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Published on October 5th, 2014 | by James Ayre


Wind & Solar Energy Generation Capacities Both Catching Up With Nuclear

October 5th, 2014 by  

Renewables have been capturing a larger and larger portion of the total global energy infrastructure pie, while the portion nuclear energy has not just been stagnating but actually shrinking somewhat, as noted by a new Vital Signs report from Worldwatch Institute.

More interesting than that observation, though, is the fact that solar and wind energy have been gaining fast on nuclear — and are now, more or less, on the same trajectory that nuclear power was on in the 1970s and 1980s, in its heyday.


So, it looks like that “nuclear renaissance” that some analysts have been babbling about for the last several years will have to wait for at least another couple of years — or, more likely, forever. Solar and wind energy will no doubt continue growing at a fair rate (at the least) in the years to come.

Here are some of the exacts: nuclear’s share of total global power production has steadily declined from a peak of 17.6% in 1996 to 10.8% in 2013. And renewables have increased their share from 18.7% in 2000 to 22.7% in 2012.

The Worldwatch Institute provides more:

Following a rapid rise from its beginnings in the mid-1950s, global nuclear power generating capacity peaked at 375.3 GW in 2010. Capacity has since declined to 371.8 GW in 2013, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Adverse economics, concern about reactor safety and proliferation, and the unresolved question of what to do with nuclear waste have put the brakes on the industry.

In stark contrast, wind and solar power generating capacities are now on the same soaring trajectory that nuclear power was on in the 1970s and 1980s. Wind capacity of 320 GW in 2013 is equivalent to nuclear capacity in 1990. The 140 GW in solar photovoltaic capacity is still considerably smaller, but growing rapidly.


Much of this reversal is of course down to the fact that renewables have been attracting far greater investment — owing to their superiority in almost every regard, from development costs, to safety, to operating costs.

As per estimates from the International Energy Agency, nuclear investments were right around $8 billion per year (average) for the years of 2000-2013, as compared to $37 billion for solar PV and $43 billion for wind, for the same period.

Strangely, and unfortunately, though, research budgets still seem to be heavily biased towards nuclear technologies.

Among members of the IEA (most European countries, the United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand), nuclear power has received the lion’s share of public energy research and development (R&D) budgets during the last four decades. Nuclear energy attracted $295 billion, or 51%, of total energy R&D spending between 1974 and 2012. But this number has declined over time, from a high of 73.6% in 1974 to 26% today. Renewable energy received a cumulative total of $59 billion during the same period (10.2%), but its share has risen year after year.

While the surge in recent years by renewables has certainly been impressive in many ways, you can probably pretty much count on it to continue at an increasingly rapid rate as fossil fuel extraction becomes more and more expensive and as the effects of global warming become more and more obvious.

Image Credit: IAEA; Ochs and Ray; BP; Flavin 

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About the Author

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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