(prepared by the SUN DAY Campaign, October 2016)
[Editor’s Note: GreenWorld is pleased to publish this guest post by Ken Bossong, of the SUN DAY Campaign. Ken puts the startup of the first U.S. nuclear reactor in 20 years in perspective with the growth of renewable energy sources. To say that renewables are growing faster than nuclear is an understatement.
Yet the nuclear industry is likely to trumpet Watts Bar 2 coming online as a big triumph, and even turn it into a big PR offensive about the miracles nuclear power can weave for fighting climate change. That is, once the reactor gets past the series of equipment failures that has repeatedly delayed the startup since June.
Ken’s piece puts the whole nuclear vs. renewables debate in clear perspective. The Tennessee Valley Authority has spent 9 years and more than $4 billion to bring a 43-year old construction project to completion, when TVA could have used that time and money more productively on developing renewables and energy efficiency.]
As it nears commercial operation, Watts Bar 2, the first “new” nuclear power plant in the United States in more than a generation, is proof that nuclear power has lost the race with safer, cleaner, and more economical renewable energy sources – particularly solar and wind.
New electrical generation expected to be provided to the nation’s grid by Watts Bar 2 during its first year of operating at full capacity has already been eclipsed several times over by new electrical generation provided by renewables
For example, in just one year’s time (i.e., July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016) as Watts Bar 2 prepared for commercial operation, solar and wind alone increased their contribution to the nation’s total electrical generation by an amount three to five times greater than that expected from a year’s worth of Watts Bar 2 generation. [see detailed analysis below]
If one adds in the net increase in generation from other renewable energy sources (i.e., hydropower, geothermal, and biomass) during the past year, the ratio of new renewables generation to that of Watts Bar 2 is even greater.
Looking ahead, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is projecting 9.5% growth in electrical consumption from renewable sources during 2016 with further increases in the years to follow . Thus, the ratio of new renewable electricity capacity and generation vs. that from Watts Bar is likely to be even greater in the coming year and beyond.
Additionally, the very limited contribution to be made by Watts Bar-2 to the nation’s electrical generating capacity hardly seems to have been worth the wait. Construction of Watts Bar-2 originally began in 1973, but was halted in 1985. The project was restarted in October 2007 and finally completed in summer 2016. Thus, not including the period while the plant construction was suspended, it took roughly 22 years to bring Watts Bar 2 on-line. 
During the eight-year period (2007-2015) required to build Watts Bar 2’s following the resumption of construction, the reactor obviously produced no electricity. At the same time, however, new wind and solar plants–which typically require only one or two years to construct and often less –were coming on line at an increasing pace and contributing to the nation’s electricity supply. In fact, during the 2007-2015 period, wind and solar produced about 15 times more electricity than is projected to come from Watts Bar 2 in the coming year. [see detailed analysis below]
Moreover, since the resumption of construction of Watts Bar 2 in 2007, actual annual electrical generation by wind and solar has mushroomed. Today, those renewable sources are providing over 21 times more electricity each year than that expected annually from Watts Bar-2… and growing rapidly. [see detailed analysis below]
Finally, when construction resumed on Watts Bar Unit 2 in 2007, TVA assumed the cost would be $2.5 billion to complete. Upon completion, though, the actual costs totaled $4.7 billion. This translates into a cost of approximately $4.087 million per MW of capacity. 
While nuclear construction costs–as represented by those for Watts Bar 2–have risen dramatically, those for solar and wind have plunged by 60-70% over the same time period.
For example, in a November 2015 study, the New York investment bank Lazard reported current electricity production costs of nuclear power to be 97-136 USD per MWh. In comparison, the best large-scale photovoltaic power plants can now produce electricity at 50 USD per MWh while onshore wind turbines can do so for 32-77 USD per MWh. 
