Is Solar Power Now Cheaper Than Nuclear Energy?

nuclear power plant

Solar power took a big step toward becoming the alternative energy of choice with this week's news that energy from sunlight might be cheaper than nuclear power. The analysis, which comes from a Duke University report entitled Solar and Nuclear Costs: The Historic Crossover, claims that, "Electricity from new solar installations is now cheaper than electricity from proposed new nuclear plants" in North Carolina.

The reason, according to the study, is a dramatic drop of the price of solar in recent years combined with an increase in the price of nuclear. In 2002, construction cost estimates for new nuclear power plants were in the $3 billion per reactor range. As new design and engineering problems emerge, construction costs continue to rise—now nuclear plants are estimated to cost $10 billion per reactor. And price isn't even the half of it. The study (PDF) reasons:

Solar electricity has numerous advantages other than cost. Rooftop solar can be installed in a few days. Small incremental gains in total generating capacity start producing electricity immediately. One does not have to wait ten years for huge blocks of new capacity to come online. Solar panels leave no radioactive wastes. They do not consume billions of gallons of cooling water each year. There are no national security issues with solar installations. An accident would be a small local affair, not a catastrophe.

This doesn't mean that we should completely ditch nuclear power. The Duke analysis argues that solar's status as an intermittent power source (it only works when the sun shines) is irrelevant because of smart grid technologies that optimize the energy mix. And the upfront costs for nuclear are astronomical compared to the cost of implementing, say, a rooftop solar system, but the fact remains that nuclear plants can pump out energy 24 hours a day. Solar plants can't. A long-lasting nuclear plant will most likely generate more energy per dollar invested than a solar plant ever could.

Solar should always be considered first, to be sure—one report estimates that construction of 100 new nuclear reactors would cost taxpayers an extra $1.9 trillion to $4.4 trillion over the 40-year life of the devices. But writing off any reliable, clean energy source would be a mistake.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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  • Daniel

    What I always wonder about is that the full costs are NEVER even touched...

    How much is it to protect nuclear waste for the next 1 Mio (or more years) from harming people?
    In 2001 the IAEA decided to get a new supplemental nuclear warning sign (http://www.homeofsolarenergy.c... because with the "old" one still many people opened nuclear waste and got hurt or died...obviously sooo many people that the IAEA believed to have to take action...

    and what if nobody can read these signs anymore in say 3000 years? Like we cannat read the Hieroglyphs anymore (yes, we can partly, but only because we found the Rosetta Stone)..

    or can anybody here tell me what the signs in South America mean?

    Well, when our civilization (yes, we are soooo proud and believe this is the one and all, ok, I believe you if you translate Aztec scripts for me) is long gone and hopefully still humans exists, you think they will stay away because of some red sign?? Come on

    So if we take all these costs into account, we do not have to wait until 2010 or later until Renewable energy is way cheaper...

    Solar is not the only one, Joe, that's true...but there are much more and the solution is in the mix...
    google Portugal and will be surprised...

    but too many forces just want to keep their profits

  • Joe Nyangon

    With recent report from the National Research Council warning that nuclear forensics skill is on the decline in the U.S., the nuclear industry has received a beating recently. But the future in energy security isn’t in investing in solar alone. A mix of renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, biodisel, and plug-in hybrids), fossil fuels, coal and nuclear energy, provides the best solution. It’s not a question of one or the other. But increasingly, dependency on fossils should be scaled down in favor of renewables to realize future energy security.

  • Bob_Wallace

    No, this does not mean that we should ditch nuclear power.

    What it means is that it has become even harder for NEW nuclear plants to be profitable.

    Wind is already very cheap and when there's a lot of wind-electricity on the grid new nuclear plant operators would have to sell their power at a loss since they can't shut their rigs down. In order to make up for those losses they have to rely on being able to sell for much more than the "16 cents/kWh" price. They might have to pay sixteen cents time two to break even and gain a profit on their investment.

    Now solar comes along and steals that big return market out form under them. High demand (peak) hours are basically when the sun is shinning. Solar at or just below sixteen cents means that the best that new nuclear operators do is sort of break even during those hours. Now they have to be able to charge huge prices for non-windy, non-sunny hours. Basically those few hours after the sun sets and before people go to bed.

    But there's natural gas just waiting to spin its turbines for those hours. And we're building concentrated thermal solar with "dark time" storage. And we can store cheap wind power with pump-up hydro, CAES, and utility scale batteries. All of these cost well under "16 x 2". Wind with CAES storage, for example, costs about 13 cents/kWh.

    There is exactly no way that new nuclear can earn a 24/365 average of $0.16/kWh since there is always a less expensive competitor waiting to sell under them. All around the clock. Every day of the year.

    "A long-lasting nuclear plant will most likely generate more energy per dollar invested than a solar plant ever could."

    No, that's exactly what the article you referenced points out. The thing producing the least energy per dollar invested is the one that has to charge the most. Very simple economics....