Renewable Energy Consumption Tops Nuclear for First Time

According to a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the consumption of energy from renewable sources recently topped both the current and the historical consumption levels for nuclear energy. The shift was immediately caused by nuclear outages that coincided with the high-water season for hydropower generation.

But there’s a long-term upward trend in renewables which can be seen here, too, thanks to the increased consumption of biofuels and wind capacity additions.

In the short-term, the switch from nuclear to renewables was influenced by U.S. weather trends. The Western U.S. saw record-breaking snowfall this year, which led to hydroelectric plants running at maximum capacity and for longer than usual. This occurred while many nuclear facilities were shut down for regular maintenance and refueling, as is typical for this time of year. (Nuclear plants shut down twice per year, once in the spring, once in the winter).

However, the charts provided by the EIA show a long-term shift towards renewables is underway as well, indicating that this was not a fluke occurrence caused by coincidental timing of weather and plant shutdowns.

To compare the various sources, the energy consumed is measured in BTUs (British thermal units). In January, renewable energy consumption was at 724 trillion BTUs, while nuclear consumption was at 761 trillion BTUs. By March, renewables had reached 795 trillion BTUs compared with 687 trillion BTUs for nuclear. And by April, it was 798 trillion BTUs for renewables vs. 571 trillion BTUs for nuclear.

Renewable energy doesn’t just mean sun, wind, water and geothermal sources, the EIA reminds us. It also includes biofuels, like ethanol and biodisel, and biomass, like wood and wood wastes.

This shift in energy consumption doesn’t mean that renewables are now our main source of electricity, however. Outside of electricity generation, the generated energy is also used for transportation, heating and industrial steam production.

Below, you can see that renewable energy is still slightly below that of nuclear for now. But assuming these trends continue, renewables should pass nuclear here, too, sometime in the next few years.