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July 12, 2011

Renewables Surpass Nuclear Energy: The Rest of the Story

July 12, 2011
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Last week, the Sun Day Campaign released a news advisory with the provocative claim that for the first time renewable energy produced more energy than nuclear and is closing in on domestic production of oil.[i] While the numbers are accurate, the claim may be a bit disingenuous. Many environmentalists would like people to assume that most renewable energy production is from wind and solar, when the reality is that the majority of renewable energy production is from hydropower and biomass.  Non-hydroelectric renewable fuels, the kind of renewable energy most environmentalists prefer, only produced 5 percent of the energy we actually consumed during the first quarter of 2011.

The most recent Monthly Energy Review from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) did show renewable energy production in total (hydro, wind, wood, waste, biofuels, geothermal, and solar) surpassing nuclear energy production and closing in on domestic production of oil.[ii] Renewables represented 11.73 percent of domestic energy production in the United States for the first quarter of 2011, more than nuclear power’s share, and they represented 77 percent of domestic crude oil production, but the metric used–domestic production—is only telling part of the story. When viewed from the perspective of energy consumption instead of domestic energy production, renewable energy in total represented only 8.5 percent of our supply needs in the first quarter of 2011, up one percentage point from last year’s share of 7.5 percent.[iii]

Why is energy demand important? Because the energy we consume runs our homes, our cars, our businesses, our industry and without its availability we could not exist. While for energy independence and national security reasons, we may prefer our energy to be totally produced within our 50 states, economics dictates that it may be less expensive to obtain some of those resources from abroad. That was certainly the case when oil was priced at $20 a barrel just a few decades ago.  Unfortunately, political forces are now limiting certain fuels from being produced today in the United States, and using taxpayers’ money to develop more expensive sources of energy rather than letting the market function based on economics. A freely functioning energy sector would result in a different distribution of energy supplies at lower cost to the consumer and taxpayer.

Nor do the energy statistics in the news advisory explain the ins and outs of the energy system. While renewable energy has a place in our energy system, those fuels cannot provide all the energy we need.


Ethanol, for example, has been promoted as an additive to gasoline and subsidized at 45 cents per gallon for domestically produced ethanol with a tariff of 54 cents per gallon on imported ethanol to protect the domestic industry. But, blending 10 percent ethanol in our gasoline has caused problems to small engines and boaters, reduced the efficiency of our motor fuel, caused higher food prices, and accomplished little in reducing greenhouse gas emissions[iv]. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to up the blending amount to 15 percent, which it believes is safe for cars of model year 2001 and later, but automobile manufacturers disagree and small engine producers are against it. If politicians did not mandate its use through the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, ethanol would not have penetrated the market to the extent it has. Ethanol and other biofuels represent 21 percent of the 8.5 percent share that renewables contributed to our first quarter supply needs.


Hydropower represents the largest share, 36 percent, of total renewable consumption for the first quarter of 2011. As the Sun Day Campaign indicates from EIA data, the first quarter of 2011 was a good period for hydropower generation with generation 28.7 percent higher than the first quarter of 2010. Hydropower output is dependent on precipitation and water levels. During years of drought, hydroelectric generation is at lower levels than during years of good precipitation. Were hydroelectric generation at its first quarter 2009 or 2010 level, renewable energy would not have surpassed nuclear energy in terms of domestic production, but instead would have been 4.2 percent less. With hydroelectric power being our largest renewable source, it is unfortunate that many state renewable portfolio standards and proposed federal standards do not include hydropower as a contributor to renewable generation goals.[v]



Wood and Waste

The second largest component of the renewable family, wood and waste, supplying 27 percent of the first quarter 2011 renewable energy output, like hydro power, has been in existence for many decades. Unlike wind and solar power that are intermittent energy sources of power requiring back-up, biomass can produce base load electricity. But, it has issues in further penetrating the generating sector. Generators using biomass require wood or energy crops to be trucked in around the clock, causing road damage and traffic, and its combustion releases carbon dioxide emissions that advocates say are compensated by the carbon dioxide that is absorbed by the production of the fuel source. However, how much of the carbon dioxide emitted is equally compensated by the new plant products absorbing it, may still be an issue, just as ethanol production was assumed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions until the emissions of its life cycle from production and distribution to consumption were examined.


