Renewable Energy Generation in the US Surpassed Nuclear in 2021

Electricity generated from renewable sources totaled 795 million megawatt-hours (MWh) in the United States in 2021, surpassing the 778 million MWh of electric power generated from nuclear reactors. According to Energy Information Administration (EIA), wind and solar energy primarily contributed to the boost in power generation from renewables.

While wind generation surged by 12%, utility-scale solar generation increased by 28% last year. With a 1,474 MWh capacity, natural gas was the most potent source for power generation in the U.S., contributing 38%. Major steam and gas turbines in America are powered by natural gas to generate electricity.

Electricity generation from coal-powered plants surged for the first time since 2014. It was used more than the renewable or nuclear energy sources to produce electricity in the U.S. last year.

Nuclear energy contributed 19% of the U.S. electricity generation in 2021. The nuclear-powered electricity generation sustained the pressure with the rising use of renewables in the U.S, even as many nuclear reactors retired. Nuclear electricity generation fell to its lowest level since 2012 with the retirement of New York’s Indian Point 1040 MW Unit 3 last year.

However, nuclear electricity generation has been consistently declining for the past three years, with nuclear power plants yielding an output of 778 million MWh in 2021, 1.5% less than the previous year. According to EIA, six nuclear reactors with a total capacity of 4,736 MW have been shut since 2017— while Diablo Canyon’s one power generating unit in California is set to retire in 2024, and another unit will be retired in 2025. EIA reports that the nuclear reactors with a combined capacity of 3,009 MW are also scheduled for retirement in years to come.

The hydroelectric generation in the U.S. fell to its lowest since 2015, prominently due to dry weather conditions in western America. Hydropower plants produced around 6.3% of total electricity generation in the U.S. last year.

In 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) revealed that solar is likely to account for at least 40% of America’s electricity supply by 2035 and 45% by 2050 with significant cost reductions, supportive policies, and large-scale electrification.

A report by Energy Innovation in 2021 said that 80% of coal-fired power plants in the U.S. had become uneconomical because of the comparatively lower cost of new solar and wind plants. Out of 235 coal-fired plants, 182 plants had turned uneconomical or were being retired.