Wind, Solar Generation Capacity Catching Up With Nuclear Power

Advocates of nuclear energy have long been predicting its renaissance, yet this mode of producing electricity has been stalled for years. Renewable energy, by contrast, continues to expand rapidly, even if it still has a long way to go to catch up with fossil fuel power plants, writesWorldwatch Institute Senior Researcher Michael Renner in the Institute’s latest Vital Signs Online analysis (

Nuclear energy’s share of global power production has declined steadily from a peak of 17.6 percent in 1996 to 10.8 percent in 2013. Renewables increased their share from 18.7 percent in 2000 to 22.7 percent in 2012.

Following a rapid rise from its beginnings in the mid-1950s, global nuclear power generating capacity peaked at 375.3 gigawatts (GW) in 2010. Capacity has since declined to 371.8 GW in 2013, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Adverse economics, concern about reactor safety and proliferation, and the unresolved question of what to do with nuclear waste have put the brakes on the industry.

In stark contrast, wind and solar power generating capacities are now on the same soaring trajectory that nuclear power was on in the 1970s and 1980s. Wind capacity of 320 GW in 2013 is equivalent to nuclear capacity in 1990. The 140 GW in solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity is still considerably smaller, but growing rapidly.

In recent years, renewable energy has attracted far greater investments than nuclear power.  According to estimates by the International Energy Agency (IEA), nuclear investments averaged US$8 billion per year between 2000 and 2013, compared with $37 billion for solar PV and $43 billion for wind. Individual countries, of course, set diverging priorities, but nowhere did nuclear have a major role in power generation investments.

In contrast with investment priorities, research budgets still favor nuclear technologies. Among members of the IEA (most European countries, the United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand), nuclear power has received the lion’s share of public energy research and development (R&D) budgets during the last four decades. Nuclear energy attracted $295 billion, or 51 percent, of total energy R&D spending between 1974 and 2012. But this number has declined over time, from a high of 73.6 percent in 1974 to 26 percent today. Renewable energy received a cumulative total of $59 billion during the same period (10.2 percent), but its share has risen year after year.

Because wind and solar power can be deployed at variable scales, and their facilities constructed in less time, these technologies are far more practical and affordable for most countries than nuclear power reactors. Worldwide, 31 countries are operating nuclear reactors on their territories. This compares to at least 85 countries that have commercial wind turbine installations.

The chances of a nuclear revival seem slim. Renewable energy, by contrast, appears to be on the right track. But it is clear that renewables have a long way to go before they can hope to supplant fossil fuels as the planet’s principal electricity source. The expansion of sources like wind and solar will have to become even more rapid in order to stave off climate disaster, and that in turn means that their fate cannot be left to the whims of the market alone.

Leading researchers in cyber-physical systems to showcase innovations at SmartAmerica Expo

Media Advisory 14-012
Leading researchers in cyber-physical systems to showcase innovations at SmartAmerica Expo

June 11 event at Washington Convention Center features keynotes and live demonstration of the ?nternet of Things’ in action

Smart America logo

On June 11th, 24 teams will come together to demonstrate the potential of cyber-physical systems.
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June 9, 2014

Just as the Internet transformed the way people interact with information, cyber-physical systems (CPS) are transforming the way people interact with engineered systems. Cyber-physical systems integrate sensing, computation, control and networking into physical objects and infrastructure. Already, CPS innovations are driving development in sectors such as agriculture, energy, transportation, building design and automation, healthcare and advanced manufacturing. New advances in CPS will enable capability, adaptability, scalability, resiliency, safety, security and usability that will far exceed the simple embedded systems of today.

In December 2013, the SmartAmerica Challenge was launched as a way to bring together leaders from industry, academia and the government in order to show how cyber-physical systems (also known as ‘the Internet of Things’) can create jobs, new business opportunities and greater capabilities for citizens. Since then, 24 teams from more than 100 participating organizations have joined forces to tackle some of the biggest societal challenges of our time–from emergency response systems to next-generation transportation systems to smart healthcare.