The next largest source, wind, represents 13 percent of the total renewable energy consumed during the first quarter of 2011. Wind, like ethanol, is highly subsidized through either a production tax credit taken over ten years of the plant’s operation or an investment tax credit that currently can be rebated immediately to the producer. Additionally, wind is currently mandated to be built under various state Renewable Portfolio “Standards” (read, “mandates”). Because wind turbines generate power only when the wind blows, the generation system must have back-up power that can be used when the wind is not blowing. In reality, wind power displaces the other power, generally natural gas or coal fired generation, which must then get ramped up when the wind stops blowing. Some researchers have found that this cycling of the fossil plants results in more greenhouse gas emissions than if the fossil units were run at steady state because the ramping up requires more fuel to be burned than would be the case in steady state.

Geothermal and Solar

These renewable technologies together represent 3 percent of the total renewable contribution to first quarter 2011 energy supply–geothermal contributing 2 percent and solar contributing 1 percent. Solar technologies are generally the most expensive form of renewable generation, according to the Energy Information Administration.[vi] They produce energy only when the sun shines and they require either expensive battery devices to store the energy or back-up power generators so that electricity is provided when needed. Solar energy works in niche markets where large central station projects are not feasible and for solar water heating for pools and other residential uses.


The statistics provided by the news advisory are correct on a domestic production basis. However, the real story should be based on consumption statistics for the energy that we consume is the energy that powers our GDP. While renewable energy has a role to serve in our energy system, it cannot provide all the energy we need. Fossil fuels that supply 84 percent of our energy needs generally cost less than renewables, are more flexible in their usage and handling, can be imported as needed, and are less heavily subsidized. That is why historically, we have turned to them to supply our energy needs.

Concerns about fossil fuel availability have led to interest in renewables. However, the United States has a vast amount of untapped fossil fuel resources not only in coal where we lead the world in reserves, but in oil and natural gas. Shale oil and shale gas are booming and there remain untapped areas off our coast and in Alaska with oil and natural gas resources that this Administration does not want touched. Recently, a Norwegian consultancy that analyzes field data predicted that U.S. oil and natural gas output would surpass its prior combined 1972 peak in the early 2020s.[vii] Further while coal is having trouble increasing its output in the United States, coal exports topped 90 million tons in the year that ended in March, up 42 percent and the highest level since the mid-1990s.[viii] If we do not use our fossil resources, others surely will use theirs and purchase additional supplies from us when available.

[ii] Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, June 2011,

[iii] Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review June 2011,

[v][v] Institute for Energy Research, The Status of Renewable Energy Mandates in the States,

[vi] Energy Information Administration, Levelized Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2011, April 26, 2011,

[vii] The Wall Street Journal, America’s Newfound Energy, July 6, 2011,

[viii] Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, June 2011,

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  • Paul Felix Schott

    i Pray that we stay One Nation Under GOD, and United that all should be
    Free. May we always have Patriots like Paul Revere. To tell us the
    wicked are coming to dig in our pocketbook.

    Our Government needs to Lower all taxes while we still have a United States of America.

    When this Old World starts getting you down. From Pollution the cost
    of OIL, Heating Fuel,The Fuel you put in your Vehicles, You Electric
    Bills from
    cooling air conditioners and lights not to speak of the Evil. The TAX
    that all Governments Federal, State, County and City put on everything
    they can thing of.

    They are supposed to serve us. Not put a burden on its people. That
    they are elected to serve all the people you, not their own Pocket

    The Wicked keep putting higher taxes on everything. Making it a
    Heavy Burden on many that are already struggling just to put food on
    the table.

    Too many Americans have lost their home to the tax collector or to
    foreclosures from the unjust bankers greed. More are out of work and
    lost their homes then in the GREAT DEPRESSION, in the last ten years.
    All Americans and many Nations need good jobs and more of them. Not
    more TAXES.

