on building 200 GW of new nuclear production by 2030 and 230 GW of new wind production by the same point in time.

      Following the Japanese nuclear meltdown China has announced that they are rethinking their nuclear plans and will likely speed up renewable installations.

      Add in the amounts of wind, solar and geothermal that the rest of the world is installing and it’s easy to see that there will be no ‘reverse swing’.

      You are correct that the way wind capacity is somewhat misleading. Wind capacity is reported in “nameplate” terms, what the output would be at ‘full speed’. Realized capacity for turbines currently being installed is between 40% and 50% of nameplate.

      But don’t make the mistake in assuming that nuclear plants produce 100% of their rated capacity. They don’t. A really well-functioning nuclear plant might produce around 90%, but that’s the exception. French nuclear plants produce less than 80% of their rated capacity.

      Look at the first graph on this page…

      All those wiggly line? Those are nuclear plants not performing at rated capacity. If they were producing at their rating those lines would be roughly flat.

      • On the first trimester of 2011, French reactors produced over 90% of their rated capacity. In average over 30 years, they produced over 85%. Last years were bad because of lack of transformers…

        • Anonymous

          In 2009 French reactors produced 78% of their rated capacity. And 85% is less than 100% – which underscores my point. No power source is 100%.

          Don’t get too excited about first trimester output. Wait and see what happens in the summer. Remember, heat waves cause reactors to shut down.

          • Consider the average performance I gave you over 30 years. Look at the performance in nuclear production in Belgium or South Korea (for example). Conclude by yourself.

            No source is 100% but windpower will never be over 40% considering the current technology. I don’t blame it, it’s facts. Don’t get me wrong, the real enemies are coal and gas for electricity production.

            I’m a windparks enthusiast but I like looking at facts with non-ideological glasses.

          • Anonymous

            Sorry, that should have been 30% to 40%, not 40% to 50%.

            But to say that “windpower will never be over 40%” is a strong prediction.

            When one looks at recent developments in blade technology, wind forecasting and larger/higher turbines I’m not sure I’d bet on ‘never’.

            As for nuclear – it has never been 100% reliable. We can dicker over 78% for a given year or 85% over a number of years, but the fact remains that nuclear is not always available when you need it.

            Neither are coal plants which are available about 85% of the time nor is hydro power which sometimes must be shut down due to water shortages.

            Let’s get back to the real issue. Grid supply rises and falls regardless of the supply method.

          • We agree on that. There is not only one method of supply and fossil, nuclear, hydro and renewable power plants are at our disposal on various degrees. Nuclear is not the perfect solution neither solar or wind with a bigger challenge associated with the weather forecast, which is not perfectly predictable. Hence the storage device and a stronger grid. Which need further investments, the hidden cost of renewable, as decomissioning for the nuclear power.

            Concerning the 40% CF of windpower, ‘never’ is a strong word, I agree. But I’m trying not to be too optimistic to evaluate my assumptions about wind power. The blade ain’t the problem, better blade mean more power, not higher CF. The problem comes from generating a good electricity with a good frequence and not trying to disturb the grid (a topic not very discussed, think about the needed reactive power in a off-balance grid, it’s costly). With offshore wind turbines, increasing the CF means temporary storage like CAES which can be costly (especially off the shore!) and I consider reasonable wind turbines prices for the next decades. Wind is on the decreasing cost curve bt when it comes to wind you have severe physical limitations and hidden costs on a large scale.

          • Anonymous

            I don’t understand this statement.

            “The blade ain’t the problem, better blade mean more power, not higher CF.”

            If a turbine can be made to carry a larger, more powerful set of blades it will harvest more energy. That increases produced capacity.

            GE claims to have developed a blade which will increase turbine efficiency by 10%.

            Storage for wind is largely a red herring, at least until we get to the point where about 25% of our power comes from wind. We do need some firming storage at the wind farm level but not long term storage.

            By the time we get to 25% wind we are likely to have a large fleet of EVs which can be used to suck up extra power from the wind and drop out when the wind slacks. We’re also likely to have additional demand response/load shifting methods. When we get to 25% we probably will realize that we can go higher without needing massive storage.

            We have already built pump-up storage to accommodate nuclear energy to the grid and built peaker plants to deal with ebbs and flows of supply and demand. Wind will just be more of the same. Nothing hidden.

          • 1. As an energy analyst, I take my data from experience. German wind turbines makers said they produced 30% wind turbines before installing them. Currently the average CF is 22%. Prediction from industry (any industry in general) vs. Facts.

            2. Bigger blades or blades with greater efficencies can’t produce more power than wind can give. Wind is the limit here. With bigger blades you harness more power (see last Alstom 6 MW wind blade) but having a higher CF is possible with local CAES storage for example (one per wind park) so that electricity can be produced with a good frequence and harmonics (a topic rarely discussed) and so CH can go high. I’m not talking about big storage system like pump-up storage which can only store good quality electricity, I was talking about local storage for higher CF.

            3. (about your last point about grid) Totally agree on that. Still infrastructure is needed like a supergrid with HDVC cables so that electricity transportation is economically interesting.

          • Anonymous

            If you have a 4MW turbine which is producing @ 30% of nameplate capacity and you are able to install larger blades/whatever increases efficiency then your output capacity increases.

            Efficiency is about pulling the most power from the available wind.

          • Anonymous

            NANANNANANNA, do you understand that “30% capacity” does not mean that the wind blows only 30% of the time? It sounds like you don’t.

            You might want to read this to help you sort out what capacity means…


            It really doesn’t matter if wind is 20%, 30% or 40% capacity. What matters is the cost of power generated by a wind turbine. Wind is the least expensive source of electricity that we can install.

          • Grincholo


            I find myself “philosophically” in your camp (maths vs dreams), yet your own quote captures neatly one of my main concerns:

            “No source is 100% but windpower will never be over 40% considering the current technology.”

            Of course, as long as renewables remain (for a whole host of reasons, some I even agree with) the 4th child of energy research in dollar terms living on comparative pennies, we ought not be surprised that that it remains “expensive” and “comparatively inefficient.” Even I am old enough to remember average fleet efficiency of automobiles, for example, of 10 and 12 MPG…barbaric by today’s (albeit cooked) standards.

            Just adding (directly) the cost of the 5th Fleet to fossil fuels and the maths change somewhat, leaving fully aside details like respiratory illnesses and chemical waste dumps (some of which will still be needed by the manufacture of many “alternative energy” components).

          • Anonymous

            Wind is the least expensive source of electricity which we can install. (As long as you charge natural gas some price for environmental damage. Otherwise NG is about the same cost as wind.)

            PV solar is cheaper than coal if you add in the hidden health and environmental costs of burning coal.

            Geothermal is cheaper than new nuclear.

          • Anonymous

            Say, NANA – I just ran into these interesting little facts.

            In 2006 the average wind farm output for Hawaii was 41.7% of nameplate capacity.

            During the 2004 to 2008 interval one wind farm in Texas and one in the “Heartland” broke the 45% output barrier.

            page 52 –

    • Nick, there’s no reverse swing coming. Check out the full report, it has a lot more detail. Basically, though, nuclear is extremely extremely unlikely to ever come back & equal the total power capacity of renewables (like 0.00001%)

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