On June 11, 2014, the teams will come together at the Washington D.C. Convention Center to showcase their vision for a smarter America driven by advances in CPS.

See the demonstrations and hear from speakers from the White House, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Commerce and other government agencies, companies and universities from across the United States.

From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. there will be ongoing demonstrations and speakers covering healthcare, smart energy, transportation and disaster response. These demonstrations will include robotics, autonomous vehicles, UAVs, search dogs, 3-D printing, security technology, healthcare systems and advanced vehicle communications.


Todd Park, U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to the President

Dan Tangherlini, Administrator, U.S. General Services Administration

Farnam Jahanian, Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, National Science Foundation

Chris Greer, Senior Executive for Cyber-Physical Systems, National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. Department of Commerce

Richard McKinney, Chief Information Officer, U.S. Department of Transportation

Bryan Sivak, Chief Technology Officer, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


SmartAmerica Expo: A Showcase of CPS innovations from teams representing government, academia and industry.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Media and the public are welcome throughout the Expo.


Walter E. Washington Convention Center
801 Mt Vernon Pl., N.W., Washington, D.C., near the Mt. Vernon Square/7th St. Convention Center Metro stop on the Green and Yellow lines.


To hear how advances in cyber-physical systems are impacting sectors such as smart manufacturing, healthcare, smart energy, intelligent transportation and disaster response, and how these advances deliver socio-economic benefits to America.

To learn more, visit the SmartAmerica website.

To talk with exhibitors or speakers about their work, journalists are encouraged to contact NSF’s Aaron Dubrow who can help arrange onsite interviews:, (703) 292-4489.

Throughout the event, we will tweet news and images from @NSF and @NSF_CISE. For additional up-to-the-minute information, follow the official event hashtag: #SmartAmerica.


Media Contacts
Aaron Dubrow, NSF, 703-292-4489,

Related Websites
Smart America:
NSF Cyber-Physical Systems:

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How much fertilizer is too much for Earth’s climate?

How much fertilizer is too much for Earth’s climate?

Helping farmers around the globe combat greenhouse gas emissions and climate change

tractor in a corn field at the NSF Kellogg Biological Station LTER site.

Applying nitrogen fertilizer to corn at the NSF Kellogg Biological Station LTER site.
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June 9, 2014

The following is part fifteen in a series on the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network. Visit parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fourteen.

Helping farmers around the globe apply more precise amounts of fertilizer nitrogen can combat climate change.

That’s the conclusion of a study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the paper, researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) provide an improved prediction of nitrogen fertilizer’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural fields.

The study uses data from around the world to show that emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas produced in soil following nitrogen addition, rise faster than previously expected when fertilizer rates exceed crop needs.

Nitrogen-based fertilizers spur greenhouse gas emissions by stimulating microbes in the soil to produce more nitrous oxide.

Nitrous oxide is the third most important greenhouse gas, behind carbon dioxide and methane.

Agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of human-caused nitrous oxide emissions worldwide, which have increased substantially in recent years due to increased nitrogen fertilizer use.

“Our motivation is to learn where to best target agricultural efforts to slow global warming,” says MSU scientist Phil Robertson. Robertson is also director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Kellogg Biological Station Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) site, one of 25 such NSF LTER sites around the globe and senior author of the paper.

“Agriculture accounts for 8 to 14 percent of all greenhouse gas production globally. We’re showing how farmers can help reduce this number by applying nitrogen fertilizer more precisely.”

The production of nitrous oxide can be greatly reduced if the amount of fertilizer needed by crops is exactly the amount that’s applied to farmers’ fields.

When plants’ nitrogen needs are matched with the nitrogen that’s supplied, fertilizer has substantially less effect on greenhouse gas emissions, Robertson says.

“These results vastly improve the ability of research to inform climate change, food security and the economic health of the world’s farmers,” says Saran Twombly, a program director in NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research through the LTER Program.

