The age of nuclear power dawned in 1956, when Queen Elizabeth II opened the first commercial nuclear power station in Sellafield, north-west England. Soon, nuclear was booming. Total global installed capacity rose from less than 1GW in 1960 to 100GW in the late 1970s. Meanwhile, wind and solar power were nascent, with neither technology gaining a significant foothold in power systems during the 20th century.
Fast forward to 2019, however, and for the first time in more than 60 years the world generated more power from renewables than nuclear. A total of 2,805.5 terawatt-hours (TWh) was generated from renewables, versus 2,796TWh from nuclear, shows data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy. Hydropower – which is excluded from BP’s renewables taxonomy – would increase the figure for renewables by an additional 4,222.2TWh.
The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan put many governments off pursuing nuclear power. Moreover, the technology is now comparatively very expensive, averaging $163/MWh versus $40/MWh and $37/MWh for wind and solar, according to a 2020 levelised cost of energy analysis by Lazard, the world’s largest independent investment bank.
The renewables boom is set to continue as the world attempts to decarbonise its energy system. 2020 was a record year for renewables investment, which increased by 0.9% compared with 2019, says the International Energy Agency (IEA).
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Utility-scale solar additions increased nearly 3% last year compared with 2019, estimates the IEA. China, the world’s renewables leader, built over 33% more photovoltaic capacity in 2020 than in the previous 12 months.
2020 was also a record year for wind power, with 93GW installed to reach a total global capacity of 743GW, says the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) in a recent report. GWEC Market Intelligence predicts an additional 469GW of wind power capacity will come online in the next five years.
Nonetheless, the current predicted growth trajectory must “triple” over the next decade to put the world on track to limiting global warming to well below 2°C, says the GWEC.
The GWEC’s analysis comes as data from the International Renewable Energy Agency shows that, overall, investments in the energy sector over the next 30 years will have to increase from $98trn to $131trn to limit the world’s temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Nick Ferris is a data journalist based in London.