Global Renewable and Nuclear Developments 2017
Tomas Kåberger, Chair of Executive Board, Renewable Energy Institute
Romain Zissler, Researcher, Renewable Energy Institute
During 2017 renewable electricity had its commercial break through. It is not that renewable energy industries have not been commercial industries before, but then costs have been higher than conventional thermal power and renewables depended on subsidies.
During 2017 solar and wind power was offered in a growing number of countries in the world at prices well below the costs of new coal or nuclear power. Both solar and wind contracts were offered the range from around 2 to about 5 US¢ per kWh. Even offshore wind power in Europe was offered without subsidies, just earning the price of the spot markets in Germany and the Netherlands.
This is not just marginally cheaper than new coal or nuclear power. It is one third or less, of the almost 15 US¢ offered for nuclear power from the future Hinkley Point nuclear power plant in the UK.
During 2017 the actual electricity production from renewable power yet again appears to have increased faster than fossil based thermal generation. Another observation is that wind and solar electricity deliveries together grew faster than nuclear power ever did during the rapid expansion in the 1980s.
In the US, fossil-based electricity decreased significantly, contrary to the statements of President Trump in support of “beautiful clean coal”.
In a short-term perspective, one may claim positive developments for nuclear power as well. Nuclear electricity production increased in China and Japan, together slightly more than the decrease in the rest of the world. Also, data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, show that the global installed capacity increased marginally. Four new reactors were taken into operation with a total capacity of 3,305 MW, while five reactors were permanently shut down. As the closed were older and smaller, they only had a total capacity of 3,025 MW, thus a net increase in capacity.
In the longer perspective, however, there were two significant negative signs for the global nuclear industry: One was that two construction projects in the US were abandoned despite being half built at a cost of almost 10 billion USD. The other was that not a single reactor construction is reported as started in China.
In both cases it is the economic superiority of renewable energy that is the explanation behind the development. In the US the low cost of solar and wind power has spurred investments, providing more renewable electricity that results in lower prices. Nuclear cannot be flexed enough to remain a supplementary power source, batteries and gas- fired power fill that role at lower cost.
In China the desire to reduce air pollution from fossil fuels as quickly as possible at low cost has given renewable power priority. It is both faster and cheaper to increase solar and wind generation than it is to build more nuclear reactors. Wind power supplies more electricity and grows faster than nuclear power in China. While the large country is likely to continue building more of everything for yet a few years to come, the priorities have clearly shifted toward renewable energy.
There are countries with the industrial capacity that has also removed markets obstacles and allow the lowest cost electricity to reach customers. In these countries, renewables are now the cheapest source power that can grow without subsidies. The economic advantage this creates, by reducing pollution as well as cost for imported fuels, will have geopolitical implications in the years ahead of us.