Lead author and MSU researcher Iurii Shcherbak notes that the research is especially applicable to fertilizer practices in under-fertilized areas such as sub-Saharan Africa.

“Because nitrous oxide emissions won’t be accelerated by fertilizers until crops’ nitrogen needs are met, more nitrogen fertilizer can be added to under-fertilized crops without much affecting emissions,” says Shcherbak.

Adding less nitrogen to over-fertilized crops elsewhere, however, would deliver major reductions to greenhouse gas emissions in those regions.

The study provides support for expanding the use of carbon credits to pay farmers for better fertilizer management and offers a framework for using this credit system around the world.

Carbon credits for fertilizer management are now available to U.S. corn farmers, says Robertson.

The research was also funded by MSU and by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and the Electric Power Research Institute.

—  Cheryl Dybas, NSF (703) 292-7734
—  Layne Cameron, MSU (517) 353-8819

Douglas Landis
Thomas Schmidt
Katherine Gross
Stephen Hamilton
G. Philip Robertson

Related Institutions/Organizations
Michigan State University


Related Programs
Long-Term Ecological Research

Related Awards
#1027253 The KBS LTER Project: Long-term Ecological Research in Row-crop Agriculture

Total Grants

Related Websites
NSF Grant: The KBS LTER Project: Long-term Ecological Research in Row-crop Agriculture:
NSF Kellogg Biological Station Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Site:
NSF Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network:
NSF News: Scientists Develop New Carbon Accounting Method to Reduce Farmers’ Use of Nitrogen Fertilizer:
NSF News: Marginal Lands Are Prime Fuel Source for Alternative Energy:
NSF Publication: Discoveries in Long-Term Ecological Research:

World Oceans Day: 12 things to know about El Niño: Is it coming, and when?

World Oceans Day: 12 things to know about El Ni?: Is it coming, and when?

How will it affect coastal species–and the fish on our dinner tables?

Spray glider in the water

As part of the ROGER project, Spray gliders are tracking the formation of this year’s El Nino.
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June 5, 2014

Just in time for World Oceans Day on June 8, cometh El Niño. But is El Niño really on the horizon? How certain are we of its arrival? And how will we know it’s here? What effect will it have on the weather, on coastal species and on what’s on our dinner tables?

To find out, the National Science Foundation (NSF) talked with biological oceanographer Mark Ohman and physical oceanographer Dan Rudnick of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Their work is funded by NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences and Division of Environmental Biology.

1) What is El Niño?

(Ohman) El Niño is the formation of warmer-than-usual ocean waters in the equatorial Pacific, with extensive temperature changes along the coast of South America during the month of December–hence the Spanish name “El Niño,” the Christmas child. Scientists refer to the phenomenon as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Its warm ocean phase is termed El Niño, and cool ocean phase La Niña.

2) Is El Niño predictable?

(Rudnick) Yes, to some extent. Scientists have identified the precursors of an El Niño; observations to monitor them are taking place near the equator. These observations are used in sophisticated models to predict the timing and magnitude of a developing El Niño. Right now, the models show anything from a weak to a strong El Niño ahead.

3) How do we know that changes in the ocean are the result of El Niño?

(Ohman) El Niño is the strongest year-to-year “signal” on Earth, with distinct temperature and precipitation changes over land and in the sea. Because the ocean is variable on many time scales (tidal, seasonal, year-to-year and decade-to-decade), it’s essential to have a baseline of ocean measurements against which to measure departures from normal conditions.

Scientists at the NSF California Current Ecosystem Long-Term Ecological Research site, located in Southern California waters, have access to records of ocean conditions as far back as 1916.

4) Are all El Niños alike?

(Ohman) Not at all. Not only do El Niños vary in intensity, there are at least two major types. In one El Niño, termed Eastern Pacific, the most extreme temperature changes happen off the South American coast. In Central Pacific (CP) El Niños, the center of ocean temperature changes is much farther to the west. Some evidence suggests that the frequency of CP El Niños may be increasing.

