Jul 28, 2011

Important: Renewables Conquer Nuclear in the US

Earlier this month I talked about a closing line from Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes. She wrote in one of her final passages that “electrical power made possible the important and the frivolous, the noble and the idiotic”. I thought it would be fun to look at the ways people use and abuse electric power these days by going back through the news each month and picking out stories that met those criteria. My original intent was to do all four in one entry, but now I think doing that would make the post too long. Instead, I figure I will finish out the month with the “awards”. Over the next four days, I will post the stories I chose for July. Let’s get started. 

The inaugural title of “Important” goes to a story published on Domestic Fuel stating thatrenewable energy sources have overtaken nuclear power as a contributor to thenational energy consumption according to the July “Monthly Energy Review” published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration on the 5th. In other words, renewables now provide more energy to the nation per month than nuclear power plants. As the chart below shows, they contributed 0.806 quadrillion BTUs in April of this year. Just in case you were unaware, BTU stands for British Thermal Unit. It’s used to represent national energy savings in the United States because it is sort of an all-encompassing unit for comparing energy sources like coal, natural gas, and crude oil by measuring the amount of heat each can produce. For this reason, when the Department of Energy (DOE) sets standards for various consumer products, they are required to report the potential energy savings in BTUs rather than kilowatt hours (kWh).

 Figure 1. Energy Consumption in the US in April, EIA Monthly Energy Review 07/11

So why do I consider this story important? Well, one of my big research interests is power conversion in renewable energy systems. I have it in my plans to build a few systems of my own just to learn a bit more and document some results. However, what really impressed me about this was not so much that renewables were able to take over nuclear energy, because frankly nuclear power never really gained a lot of traction in the US after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents in ’79 and ’86 respectively, but how close they were to overtaking crude oil as well. Cynics may be quick to point out that we would need a 50% increase in renewable production to equal the contribution of crude oil, and to that I would say you are missing the point. The fact is that renewables are still a vast, untapped resource.

The integration of renewable energy sources has been slow in the US for political and environmental reasons, but in the past two years alone there has been a huge increase in their availability. According to the report, the amount of energy contributed by solar power has increased 104.8% since the first quarter of 2010. Similarly, wind energy production has increased by 40.3%, keeping the US on pace to remain the world leaders in that category. In total, renewable sources now constitute 11.73% of the total energy consumed in the US. I don’t know about you, but I am amazed to already see the day that clean sources contribute 1/10th of our entire energy demand given how anemic our efforts have been. Even with doubling its production in one year, solar energy only contributes about 1% of the total US energy consumption. When you think about the fact that enough energy from the sun hits the Earth in one hour to power the entire planet for a year, it seems sad to think that is all we can do. Fortunately, it’s not the best we can do…not even close.

I encourage anyone interested to skim the report (it is 214 pages) and check out some of the graphs the EIA published, they are pretty revealing. You can find the report here.


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