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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.