    All Taxes need to be lowered now while there is still time to save America.

    There is a Industry that will employ workers and is growing by more
    then 50% every year. There is a clear way for all up on the roof the
    Sun Light is free fuel from GOD. Some wicked in Government have been
    backing Coal, Oil, Gas and the Nuclear industries for too many years.

    These kickbacks to them were called Subsidizing Industry Technology.
    Most all Wise Men and smart Economist and Environmentalists call this
    padding their pockets and subsidizing back to the
    Stone Age.

    The best deal would be to lower Taxes for all this is not the Roman Empire.

    The Chinese Know Renewable Energy is a good thing. Most of the rest
    of the World is still a slave to Oil, Coal and Nuclear Power. All the
    Governments of the World now know it is wise to use Renewable Energy it
    is the Local Governments that are a little slow to learn what is best
    for all not just there pocket book.

    They fear people going off the grid all that tax money they will no
    longer be able to take from you. Wind and Solar Farms are growing all
    over the Earth. This could have happened years ago if the greedy wicked
    were stopped by the Real Good.

    The Freedom to get your own Power from the Wind and Sun, Solar
    Energy has been there for years. Are Libraries and Schools should have
    been the first to have gone Solar and Renewable Energy. And why are
    they not? Churches are all over the Planet. They are going to Solar

    Thank GOD for the Pioneers like John Schaeffer that Started Real
    Goods The first and Best catalog for Renewable Energy and Scientist
    Bill Young at the FSEC Florida Solar Energy Center and Monica D. Key
    Lindbergh for many years wrote to our legislators promoting Solar and
    Renewable Energy and many others.

    These Pioneers helped put Wind, Solar And Renewable Energy in the Spotlight for all the World to see.
    The Great Scientist Albert Einstein Stared it with a Dream that the day
    would come that all the World would use Solar Energy. His many years of
    work with the law of the Photoelectric Effect, and showing this to the
    World won him the Nobel Prize in Physics. We still do not teach this to
    our young.

    GOD Bless all that help tell this to the World

    All Taxes need to be lowered cut in half or there will be a lot more
    Poor and needy and not in just other countries. This coming year the
    World will see hunger like never before. More then 100 million will be
    sick from malnutrition going with out food. Taxing the poor and taking
    there Land away from them is Wicked. Very soon the Rich will become the

    If your Legislature will not lower Taxes vote them out of office and
    VOTE in someone that will Lower your Taxes. If your Son or Daughter was
    raised in a christian Home we need them in our Government as Leaders.

    United We Will Always Stand
    In GOD We Trust
    True Patriots
    GOD Bless
    and May HE Guide you all.

    The Lord’s Little Helper
    Paul Felix Schott

    Many a Nation have fallen from taxing their people to Death. You want
    Prosperity and for thing to Flourish and grow lower all taxes. You want
    thriving, success, or good fortune for only a few, keep over taxing all.
    Solar, Wind and Renewable Energy Freedom from OIL. The Humanitarian thing to do. Solar Energy.
    Why let the Wicked in office in our Nation if they do not believe in GOD and the Bible vote them out of office.
    United We Will Always Stand in GOD We Trust George Washington and Johann Paul Schott 1776.
    In GOD We Trust
    The United States of America’s Motto July 30, 1956.
    King David’s Motto 3,000 years ago.
    Soon all the World will Pray to Our Lord GOD.

  • You guys need better writers or nastier editors. 

    I’m on your side, but I’m the choir. 

    You need to know that I totally shut down when I see bias especially bias I disagree with. I suggest that this is almost universal.

    You’ll never convince the drinkers of Kool Aid, but that leaves 1/3 of the body politic we are to believe is moderate and undecided. 

    To reach them you have to stop assuming the reader already agrees with you (as I do) and assume that they are well informed but undecided.  That way I, as a member of your choir, can use your words to better inform the undecided. Especially that minority for whom facts do matter.

    And for g_d’s sake, never ever mention a supreme being.  Won’t help with the choir, won’t help with the Kool Aid crow, but it REALLY puts off the undecided. (Sorry P.F. Schott)

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