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Comparing the costs of nuclear and solar power

Solar challenging nuclear as potential climate change solution https://www.pv-magazine.com/2021/08/09/solar-challenging-nuclear-as-potential-climate-change-solution/

Research suggests that we can power 80% of the United States with wind, solar, and 12 hours of energy storage, but the replacement of nuclear power plants hasn’t been financially viable. Is that about to change?AUGUST 9, 2021 JOHN FITZGERALD WEAVER  Nuclear power delivers almost 20% of all electricity in the United States, and about 50% [ if you don’t count the uranium-nuclear fuel chain] of all low-emission electricity. Moreover, the United States has almost 100 nuclear power units operating more than 90% of the time, providing a steady base of power generation.

But moving forward, it seems nuclear has lost its swagger. Price increases, project delays, and cancellations have caused what may prove to be generational damage to nuclear power’s reputation. pv magazine USA has previously reported on industry pricing models, showing nuclear’s lagging pricing.

Now, Georgia Power’s Vogtle Unit 3 and Unit 4 – the nation’s only nuclear generating units currently under construction – have announced further delays and price increases. Conservative cost estimates suggest the two 1.117 GW facilities will require at least $30 billion to complete, including $3 billion in finance costs and $27 billion in construction costs.

Solar+storage costs

As solar and energy storage professionals, we must be conscious of the limitations of the sun, and the cost of energy storage. As we all know, the sun also sets. And while research suggests we can power 80% of the U.S. with wind, solar, and 12 hours of energy storage, being able to replace a nuclear power plant that runs 24/7/365 in wind, rain, snow, and sleet simply hasn’t been financially viable.

But is it today?

The chart above [ on original] shows the price of solar panels from 1976 through the end of 2019. Here, we see prices fall by more than 99.8% from over $100 per watt down to nearly $0.20 per watt. Below, we see the price of battery packs starting in 2010 and ending in 2020, based on data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Here, we see costs fall from $1,191/kWh to $137/kWh – a price decrease of greater than 88%.

In both cases, we can expect prices to continue trending downward in both the middle and long term. And so, what can we expect to pay when we replace a nuclear power plant with solar power plus batteries?

Cash to spend

The chart above [ on original] shows the price of solar panels from 1976 through the end of 2019. Here, we see prices fall by more than 99.8% from over $100 per watt down to nearly $0.20 per watt. Below, we see the price of battery packs starting in 2010 and ending in 2020, based on data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Here, we see costs fall from $1,191/kWh to $137/kWh – a price decrease of greater than 88%.

In both cases, we can expect prices to continue trending downward in both the middle and long term. And so, what can we expect to pay when we replace a nuclear power plant with solar power plus batteries?

Cash to spend

In order to replace the two nuclear plants while the sun is down, the batteries would need to replicate two 1.117 GW power sources for 16 hours. The total energy storage capacity would be 39.3 GWh, after we add an extra 10% for safe measure.

Roughly speaking, the total cost of these solar+storage facilities would be:

  • $8.4 billion for 10.55 GWdc of solar power, fully installed at $0.80/watt
  • $527 million for hypothetical power grid upgrades at $0.05/watt
  • $7.8 billion for 39.3 GWh of energy storage fully installed at $200/kWh
  • Around $16.8 billion grand total, no incentives

So, Georgia, pv magazine USA just saved you more than $13 billion (as of today, anyway).

Some caveats

It’s almost certain that a solar facility of this magnitude – roughly 27,000 acres, or around 0.07% of Georgia’s land – would be split among many landowners in the state. If land lease rates in Georgia are comparable to what  might be earned in Pennsylvania, the project could provide as much as $27 million per year in income to Georgia landowners for decades to come.

Furthermore, the solar power plants would start generating electricity and revenue within about three years of the first signature, and two years after groundbreaking. The new Vogtle reactors began construction in 2013 (planning began much earlier), and are projected to complete in 2022-23.

With these considerations in mind, the repowering costs to get a solar+storage facility to a 40 to 80-year lifetime would likely be offset by the fact that the solar facility will enter service at least eight years earlier than the equivalent nuclear site. Additionally, during the solar plant’s operating lifetime, it saves massive amounts of regular operations and maintenance costs, 

 as well as specialist engineer labor costs. The nuclear facility will easily last 40 years, and potentially as long as 80. However, the ongoing operations and maintenance costs are significant, as well as upgrades and equipment replacements that start to become necessary after 40 years. And sometimes, those $1 billion dollar upgrades go wrong, and a nuclear power plant gets trashed.

When we do repower the batteries and solar panels, they almost certainly will be cheaper, and operate at a higher efficiency, likely stretching the life of the solar facility to 50+ years. Again, this solar+storage facility would generate 20% more juice in the summer (when the power is needed most in Georgia) because we oversized it for the winter.

In the end, it would be best if we had a healthy ecosystem of clean energy generation systems that include nuclear [but nuclear is not clean]. However, if we’re going to debate the costs of nukes vs. solar, then it is no longer a discussion.

August 10, 2021 - Posted by | business and costs, renewable, USA

5 Comments »

  1. Some unexamined assumptions and likely consequences, even if it’s still true. Handing vast quantities of public funds to already cossetted and wealthy landowners has been the case here in the UK for owners of land who install wind farms. It boosts inequality. There are also the vast amounts of GHG emitted and other problems (such as mines polluting and driving out Indigenous peoples) in production of solar panels, as well as the land taken out of use for growing food (similarly to the use of land for reforestation as shown in a recent report by Oxfam). There is no clean energy, only varying trade-offs which we must examine carefully.

    Comment by John Smith | August 10, 2021 | Reply

    • I don’t claim to really have a grip in the economics here. Still, it is patently obvious that wind and solar energy arrive directly at the energy generating facilty, free, and with no transport costs to it, and with no mining for the fuel. Compare that with uranium-fuelled nuclear reactors . The fuel chain alone looks a whole lot cheaper. Also, other activiries can occur on the land – e.g sheep grazing in the windfarm area. And, if the solar or wind farm should close, the land is still clean and available for use – unlike the poisoned situation with nuclear.

      Comment by Christina MacPherson | August 10, 2021 | Reply

      • Well, true. I don’t support nuclear power either and I agree with all your points. However, let’s not be starry-eyed about the alleged cleanliness of renewable sources of energy. Sunlight is free but the infrastructure to convert it into electricity is always filthy. Each wind turbine uses huge amounts of concrete, for example, the production of which inevitable emits a lot of GHG. If we are to rely solely on renewables, wind and solar farms will never close but, if a wind farm did close, what would happen to all that concrete? And that is only one of myriad problems with so-called clean energy. My socialist position is one of economic de-growth for the wealthy, good lives for the poor. Our high energy societies must rapidly move to ones of much lower energy use.

        Comment by John Smith | August 11, 2021

      • Couldn’t agree more.
        And – you haven’t touvched on the foulness of the radiactive and other trash left be reprocessing of rare earths. I understand that this is a nughtmare in Mongolia, and a dreadful history in Malaysia – https://nuclearinformation.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/the-story-of-malaysias-thorium-caused-leukaemias-and-birth-defects-was-quietly-covered-up/

        Comment by Christina MacPherson | August 11, 2021

      • Such crimes against the poor will only continue with renewable energy infrastructure under capitalism. The infrastructure demands vast amounts of mining, almost all in the Global South. A thoughtful analysis of this week’s IPCC preview of its 2022 report puts this all in context:

        https://solidarity-us.org/on_the_brink/

        I recommend the Green Rocks blog for a compilation of news about renewables and mining:

        https://greenrocks.substack.com

        Comment by John Smith | August 11, 2021


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