Thus, as illustrated by Watts Bar 2, the pace at which new renewable capacity and actual electrical generation–particularly wind and solar–are exceeding that of nuclear, the long construction times to bring new nuclear reactors on line, and nuclear power’s rapidly rising costs (compared to the dramatically declining costs for renewable sources) all underscore that the nuclear era is over. Watts Bar 2 is proof that nuclear power has lost the race against renewable energy.
 see, for example, http://www.ewea.org/wind-energy-basics/faq
Analyses of Projected Generation from Watts Bar-2 vs. Actual Generation from Renewables
Comparison #1 – Actual Increase in Renewable Electrical Generation During Past Year:
One way to make a comparison is to look at the actual electrical generation during the past year by wind, solar, and other renewables versus the likely generation by Watts Bar 2 during its first full year of operation.
For calendar year 2015, net generation by nuclear power totaled 797,178 thousand megawatt-hours (GWH). (see here)
When Watts Bar 2 (capacity – 1.15 GW) is fully operational, it will increase currently installed operating U.S. nuclear generating capacity (now 107.06 GW) by about 1.07%.
Assuming that this means that actual generation due to Watts Bar 2 also increases actual net nuclear generation by 1.07%, then it will add about 8,560 GWH to total U.S. net generation during its first full year of operation.
By comparison–as shown in Table 1 below, actual new net generation during the past year (i.e., July 1, 2015-June 30, 2016) from wind (22,088 GWH) and solar (3,928 + 2,005 GWH) totaled 28,021 GWH.
Table 1: Increases in Net Generation (thousand megawatt-hours – GWH) June 2016 (YTD) vs. June 2015 (YTD):
(source: EIA’s “Electric Power Monthly” – August 24, 2016)
June 2015 June 2016 Difference
Nuclear 396,415 400,425 4,010
Hydropower 135,142 151,064 15,922
Wind 94,132 116,220 22,088
Solar (utility scale) 12,978 16,906 3,928
Solar (distributed) 5,840 7,845 2,005
Biomass 31,403 30,463 (940)
Geothermal 8,462 8,328 (134)
CONCLUSION #1: Using this methodology, the increase in actual electrical generation from wind and solar during just the past 12 months (28,021 GWH) is 3.3 times greater than the likely actual electrical generation expected from Watts Bar 2 (8,560 GWH) during its first full year of operation.
Further, if one looks at all renewable energy sources (i.e., wind + solar as well as hydro, biomass, and geothermal), actual net generation by renewables increased during the past year by 42,869 thousand megawatt-hours — an amount five times greater than that estimated to be generated by Watts Bar 2 during its first full year of operation.
Moreover, electrical generation by renewable sources may be even greater in calendar year 2016 than suggested by the above analysis. In its most recent “Short-Term Energy Outlook” (released September 7, 2016), EIA forecasts “total renewables used in the electric power sector to increase by 9.5% in 2016 [while] consumption of renewable energy other than hydropower in the electric power sector [will] grow by 11.8% in 2016 and by 11.1% in 2017.” This suggests that the ratio of new electrical generation from renewable sources to new nuclear generation due to Watts Bar 2 could be even greater. (see here)
Comparison #2 — Change in Electrical Generating Capacity During the Past Year:
A second way to make a comparison is to look at changes in generating capacity and make adjustments to account for differences in capacity factors.
The increase during the past year in installed generating capacity of solar and wind is significantly higher than that for Watts Bar 2. However, the capacity factor for nuclear power tends to be higher that the capacity factors for wind, solar, and other renewable sources. Thus, a side-by-side comparison of installed capacity for wind and solar vs. nuclear is an apples-to-oranges comparison. But, one way to make roughly “equivalent” comparisons of likely generation by different sources is to multiply the installed capacity for each source by each source’s average capacity factor.
Table 2: Changes in Installed Generating Capacity (GW) – June 2016 vs. June 2015
(source: FERC “Energy Infrastructure Update”(s) –September 23, 2015 and September 30, 2016)
August 2015 August 2016 Difference
Nuclear 107.02 107.06 0.04
Hydropower 100.08 100.35 0.27
Wind 68.23 76.51 8.28
Solar * 13.08 18.44 5.36
Biomass 16.59 16.64 0.05
Geothermal 3.91 3.88 (0.03)
*FERC data only includes “plants with nameplate capacity of 1 MW or greater.” EIA separately reports distributed solar accounts for almost 50% more capacity/generation (i.e., 46.4% during first six months of 2016) than reflected in numbers for utility-scale facilities alone. Hence the above-listed capacities for solar should probably be increased by roughly half. Somewhat higher capacities may also exist, for the same reason, for other renewables, notably biomass and wind.
