For those who take a sporting interest in how the main sources of non-fossil, zero-carbon electricity are doing, it's a good time to take a look at the box score. For all practical purposes, that kind of green energy comes only from wind turbines, photovoltaic and thermal solar installations, and nuclear power plants. So, with numbers coming in for 2011, it's now possible to determine which of them was capable of providing the most energy in 2011 and to discuss the outlook for this year.
Among non-fossil sources of electricity, wind remained comfortably in the lead last year, with 41 gigawatts of capacity installed worldwide. (Allowing for the fact that turbines actually generate electricity only perhaps a quarter of the time, whereas baseload nuclear or fossil fuel plants often produce power 90 percent of the time, 41 gigawatts equates to perhaps 10 to 15 gigawatts of baseload capacity.) China led the world in installations last year, with 18 GW. The European Union came in second, with 9.6 GW; the United States finished third, with 6.8 GW. In terms of total wind capacity added to date, Europe is still far ahead with more than 100 GW. China's 63 GW is good for second, and the United States is in third with 47 GW.
Next came solar. Total 2011 photovoltaic installations added 28.4 GW of installed capacity —the equivalent of 7 to 10 GW of baseload capacity—according to Lux Research. The top ten manufacturers accounted for 44 percent of that total, with the U.S. company First Solar in front of the pack. Chinese PV makers followed closely, with Japanese and Korean manufacturers coming on strong. Lux predicts that Japan and Korea will play an ever larger role in the market, while the European position will continue to deteriorate as government subsidies contract.
Nuclear was still somewhere back in the dust last year. As best I can tell, no new nuclear power plants were commissioned. This year, however, as much as 11.7 GW of new nuclear capacity may come online, says the World Nuclear Association. According to its compilation, three reactors are scheduled to come into operation in China, as well as three in India, three in Canada, two in Korea, and one each in Argentina, Russia, and Iran. Given the history of delays in approving, building, and activating nuclear power plants, 11 to 12 GW of new capacity in 2012 can safely be considered a very optimistic projection. So it seems very likely that both wind and solar will continue to outstrip nuclear for at least another year (wind by a healthy margin) even after making a three- or four-fold adjustment for their lower availability factors.