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How does the wind/solar rollout compare to nuclear in 70/80s?

Interesting piece but the author is a bit biased. Wind and solar are certainly taking off, but the result has been the EU's cost for energy is many times that of the US. Part of the problem is that most of Europe isn't particularly sunny or windy on average. When the climate doesn't cooperate natural gas generator plant must be switched on to back up the "green sources". Recently the cost of natural gas in the EU has been over 5 times higher than what we pay.


Sweden and France had it right.


Can solar and wind ever match the rollout rates of nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s?

France and Sweden's nuclear rates will be hard to beat, but solar power is getting there.


By HANNAH RITCHIE, Sustainability by the numbers

MAY 15, 2024


The speed of nuclear deployment in the 1970s and 1980s was seriously impressive. I was reminded of this a few months ago when a reader sent me the following chart from a 2016 paper by Junji Cao, James Hansen and colleagues.


The reader’s concern was whether solar and wind would ever be able to match that speed. The chart suggests an emphatic “no”.


Except, the data for solar and wind is based on the average build from 2004 to 2014. Both sources, but particularly solar, were only just getting off the ground. We’ve made a lot of progress since then, and rates have been accelerating.


But are they getting close to France or Sweden’s nuclear build-out 50 years ago?

I was curious, so I decided to do a quick update of the chart with the latest data.



Source: Cao et al. (2016). China-U.S. cooperation to advance nuclear power.


Solar and wind deployment rates are much faster than most countries during the nuclear boom period, but fall short of France and Sweden


Here, I’m using the most recent data from Ember, which published its Global Electricity Review last week.


For the chart below, I’ve calculated the average yearly change in solar and wind production over the last decade (from 2013 to 2023). This is based on electricity production per person.


For example, in a typical year, Denmark increased its production of solar and wind generation by 178 kilowatt-hours per person.


As you can see, solar and wind deployment in some countries is being rolled out at a faster rate than many nuclear-hungry countries in the 1970s and 1980s, including the United States, Germany, and South Korea.


They are, however, far short of the best nuclear performers: Sweden and France.



But some of the most rapid progress on renewable energy has come in the past five years. The curves for solar, in particular, are close to exponential, so deployment in recent years has been much faster than in the mid-2010s.


What happens if we take the average for solar and wind over the past five years (from 2019 to 2023) rather than the past decade?


Countries have achieved very impressive rollout rates: some more than 300 kWh per person. Far surpassing most countries on 20th century nuclear. But again, still falling short of Sweden and France.


As a side-note: it’s interesting to see that the curves for solar and wind per person in Australia and the Netherlands are extremely similar.




The Swedish and French nuclear built-out programs in the 1970s and 1980s were just seriously impressive. See the chart below.



What’s notable about this period was that electricity demand was increasing rapidly. Nuclear wasn’t built to replace existing electricity sources, it was part of a grid expansion plan.


In many rich countries, recent low-carbon energy has been deployed to replace existing sources: either coal or gas to decarbonise, nuclear for reasons that still don’t make sense to me, or older plants that had come to the end of their life. Solar and wind have been growing while electricity demand has been static (take a look at per capita electricity generation).


This period of demand stagnation is going to end soon though, as electric cars, heating, and other sectors are shifted to the electricity grid. Countries are going to need a lot of extra power. Will this drive even faster deployment of solar and wind? Let’s hope so.

In case people think I’m anti-nuke: I should also say that another nuclear power revolution like the 1980s would be very much welcomed. I just struggle to see it happening based on the recent track records of countries that built it most quickly in the past.


How do global rates of solar and wind growth compare to 1980s nuclear?

So far, we’ve focused on individual country performances.


But what if we look at the world as a whole? How do global deployment rates compare to the 20th-century nuclear surge?


In the chart below, I’ve replicated the analysis above using global data. How much nuclear, solar, or wind was added per year per person?


This is given for the 1970s and 1980s for nuclear. And for solar and wind, I’ve given the average over the last decade and the last 5 years.


You can see that in the last five years, both solar and wind have surpassed nuclear rollout rates in the 1980s.



Particularly for solar, there’s good reason to believe those rates will keep climbing. In the chart below you can see the full time-series for these three technologies since 1965. Again, it’s shown as the annual change in electricity production per person.


Nuclear’s boom period was, unfortunately, short-lived, and it has struggled to maintain sustained growth from around 1990 onwards. The curve for solar looks like it’s growing at a much steadier pace, and I think it’s unlikely that these rates significantly drop any time soon. Wind has also seen impressive growth but has struggled a bit in the last few years.


Global nuclear growth topped out at 40 kilowatt-hours per person. I predict that solar will blow past that in the next few years, and keep growing for some time.




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