EIA Predicts Nuclear Share of U.S. Generation to Fall Nearly 10% by 2050

In 2016, nuclear power accounted for about 20% of U.S. power generation, but that share is expected to fall to just 11% in 2050, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA’s) 2017 Annual Energy Outlook (AEO2017).

According to the EIA, 25% of the nation’s nuclear capacity, excluding plants that have already announced retirement, is likely to be taken offline by 2050. “The AEO2017 Reference case projections do not envision a large amount of new nuclear capacity additions. By 2050, only four reactors currently under construction and some uprates at existing plants are projected to come online,” EIA announced May 12.

The fall in nuclear generation is due in part to significant increases in natural gas and renewables. However, the report notes, “Except during maintenance or refueling cycles, nuclear plants operate around the clock as baseload generators, meaning nuclear plants make up a disproportionately large share of generation compared with their share of electricity generating capacity. Generating capacity using other fuels is typically dispatched at much lower rates than nuclear units.”

Interestingly, the EIA report assumes that current projects in South Carolina and Georgia will be completed. While work is currently underway on SCANA’s V.C. Summer project and Southern Co.’s Plant Vogtle, the future of those projects is far from certain.

Following the March 29 announcement that Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy, SCANA and Southern Co. are in the process of assessing if their projects should move forward. According to the filing, the bankruptcy was tied to financial setbacks resulting from those half-built AP1000 reactors.

Both SCANA and Southern Co. have entered into Interim Assessment Agreements (IAA) allowing construction to continue on the projects while the companies decide how to proceed. SCANA’s IAA runs through June 26, and Southern Co.’s expires May 12. Southern Co. did not immediately respond to an inquiry about if a decision had been made as the IAA expired. It is possible that the IAA will be extended.

EIA estimated that the V.C. Summer and Vogtle projects would contribute 4.4 GW to the estimated 9.1 GW of new nuclear capacity to be added between 2018 and 2050. “Another 4.7 GW of added nuclear capacity results from uprates, or operational changes that allow existing plants to produce more electricity. Increases from uprates are expected to end by 2040, as EIA expects that all plants planning to uprate will have completed the projects by 2040,” according to the report.

At the other end of the equation, EIA estimates retirements of 29.9 GW from 2018 to 2050. “Many of EIA’s anticipated near-term retirements include those that have been announced by plant operators. When the AEO2017 assumptions were finalized in late 2016, nuclear plant operators had announced intentions to retire five facilities between 2017 and 2026: Quad Cities Units 1 and 2 in 2017, Clinton Unit 1 in 2018, Pilgrim Unit 1 in 2019, Oyster Creek Unit 1 in 2020, and Diablo Canyon Units 1 and 2 in 2025 and 2026,” the report says.

Since the cases in the AEO2017 were developed, the Illinois state government threw the Quad Cities and Clinton plants a lifeline, approving financial incentives to keep the plants running. “Operators of these two plants subsequently withdrew their announcements to retire those plants, reducing the amount of capacity likely to retire in 2017 and 2018. However, in the months since AEO2017 assumptions were finalized, Entergy also announced its intention to retire three plants: Michigan’s Palisades in 2018 and New York’s Indian Point Units 2 and 3 around 2020,” the report says.

Abby L. Harvey is a POWER reporter.