(Rudnick) Ultimately every El Niño is different, and only some will strongly affect the coasts of the Americas.

5) When are the effects of El Niño the strongest?

(Ohman) The development of an El Niño is seasonal. The first ocean temperature changes usually begin during the Northern summer (June through September) then continue to grow, reaching their maximum during winter, from November to the following January. But precursors can sometimes be detected as early as February or March of the year of an El Niño’s onset.

6) How often do El Niños occur, and how long do they last?

(Ohman) El Niños happen about every two to seven years. The last one was in 2009-10. Their duration is variable, but is usually six to eight months along the equator, with shorter time periods in higher latitudes. There have been exceptional cases of very long El Niños that lasted for two or more years, such as in 1957-59.

7) Are there new ways of observing developing El Niños?

(Rudnick) Yes, we’re doing transects–criss-crossings of the ocean–using bullet-shaped, winged robotic gliders that collect underwater data. They’re part of a project called Repeat Observations by Gliders in the Equatorial Region (ROGER).

These futuristic-looking gliders, called Spray gliders, traverse the oceans under their own power and are taking measurements in the Pacific Ocean near the Galapagos Islands. The information that returns with a glider tells us how the ocean is changing, and whether those changes indicate the coming of an El Niño.

8) How do the Spray gliders work?

(Rudnick) Spray gliders dive from the surface down to 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) and back, completing a cycle in six hours and covering six kilometers (3.7 miles) during that time.

The gliders carry sensors to measure temperature, salinity, current velocity, chlorophyll fluorescence (a measure of the abundance of phytoplankton), and acoustic backscatter (a measure of zooplankton). Spray gliders are launched for missions lasting about 100 days.

9) How do you know when to send out the gliders?

(Rudnick) The ROGER project wasn’t originally designed to observe an El Niño, but the gliders were always capable of doing so. With a scientific project funded by NSF for two years, we couldn’t realistically expect to catch an El Niño.

But science does involve serendipity, and we’re fortunate to have the gliders in position just as an El Niño is appearing. We expect our data to include the most high-resolution repeated ocean transects ever done across the equator during an El Niño. Results from the gliders are showing the classic signs of an El Niño, including a strengthening equatorial undercurrent.

10) What effects will El Niño have on marine ecosystems along the U.S. West Coast?

(Ohman) During El Niño, the spawning grounds of coastal fish like sardines and anchovies often move closer to the coast. As warming waters from the open ocean come ever nearer to the California coast, cool upwelled water is found mostly along the edge of the land.

Warm-water plankton and fish may be transported far to the north of their normal ranges. In some El Niños, species that live along the coast of Baja California, Mexico, may be found as far north as off British Columbia.

11) Do seabirds and marine mammals respond to El Niño?

(Ohman) It all comes down to where the fish are. Some seabirds, especially those with limited foraging ranges or narrow food preferences, may have reduced reproductive success during an El Niño. California sea lions may have less fish prey available and therefore depressed birth weights of pups. Some whales, dolphins and porpoises may move to different foraging grounds where the fishing is better.

12) Will fisheries off California be affected?

(Ohman) El Niño may have a substantial effect on the catch of, for example, market squid, one of the most commercially important species off California. The spawning of this cool-water species may be severely curtailed, or take place in deeper waters than usual.

During an El Niño, U.S. West Coast sportfishers often catch more warm-water fish such as yellowfin tuna, dolphinfish (dorado), and yellowtail, and fewer cool-water fish like rockfish and lingcod. What’s on your dinner table may, for a time, look just a bit different.

—  Cheryl Dybas, NSF (703) 292-7734

Related Websites
NSF Grant: Collaborative Research: Repeat Observations by Gliders in the Equatorial Region (ROGER):
NSF Grant: Ecological Transitions in the California Current Ecosystem: CCE-LTER Phase II:
NSF California Current Ecosystem Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Site:
NSF Long-Term Ecological Research Network:
NSF Publication: Discoveries in Long-Term Ecological Research: