By Michael Mariotte

In Germany it’s called the Energiewende–the energy transition. It’s a deliberate decision to move away from nuclear power and fossil fuels in favor of renewables and energy efficiency. And it’s working. Renewables are skyrocketing, nuclear reactors have closed and more shutdowns are on the way, and coal use is declining too, despite the misleading claims of renewable energy haters.

Here in the U.S., it isn’t called anything–if we have an “official” government policy at all it’s “all of the above,” which is the same as saying meaningless. But an ad hoc energy transition is nonetheless taking place in the U.S.

In April, 100% of all new electric generating capacity in the U.S. was wind and solar–511 MW of wind and 50 MW of solar. For the year so far, renewables account for 84.1% of new capacity, with natural gas supplying the rest. The amount of solar is understated, however, since it doesn’t account for rooftop solar and other distributed generation. Nor, of course, do these numbers, compiled by the Energy Information Administration, attempt to quantify the effect of energy efficiency on avoiding the need for new generating capacity. There has been, of course, no new capacity from nuclear, coal or oil.

This folks, is an energy transition already underway, quietly, with some government support but without an actual transition policy–indeed, with a policy that is inherently hostile to the transition.

As Ken Bossong of the Sun Day Campaign points out, “Renewable energy capacity is now greater than that of nuclear (9.14 percent) and oil (3.92 percent) combined. In fact, the installed capacity of wind power alone has now surpassed that of oil. In addition, total installed operating generating capacity from solar has now reached and surpassed the one-percent threshold — a ten-fold increase since December 2010.” (Full disclosure: Ken Bossong and the Sun Day Campaign share office space with NIRS).

But it’s an energy transition with a long ways to go. Germany is the clear global leader in solar power–despite its relatively low solar potential–with 38,200 MW of solar installed as of the end of 2014. The U.S. ranked fifth then with 18,280 MW of installed capacity, also behind China, Japan and Italy–although the U.S. likely has passed Italy by now. Given solar’s low capacity factor, that’s only about 4 1/2 large nuclear reactors worth of power installed in the U.S.

And it looks worse when you look at solar from a per capita basis, as this article does. The U.S. barely cracks the top 20 of installed solar capacity per person, at 19th in the world, the U.S. is behind nations like Bulgaria (8th), non-nuclear Austria (13th) and even nuclear-dominated France (15th).

Still, the U.S. is a big country with a lot of generating capacity (China is even bigger, and thus doesn’t even make the top 20 on a per capita basis). It takes a while to install that amount of any form of generating capacity. And solar is growing faster than any other form. Remember …read more

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