If there’s one thing Twitter quickly brings to light it’s that very few people seem to genuinely support an “All of the Above” approach to climate change (renewables, nuclear, energy efficiency, etc). As energy analyst Jesse Jenkins recently tweeted (after being told by a fellow tweeter to “grow a pair” for not disparaging solar):
“Today has been a wonderfully horrifying reminder that far too many ppl are #energy technology tribalists/absolutists. A refreshing few r not”
I also had the pleasure of being on the receiving end of some pissed off people when I published this Huffington Post piece calling for a Plan A (RE, EE) and Plan B (nuclear, CCS, etc.) to be moving aggressively forward together. The nuclear folks felt that I, too, needed to grow a pair, while renewables enthusiasts took particular offense to my suggestion that Germany’s ‘solar revolution’ is a bit overhyped at times, without facts to back it up.
To me, the real question isn’t whether Jesse and I need to grow a pair. It’s, who the hell are you fighting and why? And, sheesh, haven’t you lost sight of the real enemy here? Unabated fossil fuels.
A couple of voices of reason have risen above the noise of late beyond this, in my opinion, nonsensical debate: Ben Heard and Michael Liebreich.
Heard, Founder of Decarbonise SA, makes a compelling argument for the two camps to come together in a piece titled Nuclear and Renewables in the Name of National Interest.
“Australia retains one of the most coal dependent electricity supplies in the world. How can proponents of renewables and nuclear power respectively get out of our trenches and pull together for the national interest in a responsible path for decarbonisation?”
He lays out five specific pathways about how to start making that happen.
And Liebreich, Chairman of the Advisory Board for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, wrote a great piece a couple of weeks ago following Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow’s updated “Stabilization Wedges” report, where he identifies wedges that are making real progress, including energy efficiency and renewables, and those that are falling frighteningly short, like nuclear. He writes that while “the short-term outlook may not look positive…I would not write off the nuclear industry,” offering up specific ideas about how it might take a cue from the renewables sector in “presenting a coherent vision of future potential.”
The thing is, I just don’t think that growing a pair and being combative is constructive. At all. I do, however, think that communicating ideas that might actually make a tangible difference in moving forward all of the critical technologies we need to solve this “irreversible problem”is helpful, and what Pacala and Socolow make clear we need to keep doing. The very nature of “I’m right!” is, in and of itself, a divisive non-starter, sure to make the ‘other side’ dig their heels in even deeper. As David MacKay wisely noted in his 2012 TED talk “We need to stop shouting and start talking. And if we can have a grownup conversation, make a plan that adds up and get building, maybe this low carbon revolution will actually be fun.”
In my ongoing quest to be part of moving forward a plan that actually adds up, I went hunting for answers around a topic that seems to create one of the biggest wedges between the wedges and that is, the economics. Liebreich (rightly) calls for clarity of costs within the “fog” of nuclear’s numbers, so I hit up a couple of peers and pals of mine to see if they might help shed some light on this continuously confused topic. Below is their take on things, which might surprise some with regards to the pervasive “nuclear’s not economic” meme, and further advances the argument for all technologies to keep pursuing the same shared target and goal.
Eric Ingersoll, Senior Advisor at Lucid Strategy and CEO of Energy Options Network
Ashley Finan, Energy Innovation Project Manager at the Clean Air Task Force, Energy Options Network Practice Leader
Both solar and nuclear have high initial costs with relatively low operating costs (the sun is free and uranium fuel is a small cost). And, just comparing initial costs for each unit of maximum theoretical capacity, solar appears much less expensive than nuclear. But here’s a critical difference: Nuclear plants produce at their maximum capacity about 90% of hours in a year. In contrast, utility scale solar plants operate less than a third that amount – ranging from 20% to 30% of their maximum capacity – because the sun does not always reach the panels at full power. Put another way, a 1 GW nuclear power plant would produce 7,889 gigawatt-hours of electric power annually. To produce the same number of gigawatt-hours with solar power operating at a 25% capacity factor, you would need to install 3.6 GW of solar capacity.i So we need a common currency to compare the two that includes time, capacity and money. The best currency we can think of is dollars per capacity-adjusted kilowatt. Let’s just call it a “capacity-adjusted kilowatt.”
By that measure, nuclear is more than competitive. In 2014, one of the cheapest utility scale solar plants in the US had an expected installed price of $2000 per kilowatt. But since US solar plants operate at only about 25% capacity factor, the cost per capacity-adjusted kilowatt is $8,000.ii Importantly, this figure does not account for any energy storage or backup power to stabilize the grid under solar’s output fluctuations. Now, let’s look at the latest US nuclear reactors, four of which are under construction today in Georgia and South Carolina. Their corresponding initial capital costs are $6,700 per kilowatt to $4,900 per kilowatt respectively. Accounting for their 90% operation time, they average $6,500 per capacity-adjusted kilowatt. They are safer and more advanced than existing plants, incorporating inherent safety systems. They take advantage of advanced computing and manufacturing to reduce costs through modular construction and a streamlined design – approaches that also enhance quality control and safety.
So, we have solar PV at $8,000 per useful unit of energy and nuclear at $6,500, almost 20% lower cost – even ignoring the back up costs for solar. Now, some point to the declining cost of solar panels in recent years, and that’s true and a good thing. But both technologies hold the promise of significant future cost reductions. In the US, some projections show that within the next two years, solar projects may be installed for less than $6,000 per capacity-adjusted kilowatt and Abu Dhabi has contracted to buy four nuclear plants from Korea for less than $3,400 per capacity-adjusted kilowatt. Both are welcome reductions in the cost of these badly needed zero-carbon generators.
When you take into consideration the amount of electricity produced, it’s just not true that nuclear is more expensive than solar or that it is likely to be more expensive than solar in the future. But that misses the bigger point: we’ll almost surely need both.
Today, 85% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels. And the world is expected to increase its demand for energy by more than 50% in the next thirty years. To fully address climate change, we need not only make sure that all that future additional energy is carbon free, we also need to replace our existing energy system with carbon free energy. We’ll need everything we have – and probably more – to make that happen.
The real competition, then, is not between solar and nuclear energy – although nuclear holds its own quite well – but between all carbon free energy and fossil fuels, which today are cheaper than either solar or nuclear. To beat the climate problem, we need to bring down the relative costs of a full set of carbon free energy through relentless innovation; policies that incorporate the social costs of carbon pollution will also help. But a corollary is equally clear: if we remove nuclear energy or other options from our decarbonization ‘toolkit’ based on faulty cost comparisons, we make a challenging mission far more difficult.
ii It’s important to recognize that solar PV developers can take measures to increase their capacity factors, but those measures also lead to increased up-front costs. Some lower-price projects may have correspondingly lower capacity factors.
Photo Credit: Nuclear Cost Comparison/shutterstock