Fine Print: Renewable Energy Outpaces Nuclear, Sort Of

Tom Johnson | August 4, 2011 | Energy & Environment
U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that wind capacity grew 40 percent annually between 2005 and 2009

What happened: The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported Monday that consumption of energy from renewable sources this past spring exceeded the level of consumption from nuclear energy, an indication of just how much the renewable market is growing. The trend was driven, in part, by rising consumption of biofuels and increases in wind capacity, according to the agency. From 2005 to 2009, annual growth in wind capacity averaged 40 percent, the agency said.

What it means: It could give ammunition to clean energy advocates who are pressing states like New Jersey to ramp up their efforts to use solar and wind and other renewables. But much of the growth occurred as a result of increased use of hydropower, which accounted for 31 percent of the consumption. Many environmentalists oppose hydropower because they say large projects result in the destruction of wetlands and wildlife habitat.

Why it happened: The trend occurred primarily because of seasonal variations in use of nuclear power and renewable energy. Many nuclear power plants typically shut down in the spring, when power demand drops, to schedule refueling of the units. This spring, nuclear outages were above the norm, the agency said. Conversely, hydropower energy is more abundant at the same time, when runoff from snow melt increases the capacity of those plants.

Don’t get too excited: Renewable energy consumption includes more than just electricity produced by hydropower, solar, wind and geothermal. Other major sources include biofuels for transportation (such as ethanol) and biomass (such as wood and wood products) to generate electricity.

An uncertain future: By and large, renewable energy relies on government subsidies to prosper. It is unclear whether the federal government will continue various tax credits and other incentives to promote cleaner technologies in the wake of a deal to raise the debt ceiling in Washington. For instance, the economic downturn and uncertain regulatory environment, particularly whether production and investment tax credits will be retained, led to a drop in new wind power facilities in 2010. Some of the same issues are at play in New Jersey, with the Christie administration sending signals that it may want to reduce a surcharge on ratepayers’ utility bills that has helped promote clean energy and energy efficiency programs.

Nuclear still the leader: If you compare nuclear vs. renewable energy strictly on a basis of electric consumption, it still produces more energy than the alternative technologies, although the gap is narrowing, according to the agency.