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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Postscript: On glacial renewable construction rates

Updated: Mar 14, 2023


There were some tweeted objections to my build post that I wanted to respond to in more detail than Twitter allows. I won’t name names, anybody interested in such matters can find the responses on Twitter.


Let’s first repeat the major graph, showing the top 20 fastest electricity generation construction rates in megawatt hours per person added over a twenty year period by country. An appendix will explain the various dots and asterisks.





With the exception of the outliers; Iceland, with just 310,000 people and some big aluminium smelters, and Norway with its spectacular hydro-electric resources, renewables are almost entirely absent.


Sweden is an exception, in the table for both renewables and nuclear, with her nuclear additions being double her wind+solar rollout. In the 20 years between 1976 and 1995, Sweden increased her annual electricity from nuclear power by 6.5 MWh. In contrast between 2011 and 2020, she only added 2.9 MWh of wind+solar generation. Meaning in both cases that the annual output of electricity in the final year was the given number of megawatt-hours higher than in the starting year.


There was a complaint that the use of a 20 year window was misleading because the renewable boom is younger than that. There are countries, like Germany, which have been building renewables for 20 years and still didn’t make the table. But no matter, here are the top performers using a 10-year rolling window and listing the top 30 instead of the top 20.




As you can see, renewables still don’t appear much and when they do, they are slower than the top performing nuclear countries.


If you add up the population in the nuclear countries in the graph, it is 122 million people. In contrast the total population of the countries with fast renewable growth is 46 million, even when I add in the hydro-electric countries … Canada is in both lists, like Sweden.


You can see from the two charts that France added 4.5 MWh/person in the decade between 1980 and 1989 and 6.3 MWh/person in the 20 years between 1977 and 1996.


Global rollout rates


The other objection to this approach maintained that global per capita additions were more relevant. Why?


During the years when US, Japan, UK, Sweden, France, Belgium, South Korea and Canada were building nuclear plants, India and China were building few if any. China had all of three reactors before the year 2000. India had nine but they were all small (200MW).


Dividing the global nuclear power increments by the population in countries not seriously attempting to build nuclear, including almost all of Africa and South America, is a terrific way to mislead about nuclear build rates, because it’s totally irrelevant to the pressing question of working out the best people can do if they put their mind to it.


On the other hand, in 2020, most people on the planet live in countries trying to roll out wind and solar. So the global renewable rollout rate is certainly a reasonable metric for those technologies today.


Those advocating for global rates rather than national ones did, unsurprisingly point out that the global per person annual increase in wind+solar electricity is now higher that the global per person annual increase in nuclear electricity had ever been. True enough.


The objectors, more than one, produced graphs a little like the following, except they plotted 1-year increments rather than multi-year rolling increments. Here are two graphs, built using the BP 2022 Statistical Review of World Energy data, the first showing 10-year rolling increments and the second 20-year increments:







Note the y-axis is still kiloWatt-hours/person, but we are using the global population for the year on the x-axis.


As you can see, over the past decade wind+solar additions have totalled about 300 kilowatt-hours per person, with the 20-year increment being not much higher. This global rollout is 15 times slower than the French nuclear rollout; making it pretty depressing.


However, it should be obvious that global per person emissions are not equal between countries and that we need the fastest construction rates in countries with the highest emissions. The construction rates in Nigeria with its 200 million people matter a lot to Nigeria, but not to the global decarbonisation challenge.


What we need for effective decarbonisation is the kind of speeds in the big emitters that we saw in France and Sweden in the past; preferably even faster. In comparison, the per person speed of wind+solar growth today is glacial. It’s glacial in the US, glacial in China, it’s too slow everywhere.


Global wind+solar rollout speeds, as distinct from national ones, are irrelevant or deeply depressing; take your pick.


Solar and wind advocates might like to ask themselves why such an inefficient short-lived technology should be so slow at creating significant amounts of electricity. For at least two decades they’ve been misleading people by citing “rates of growth”. It’s easy to grow fast when you are tiny. But enough is enough. Wind and solar have been incredibly slow to rollout and it’s time people started to ask why instead of using bad metrics to mislead people.


Appendix:

The messy graphs at the beginning of this article contain more than just bars for build rates. The solid dot is the 2050 IEA Net Zero by 2050 report target for the country. This, obviously isn't an increment, like the bar, but a total amount of electrical energy per person needed in the country to meet that IEA target. You may have objections to that target, but it isn't just pulled from thin air, like so many, it is carefully considered and, most importantly, calculated. So, for example, Sweden (#4) needs almost 35 MWh/person/year to meet that target. How much does she currently have? That's the small open circle at just over 15 MWh. How much of Sweden's current supply is clean? Meaning low carbon; wind, solar, hydro, nuclear. That's the asterisk. The length of the line between the little open dot and the bigger solid dot is what the country needs to do. In each case you can compare the length of that line between the dots with the bar. The bar, after all, is the best the country has ever done.


Instead of you having to calculate that, here's a fresh graph which does it for you. I'm using 20 years as the reference and I've removed all the fossil fuel data. You can see that Sweden (#4) can hit the IEA target in 2.8x20=56 years if it rolls out nuclear at its fastest 20-year rate. If it wants to hit the target in 20 years, then it needs to roll it out at 2.8 times its fastest rate. On the other had if it chooses (only) solar+wind, it will take 6.5 x 20 years to hit the target. Again, you see that nuclear dominates the best-ever rollout speeds. It's also really obvious, that we need much faster rollouts of low carbon electricity that we have ever had. NB. These charts were done with the 2021 BP Stats. I will redo them when the 2023 BP Stats are released.

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