Table 3: Capacity Factors (calendar year 2015)
(source: EIA’s “Electric Power Monthly” – August 24, 2016)
Conventional Hydropower: 35.9%
Solar PV: 28.6%
Solar Thermal: 22.7%
Landfill Gas & MSW: 67.6%
Biomass – misc.: 52.9%
Watts Bar 2 has a rated capacity of 1.15 GW. Assuming a nuclear-power capacity factor of 92.2%, that translates into an “equivalent” generating capacity of 1.06 GW.
New wind capacity added during the past 12 months totals 8.28 GW (not including facilities under 1 MW). Assuming an average wind-power capacity factor of 32.5%, that translates into an “equivalent” generating capacity of 2.69 GW.
New solar plants greater than 1-MW added during the past 12 months have a combined capacity that totals 5.36 GW. Assuming an average solar-power capacity factor of 28.6% (since most, if not all, was PV and not CSP), that translates into an “equivalent” generating capacity of 1.53 GW.
If one assumes that distributed solar adds another 50%, then the total “equivalent” generating capacity for solar would be about 2.24 GW (but perhaps slightly less because distributed solar systems may have lower capacity factors than utility-scale systems).
CONCLUSION #2: Using this methodology, the new “equivalent” generating capacity from wind and solar during the past 12 months (~4.93 GW) is almost five times greater than the “equivalent” generating capacity (1.06 GW) expected from Watts Bar 2 during its first full year of operation.
Comparison #3: – Total Wind + Solar Generation 2008-2015:
As shown by Table 4 below, even if Watts Bar 2 had begun operating by the end of 2007, its electrical generation during the ensuing eight years (i.e., 8 x 8,560 GWH = 68,480 GWH) would have been dwarfed by that simultaneously supplied by wind and solar
Table 4. Actual Wind + Solar Total Generation (December 31, 2007 – December 31, 2015): (source: EIA’s “Electric Power Monthly” – August 24, 2016)
Wind 1,025,322 GWH
Solar PV 51,722 GWH
Solar Thermal 10,591 GWH
Total 1,087,635 GWH
CONCLUSION #3: During the eight years following the resumption of construction of Watts Bar 2, solar and wind sources (mostly new) provided 1,087,635 GWH of net electrical generation while Watts Bar 2 provided nothing.
Alternatively, even if Watts Bar 2 had operated continuously during the eight-year period (2008-2015), total output–assuming 8,560 GWH/year–might have been ~68,480 GWH. By comparison, wind + solar actually produced 1,087,635 GWH or about 15 times as much electricity during that period.
Comparison #4 – Increase in Wind & Solar Electrical Generation Since 2007:
Construction on Watts Bar 2 resumed in 2007. Coincidentally, 2007 is also the year in which solar PV began making a measurable contribution to the nation’s electrical generation.
Inasmuch as wind and solar facilities can be built far more quickly than nuclear plants, new wind and solar built in–or shortly after–2007 has been contributing to the nation’s electrical generation for the past eight years while Watts Bar 2 has contributed nothing.
As illustrated in Table 5, during the eight-plus years required to complete the construction of Watts Bar 2, the growth in actual annual electrical generation by wind and solar has vastly exceeded that expected annually from Watts Bar 2.
Table 5. Solar and Wind Generation in Thousand Megawatt-Hours (GWH):
(source: EIA’s “Electric Power Monthly” – August 24, 2016)
2007 2015 Change
Wind 34,450 190,927 156,477
Solar PV 16 23,232 23,216
Solar Thermal 596 3,241 2,645
Total 35,062 217,400 182,338
Increase in wind + solar annual generation between 2007 & 2015: 182,338 GWH
Watts Bar 2’s likely annual generation: ~8,560 GWH
CONCLUSION #4: Since the resumption of construction at Watts Bar 2, actual annual electrical generation by wind and solar has increased by an amount that is 21.3 times greater than that expected annually from Watts Bar-2.