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Wind and solar power is catching up with nuclear

07 October 2014
Wind and solar power is catching up with nuclear

LONDON: Wind and solar electricity capacity have almost reached the same level as nuclear power, states sustainability organization Worldwatch Institute in its last Vital Signs report.

This finding derives from two concurrent trends: a plateauing in the construction of nuclear power stations over the past couple of decades combined with the boom in renewable power deployment in the last 10 years. The graph below clearly shows this outcome:


Image courtesy of Worldwatch Institute, from VitalSign report “Wind, Solar Generation Capacity Catching Up with Nuclear Power”

Traditional large-scale hydropower has lead the growth, accounting for 16.5% of global power in 2012, with wind power accounting for 3.4% and solar just 0.6% by contrast.

However, the good news is that wind and solar are experiencing the fastest progression in this field. From 2000 to 2012, both clean energy sources increased respectively 16-fold and 49-fold. By comparison, the International Atomic Energy Agency shows nuclear capacity grew just 6.2% over the same period.


Despite solar and wind power’s growth though, due to their intermittent nature nuclear power remains an important energy source for some countries. Last year, nuclear’s share of energy production in France was 73.3%, with the nation’s 58 reactors generating 405,898.51 gigawatt-hours (GWh).

US is the top producer of nuclear power even if it has a much lower share of 19.4% in its total energy mix. Last year, the US had almost double the number of reactors (104) and electricity generated (790,186.82 GWh) than France.

To put these numbers in perspective, Russia, the third largest producer of nuclear energy, generated 161,718.08 GWh, with 33 reactors and a 17.5% share of its total energy production.

nuclear share

Image: The Climate Group, based on International Atomic Energy Agency data

Overall clean energy investments have rebound after a two-year decline, with solar and wind having a lion’s share in this important achievement. According to International Energy Agency's (IEA) World Energy Investments Outlook 2014 report, in 2000-2013 nuclear power attracted an average annual investment of US$8 billion, while wind and solar collected five times more - US$43 billion and US$37 billion respectively.


This gap between nuclear, solar and wind is set to last, with the IEA estimating average annual investments for nuclear energy of US$41-56 billion, wind US$76-113 billion, and solar PV US$49-71 billion over the next 21 years.

But on the other hand, IEA shows - among its members - most developing countries allocated more than half of their public energy research and development budgets to nuclear, instead of renewables. Between 1974 and 2012, nuclear energy collected about US$295 billion which is 51% of total investments, while renewables attracted US$59 billion.

However, while nuclear percentage was 73.6% of the total in 1974, it has declined to 26% today - while renewable energy is growing year after year.

The data clearly shows how solar and wind energy are increasing in global capacity, but their electric generation remains low.

In 2011, the US Energy Information Administration shows global electricity generated by nuclear power accounted for 2,517.74 billion kilowatt-hours (Kwh) while wind generated 446.33 billion Kwh, and solar  - even adding tide and wave power generation - only reached 58.74 billion Kwh.

2011 net generation

Image: The Climate Group, from US Energy Information Administration data


by Ilario D'Amato

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