A SUN DAY analysis of US Energy Information Administration (EIA) data showed that in the first half of 2018 renewables generated about 19.867% of US net electricity generation, which was just slightly more than the 19.863% nuclear power produced. Ken Bossong, the Executive Director of the SUN DAY campaign, answered some questions for CleanTechnica about the situation.
1. What is the significance of domestic renewable electricity generation just edging out nuclear power for the first half of 2018?
The nuclear industry spent years/decades taunting the renewable industries that they were bit players & unreliable sources and stressed that nuclear power accounted for 70-80% of the so-called carbon-free electrical generation. And therefore nuclear power was needed to address climate change. That is no longer true (if it ever was).
No – it will swing back-and-forth for the next two years but as renewables continue to expand, nuclear is facing the prospect of a series of near-term plant closures and consequently, a reduced share of total generation. I predict renewables will remain permanently ahead of nuclear as of 2020 and possibly sooner.
3. What is primarily driving the growth of renewables?
Lots of factors: rapidly dropping costs, concerns about climate change & other environmental issues, ever-greater corporate purchases, increased willingness by utilities to go beyond mandates, RPS’s in 29 states, tax incentives (although a decreasing factor), job creation + new industries.
4. Is it inevitable that nuclear power declines due mostly to its very high costs of new construction?
If the marketplace were truly rationale and competitive, nuclear power would have died on the vine decades ago — certainly following the TMI and then the Chernobyl accidents. Even with tax breaks, the Price-Anderson Act, low-balled costs for waste disposal & decommissioning, and lenient regulation, nuclear ceased being economically viable years ago — witness the saga of the effort to build four new reactors in recent years with two now cancelled and the other two-way over budget and behind schedule.
5. Are there regions within the country where renewables are far outpacing nuclear?
Yes – the west coast, New England, and parts of the mid-Atlantic as well as Hawaii, but other isolated states are now competitive vis-a-vis nuclear and renewables such as Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas. We put out a report on August 1 noting that renewables produced more electricity than nuclear in 27 states + DC in 2017.
6. How much of a factor is energy storage playing in the addition of new renewables?
Storage is more of a near-term potential than a major factor today … but that is changing rapidly. Solar + storage will likely be the norm within five years and storage for other renewables, esp. wind, will also be significant. If nothing else, the old rap against some renewables as being “intermittent” should cease to be viable within the next decade and I think sooner.
7. How much cheaper is the installation of new solar and wind power compared with new nuclear?
For 40+ years I have argued that economic comparisons are more philosophical discussions. It depends on what you include on either side of the ledger. What subsidies does one include for nuclear — e.g., how much of the nuclear weapons budget should fairly be attributed to nuclear energy? How does one evaluate the value of Price-Anderson’s exclusion of nuclear insurance costs? What is the true cost of long-term, permanent isolation of high-level nuclear waste. What is the real cost for full decommissioning and site restoration for large reactors? What is the value of accelerated depreciation for nuclear reactors? On the other hand, what is the value for cleaner air & water and far lower GHGs as well as healthier lives and better environments associated with renewables? And how does one estimate the financial benefits of the modular nature of renewables and their relatively short construction times? My view is that if there had been true internalization of all costs associated with nuclear and renewables, renewables would have easily surpassed nuclear power decades ago and today they should be considered cheaper by several factors – at least.
8. Do you think the public is generally aware of how much renewables have grown in the last five years?
No – I often find my colleagues in the energy and environmental communities seriously understating the status of renewables — both as shares of the nation’s energy & electricity mix as well as their costs. That is even more true for the general news media which is doing very little to keep the public apprised of the rapid growth and declining costs of renewables. Frankly, even as an advocate who has tracked the growth of renewables since the mid-1970s, I am regularly amazed at how fast they have progressed in recent years — although as an advisor to the Carter Administration in 1980 on renewable energy policy, I then thought renewables could be providing 20-25% of the nation’s energy & electricity by the year 2000 — so we are still behind where I think we could have been (thank you, Presidents Reagan, Bush-1 & Bush-2).
9. Do you expect there will be a state in the US somewhat soon which operates entirely on renewables with some natural gas backup?
Not sure what you mean by “somewhat soon” but Hawaii & California are certainly moving quickly in that direction with stiff competition likely to be forthcoming from other states (e.g., Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, Minnesota, and Oregon among others)
10. What is the general roadmap for renewables in the US over the next 3-5 years?
Don’t know what you mean by “roadmap” — if you mean “plan” there will not be one on the national level with Trump and the Congressional Republicans in power. To some degree, declining costs and environmental benefits will keep renewables, esp. solar & wind, growing rapidly on their own regardless of what policy-makers do. Ever-stronger state mandates will be a factor as well as continuation of the disparate decisions by utilities and non-utility corporations to invest in renewables. If there is a change in political leadership at the national level in 2020, the floodgates could open — especially if current climate change trends continue and worsen.
11. If the current administration is no longer in office in a couple of years, how much might that help renewables grow even more?
A great deal — I watched close-up how clean energy was set back by years when Reagan replaced Carter and when Bush replaced Clinton. The tone set by the nation’s leaders and the ensuing legislation, executive decisions, policy regulations, that flow from intelligent & responsible leadership are of great importance — perhaps a bit less so now that renewables have moved into the mainstream, but nonetheless highly influential.