World's Solar Energy Capacity Likely To Exceed Nuclear In 2017

Solar energy capacity could be matching nuclear power by the time 2017 ends. While the latter still holds an advantage in production with the sun only being up for a limited time, battery storage and falling public trust is spelling nuclear's ending.


May 21 2019, Updated 4:14 p.m. ET

In the near future, solar energy capacity could be surpassing nuclear energy. A study from GreenTechMedia Research suggests that by the end of 2017, both resources could have the potential of creating the same amount of power -- around 390 gigawatts worldwide. There’s still a significant difference in gigawatt-hours, but it continues a trend that will likely see solar generation eventually move beyond the traditional source.

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The solar industry will have another record-setting amount of installations scheduled for 2017. They will be adding 81 gigawatts this year, putting the total at around 390 gigawatts. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, just over 391.5 gigawatts of nuclear capacity was installed as of last April. For context, just over 350 gigawatts are in operation due to 43 of 48 Japanese reactors still being shut down.

Thanks to the Fukushima nuclear disaster back in 2011, demand continues to shoot up for solar in comparison. The renewable resource continues to even outpace wind installations, adding 43 gigawatts more annually. According to GTM’s research, a solar power capacity of 871 gigawatts is expected by 2022.

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While capacity will shoot well beyond nuclear power’s potential in the coming years, the only problem is that it’s not a pure apples-to-apples comparison. Since solar production is limited to when the sun is out, nuclear reactors can, of course, generate more power. For example, nearly 2.48 million gigawatt-hours can be generated annually by nuclear plants compared to 375,000 gigawatt-hours from solar panels.

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It’s an advantage that nuclear power will only be able to hold onto for so long, however. The solar industry is expanding due to cheaper construction costs, and that’s escalated growth rate far more than what was expected. That means we’re ahead of the curve of a 2014 report by the International Energy Agency that expected solar generation would account for over a quarter of worldwide energy production when factoring in storage.

Age isn’t the only problem that’s hit these nuclear facilities. Because of the solar industry boom, nuclear power plants are being shuttered earlier than expected in favor of cheap solar energy solutions. According to Yale Environment 360, 13 nuclear reactors in the United States have either been shut down or are in the process of closing things down since 2012.

Closures of nuclear facilities are happening all over the world. It generated nearly a quarter of energy for Germany, but shortly after the disaster, all nuclear reactors will be closed up by 2022. Fukushima’s disaster likely spelled the beginning of the end for nuclear power, but cheaper solar technology is delivering the final blow.

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