Wind and solar capacity are expanding rapidly and each is well on track to pass nuclear power capacity. Advocates of nuclear energy have long been predicting its renaissance, but the installation of nuclear capacity appears to be stalled with little to no change in recent years. Wind energy, by contrast, will have more capacity installed than nuclear by 2015 and solar energy capacity is likely to pass nuclear prior to 2020.
Nuclear energy’s share of global power production peaked at 17.6% in 1996 and has declined to 10.8% in 2013, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).1 Renewables have increased their global share of power production from 18.7% in 2000 to 22.7% in 2012, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).2
Following a rapid rise from its beginnings in the mid-1950s, global nuclear power generating capacity peaked at 375.3 GW in 2010. Capacity has since declined to 371.8 GW in 2013.3 Economic project risks, concern about reactor safety and proliferation, and previously unresolved questions concerning what to do with nuclear waste have have stalled growth.
In stark contrast, wind and solar capacity are the same rapid trajectory that nuclear power was on in the 1970s and 1980s. Global wind capacity in 2014 is expected to top out at 360 GW and solar capacity will have expected capacity of 193 GW by year end. 4. Where nuclear energy projects are prone to delay and cost over-runs, wind and solar technology have experienced rapidly declining capital costs of over 60% in last the last 5 years with projected declines of 25% expected in the next 2 years.
As a result, wind and solar capacity has attracted greater investments than nuclear power….and the pace will increase. According to IEA, nuclear investments averaged US$8 billion per year between 2000 and 2013, compared with $37 billion for solar PV and $43 billion for wind.5 Individual countries, of course, set diverging priorities, but nowhere did nuclear have a major role in power generation investments.
IEA has provided two scenarios for expected investments in the period 2014-2035. The base case is called the New Policies scenario and embraces a modest effort to reduce carbon emissions. The Carbon 450 scenario is a highly restrictive outlook that seeks to limit carbon emissions to 450 parts per million in order to constrain global warming to 2-degrees C. In both cases, new investment in wind and solar outstrip investments in nuclear energy.
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Because wind and solar power can be deployed at variable scales, and their facilities constructed in less time with less risk, these technologies are far more practical and affordable for most countries than nuclear power reactors. Worldwide, 31 countries are operating nuclear reactors on their territories. This compares to at least 85 countries that have commercial wind turbine installations and 50 countries with utility-scale solar projects.
The chances for a nuclear revival appear to be slim. Thermal power generation will continue to dominate production, but renewables energy is well positioned to make rapid gains in market share given strong investment growth combined with increased decommissioning of coal and nuclear power plants.