Discusses the recent news that renewable energy (including hydro as well) now supplies more electricity to the US grid than does nuclear power. The post then goes on to list some large solar and wind projects in advanced stages of the development pipeline as a reason for being optimistic that the solar and wind side of the renewables is rapidly growing in scale.

by Tyler Caine, Project Manager and Sustainability Adviser at Lubrano Ciavarra Architects. Tyler is the author of the blog Intercon, a forum for critique and discussion of sustainability. Follow him on Twitter @InterconGreen. Connect with Tyler on LinkedIn.

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.

Related post: “The Catastrophic Downside Risk of Nuclear, Oil, Gas, and Coal“, argues that these highly centralized fossil energy systems have catastrophic risk factors that have not traditionally been accounted for in cost/benefit analysis.

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 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.

In related post: “Nine Reasons Why Solar Power Costs a Lot Less Than People Commonly Believe“, argues that more focus should be given to the many important benefits that result from increasing the use of distributed solar power, and lists nine of these measurable costable benefits.

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.

Image Credit: sustainabilityninja.com

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© 2011, Tyler Caine. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Tyler Caine (3 Articles)

Tyler Caine strives to integrate sustainable thinking into heart of American culture through both writing and design. Having spent time in the industries of both architecture and construction, Caine now works as a Project Manager and Sustainability Adviser at Lubrano Ciavarra Architects on a variety of residential, commercial and educational projects. He has participated in the realization of a number of green buildings ranging from single apartments to master plans and practices as a LEED Accredited Professional. Tyler is also the author of the blog Intercon, a forum for critique and discussion of sustainability in all facets of American culture while focusing on the inherent interconnections of our society's choices and their repercussions. His writing has lead him to lecture on the topic of sustainability in addition to his research on the resurrection of post-industrial American cities through the introduction of new environmental industry. Follow him on Twitter @InterconGreen.

  • http://solarpanelsforcheap.myopenid.com/ SolarPanelsForCheap

    Great article.  I wish this type of information was more widely disseminated by the press. I’m a fan of solar power and think solar power will have a lasting impact on our country.
    There are a number of solar tax incentives that people can take advantage of if they were aware of them.

  • http://twitter.com/dream_king J. Izurieta

    My takeaway from this article is that we need more modern nuclear plants.  Nuclear power is a valuable, non-polluting source of baseline power.  They are not perfect; they do not get rid of all the potential risk of the coal and oil plants they replace, but they are less bad and come with important, predictable and sustained generation advantages.   Another thought about our current energy production situation is that, possibly, hydroelectric is not so renewable as some interested parties would like to present.  60% of the Niagara River, for example, is diverted into turbines; construction is under way to divert more.  Hydro plants are also known to concentrate dioxin in their waters’ vicinity.  Again; advantages and disadvantages.

    I don’t downplay solar, wave, geothermal sources at all.  I’d love to see them increase their share, but nuclear shouldn’t be the punching bag to compare to.  Go after coal, then oil.  And I’d not go out of my way to trumpet biomass; you’re still burning stuff, even if it may be stuff that will regrow or is left over from other processes.

  • I Gimlet

    Nuclear produced 257,741million KWhs, renewables, including hydro, generated 178,099 KWhs from January – April 2011.  For January – March 2011 nuclear generated 203,194 KWhs, renewables, including hydro, generated 128,605 KWhs. You have confused primary energy with electricity production.  Primary energy is converted into electricity and is measured in terms of heat, and your exegesis is correct in terms of primary energy.  Of course, the problem is turning the primary energy into electricity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000947822045 Kyle Sager

    @SolarPanels spot on.  This was a really great article.  Well written.  A good snapshot of the current solar panel market (as of the time written).  I need to go back and study the metrics as presented.  My first blush sense is this was a terrific survey.  I hope that you do similar updates and will dig through your more recent posts just in case.  Thank you for writing this.