Comparing All Renewable Fuels, Heat and Electricity to Nuclear isn’t Productive

A lot of publications are reporting on the Energy Information Administration’s latest report showing that in the first quarter of 2011 renewables cumulatively provided more BTUs of energy than nuclear.

This is not a helpful comparison at all, and I’m surprised so many websites picked that up as the news.

The EIA is comparing all types of renewables — fuels, heating and electricity — to one sector: nuclear electricity. As everyone knows, these forms of energy perform very different functions.

Would anyone say that corn ethanol and nuclear power are directly comparable? Aside from the fact that there’s a tiny bit of radiation in everything, no one would say so. This type of exercise only makes the public debate around energy more confusing than it already is.


[Joe Romm: Also, corn ethanol is ‘renewable’ only in the weakest form of the word. It very likely does not achieve substantial greenhouse gas emissions reductions in a full life-cycle analysis — and it most certainly is not sustainable (see “The Corn Ultimatum: How long can Americans keep burning one sixth the world’s corn supply in our cars?]

While renewables made up almost 13% of the electricity supply in the first quarter of this year — up from 10.3% during the same time period last year — the EIA figures show just how important fossil fuels are to the energy mix. Rather than making unhelpful broad comparisons, we should be examining how renewable energy technologies can directly compete in that framework.

With solar PV very competitive with natural gas peaking plants all around the country, how much are utilities saving in operating costs from not having to invest in expensive peaker plants? With coal prices climbing, plants being shuttered and coal-fired electricity continuing to slide downward, how can a combination of renewables and natural gas help knock old coal plants out of the mix? And with the cost to build new nuclear plants very high, how does that make easily-financeable, rapidly-deployable renewables more attractive?

And we also have to consider how renewables compete with each other. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, numerous wind plants have been forced to shut down due to a surge in hydroelectric production. What does that mean for how we site turbines or run our hydro facilities to optimize renewable energy production and surpass nuclear in actual electricity production?

These are the helpful comparisons to be making.