Surging renewable sector pulls even with nuclear power in U.S.

turbine-550April 5, 2011

Renewable fuels pulled even with nuclear power in 2010, based on federal data of total domestic production. 

But nuclear still powers 20 percent of U.S. grid, while wind and solar are barely on the map.

By Douglas Fischer

Declining nuclear power and a strengthening renewable fuels sector have left the two energy sources neck-and-neck for their share of U.S. energy production, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The percent of domestic energy production obtained from renewable fuels - biomass, geothermal, solar, wind and water - rose to 10.9 percent last year, up from 10.6 percent in 2009. Meanwhile nuclear energy dipped from 11.5 percent in 2009 to 11.3 percent in 2010.

Fossil fuels accounted for 77.8 percent of domestic energy production, or 58.3 quadrillion BTUs of the nearly 75 quadrillion BTUs produced in the United States last year. 

A typical U.S. household uses 37 million BTUs worth of electricity in a year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The data were compiled before the 9.0 temblor and subsequent tsunami devastated Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant and cast doubts on nuclear power worldwide.

Renewable advocates on Tuesday used the data to tout their sector as the smart-money bet.

"The U.S. government's latest energy statistics once again confirm that limited federal dollars are far better invested in rapidly expanding renewable energy technologies and not the black hole that is nuclear power," said Ken Bossang, executive director of the SUN DAY campaign, a nonprofit venture aimed at promoting sustainable energy technologies as cost-effective alternatives to nuclear and fossil fuels.

Viewed on a percentage basis, renewable fuels are on a tear: Growth of non-hydro renewable fuels jumped 11.6 percent last year, with wind energy increasing by 28 percent, biomass by 10 percent and solar and geothermal by 4 percent each.

But in terms of kilowatt-hours produced, renewable energy accounts for a tiny fraction of the domestic electricity portfolio. 

Nuclear has produced from 19 percent to 21 percent of the United State's electricity since the late 1980s - 807 billion kilowatt-hours last year. In contrast, wind generated 95 billion kilowatt-hours last year, about 2 percent of domestic electricity demand. Solar produced just under 1.3 billion kilowatt-hours in 2010, according to the EIA.

Photograph of Duke Energy's Top of the World Windpower project near Casper, Wyo. courtesy Duke Energy/flickr. is a nonprofit news service covering climate change.

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