Rocky Mountain Institute’s Amory Lovins, never one to shy away from a discussion of the relative merits of various energy strategies, states in an article in the latest RMI Newsletter that renewables and small cogeneration facilities already have more worldwide generation capacity than nuclear, while installation rates for new renewable/cogen capacity will quickly leave nuclear behind.  He starts by saying:

In a market economy, private investors are the ultimate arbiter of what energy technologies can compete and yield reliable profits, so to understand nuclear power’s prospects, just follow the money. Private investors have flatly rejected nuclear power but enthusiastically bought its main supply-side competitors — decentralized cogeneration and renewables. Worldwide, by the end of 2004, these supposedly inadequate alternatives had more installed capacity than nuclear, produced 92% as much electricity, and were growing 5.9 times faster and accelerating, while nuclear was fading.

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The numbers are straightforward:

In 2004, decentralized cogeneration and renewables, excluding big hydro dams (any over 10 megawatts), added 5.9 times as much worldwide net capacity as nuclear power added, and raised annual electricity production 2.9 times as much as nuclear power did. By the end of 2004, these decentralized, nonnuclear competitors’ global installed capacity totaled ~411 GW — 12% more capacity than global nuclear plants’ 366 GW — and produced ~92% as much electricity. Thus the “minor” alternative sources actually overtook nuclear’s global capacity in 2003, rivaled its 2004 and will match its 2005 output, and should exceed its 2010 output by 43%. They already dwarf its annual growth. Official and industry forecasts indicate they’ll add 177 times as much capacity in 2010 as dwindling nuclear power will.

Efficiency gains aren’t factored in to these numbers, but cheap, quickly-deployable efficiency measures combined with renewables & cogen are beginning to be a major force in the marketplace.  Opportunities for cost-effective efficiency in U.S. energy use are vast … perhaps the only bright side of the vulnerability our wasteful energy consumption patterns cause in our economy.  Cogeneration (frequently fueled by natural gas) still releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but significantly less that traditional fossil-fuel electrical generation does, since heating services are also drawn off from cogen plants.

My quibble with the article?  Lovins calls renewables & small cogeneration the “main competitors” for nuclear electricity.  Seems to me that, in the USA at least, new coal capacity would still be the major competitor to nuclear.  While new coal plant plans are increasingly coming under fire (such as in Wisconsin and Colorado), I don’t know how new coal capacity compares with new nuclear capactiy and new renewables/cogen capacity.  If I had to guess, I’d guess that coal is still way out front.  Anyone seen any data?

Lovins’ article is a quick read.  Elsewhere in the newsletter, he notes that most new nuclear capacity is installed in centrally planned electrical systems (the comparisons to renewables/cogen are even more dramatic if only market-based electricity systems are included). The rest of the summer newsletter is worth a look as well, including an article with some great state-level policy suggestions.

I found the Lovins article, and the summer RMI newsletter, to be very encouraging news.  Not that we aren’t in quite a bad spot with our energy use … but I’ll embrace every bit of good news I can get.

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