How soon will solar power overtake nuclear power? Probably sooner than you think!
The most recent data (i.e. for the first eight months of 2021) from the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) confirm that the mix of all sources of renewable energy sources (i.e. biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric) . , solar, wind) have overtaken nuclear power in terms of installed generation capacity and actual electricity generation.1
According to FERC’s monthly energy infrastructure updates, the combined generation capacity of all utility-scale renewable energy surpassed nuclear power more than a decade ago.2 Non-hydro renewables overtook nuclear power in December 20153 and wind capacity alone surpassed nuclear power in February 2020.4
Ten years ago, hydropower and renewable energy combined provided 14.09% of the total installed power generation capacity available in the United States.5 Five years later it was 18.39%.678
In comparison, nuclear energy lags behind by 8.35%. However, that is more than the share of solar energy. As of August 2021, utility-scale solar power accounted for just 5.02% of the country’s generation capacity. However, unlike nuclear energy, solar energy is growing rapidly and its capacity is expected to exceed that of the country’s 93 operating nuclear reactors.
FERC reports that nearly 6.6 gigawatts (GW) of new solar power came online in the first two-thirds of 2021.9 That is triple the planned capacity (2.2 GW) of the two Vogtle reactors that have been under construction in Georgia for almost a decade. In addition, FERC forecasts that there is a “high probability” of new solar capacity additions over the next three years to exceed 44 GW. FERC data also suggests significantly more solar could be in the pipeline, up to 166.1 GW.ten
Meanwhile, FERC predicts that only 2.2 GW of new nuclear power will be added by August 2024 — that is, Vogtle’s two reactors — while another 0.8 GW is expected to be removed.11 As a result, the new net solar capacity could be at least 20 times greater than nuclear, and potentially up to 80 times greater.
If FERC’s more conservative solar projections materialize, utility-scale solar will account for 8.25% of total installed generating capacity in the United States within three years, compared to 8.14% for nuclear. FERC’s higher numbers could actually bring utility-scale solar power to about 15% of nationwide generation capacity.
Additionally, these numbers do not reflect the country’s distributed (e.g. rooftop) solar power generation capacity. Small solar power (i.e. less than 1 MW) accounts for about 30% of the country’s total solar capacity. For example, the EIA reports that utility-scale solar capacity increased by approximately 10.5 GW in 2020, while utility-scale capacity increased by 4.5 GW. Similarly, the EIA projects 16 GW of new utility-scale and 5.8 GW of small-scale solar capacity in 2021, followed by 18.3 GW of utility-scale and 7.8 GW of small-scale in 2022.12
So if you factor in small-scale solar power generation capacity, total solar capacity is now about 7% of total US capacity and is obviously on track to overtake nuclear power next year.
Of course, some observers are quick to point out that production capacity does not equate to actual production. And that’s right. According to EIA, the capacity factor of utility-scale solar PV has averaged 25% over the past five years (2016-2020), while the capacity factors of distributed solar thermal and solar PV systems are slightly lower. In contrast, the capacity factor of nuclear power was 92% or more. Therefore, about four times as much solar capacity would be needed to generate the same amount of electricity as nuclear power. (For context, the EIA also states that the five-year average capacity factors for geothermal, biomass, hydro, and wind are 72.9%, 60.0%, 41.2%, and 34.7%, respectively.)13
While the renewable energy mix accounted for 25.22% of installed capacity in August 2021, they provided just 20.69% of total electricity generation in the United States for the first two-thirds of this year. In contrast, nuclear power provided 18.48% of the country’s electricity with just 8.35% of installed capacity.14
Solar power alone provided 4.09% of electricity generation in the United States, with 1.23% coming from small systems.15 Based on this latest data, one could reasonably conclude that the gap between solar and nuclear power is huge. However, it’s a gap that’s closing fast.
Five years ago, nuclear generated 19.44% of all electricity generation in the United States, compared to 1.38% from solar.16 Since then, solar has grown at a compound annual rate of 29.6%. In the first eight months of 2021, utility-scale solar and distributed solar grew 23.4% from the same period last year. Meanwhile, nuclear power fell 2.1%.18
Apart from Vogtle’s two reactors, there are no new nuclear power plants in the construction pipeline, and it is not unreasonable to assume that more of the currently aging nuclear power plants – more than FERC currently expects – will be shut down before the end of this decade. .
With nuclear power stagnating or declining and solar power growing at around 25% per year, current trends suggest that solar-generated electricity could overtake nuclear-generated electricity before the end of this decade. Whether solar can maintain or even exceed its historical growth rates remains to be seen.
However, it should be noted that the solar industry (i.e., the Solar Energy Industries Association) and the Biden administration have set targets for solar power to provide 30% of the country’s electricity by 2030.19 Indeed, if this accelerated timeline materializes, solar-generated electricity would be on track to overtake nuclear power within five or six years.
As a harbinger of the future, solar power already produces more electricity than nuclear power in nearly half of the states. Twenty-one states plus Washington, D.C. did not generate nuclear power this year, but all generated varying amounts of solar power.20 In California, the nation’s leading solar company, solar supplies nearly four times more electricity than the state’s remaining nuclear reactors.21
In summary, data from FERC and EIA indicate that utility-scale solar power generation capacity is expected to exceed nuclear power within three years. solar power incl
Small solar systems, for example, could overtake nuclear energy as early as 2022. If current growth trends continue, solar-generated electricity is on track to overtake nuclear power before the end of this decade, and sooner still if the targets set by the solar industry and the Biden administration are met.
About the SUN DAY campaign
The SUN DAY Campaign is a non-profit research and education organization founded in 1992 to support a rapid transition to 100% sustainable energy technologies as a cost-effective alternative to nuclear and fossil fuels.