Carpe Diem

Alternative energy sources like wind and solar are no substitute for low-cost, zero emissions nuclear power

nuclearFrom my op-ed in today’s Investor’s Business Daily “Alternative Energy No Substitute For Clean Nuclear“:

Wind and solar production won’t make much of a difference in reducing CO2 emissions, and meaningful levels of production have, at best, a negligible positive impact. By contrast, nuclear power — which is not eligible for mandatory use under the renewable power standards — supplies nearly 20% of the nation’s electricity.

The clean little secret of recent years is that nuclear power has performed very well. Nuclear power is our zero-emission energy workhorse, providing 64% of the nation’s zero-carbon energy. Over the last decade, the U.S. fleet of around 100 nuclear plants has generated electricity about 90% of the time. Thus, a 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant produces three times more electricity than 1,000 megawatts of wind turbines and four times more electricity than solar panels.

Policymakers and politicians have routinely ignored the impact that the mandate for renewable power has had in more than half the country where electricity markets have been deregulated. And the result has been a catastrophe for nuclear power, with safe and efficient reactors either being shut down prematurely or at risk of being shuttered for no good reason.

The Energy Information Administration forecasts a 28% increase in U.S. power demand through 2040. Those who claim that solar and wind can meet all of our electricity needs by then are engaged in fantasy. Renewables cannot get us even halfway there. In fact, the renewable sources added in recent years have made the electric system more fragile, because of their intermittency problems.

We would be remiss if we did not consider the impact that the post-Fukushima shutdown of nuclear plants in Germany is having on electricity prices, which have jumped 50%. Today electricity prices in Germany are nearly three times the U.S. average (see chart above). The risk is the U.S. could go down the same road.

What could turn this situation around? The answers are clear. First, states have to recognize that wind and solar power are mature industries that can now compete on their own without the mandates. Second, we have to give nuclear power an opportunity to demonstrate its economic and environmental value. If nuclear power fails, the loss of fuel diversity will increase the price of power production.

In the increasingly competitive global economy, the availability of reliable and low-cost power is becoming more important. The fact is, during the nation’s recent economic recovery, the gain in manufacturing jobs was greatest in the 15 states with the lowest electricity prices, while the 15 states with the highest electricity prices lost manufacturing jobs.

The evidence is clear — low-cost power translates into jobs. And fuel diversity matters. Overlooking nuclear power as part of our country’s energy diversity would be a big mistake.

45 thoughts on “Alternative energy sources like wind and solar are no substitute for low-cost, zero emissions nuclear power

  1. While I agree nuclear power is an option, especially the inherently safe designs, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University has pointed out that, if you eliminate the subsidies nuclear gets, it’s not cost competitive compared even to ‘green’ forms of energy.

    • @bpuharic
      > if you eliminate the subsidies nuclear gets

      What about the special legal bias against nuclear power that makes it especially easy to sue? Should that also be removed? If not, why not?

      > if you eliminate the subsidies nuclear gets, it’s not cost competitive compared even to ‘green’ forms of energy.

      That sounds hard to believe. Could you show some numbers? Here are some.

      • The Price Anderson Act of 1957 puts the US Treasury on the hook for insurance claims above a threshold, currently $12 billion. (Damage estimates for Fukushima disaster range from $250-$500B.)
        Your link says nuclear costs include longterm waste storage, which is a trick since no site exists in the US, thanks to nimby.
        Gotta say I don’t see how nuclear “fails” with a bang as Dr. Perry implies. Existing plants won’t be taken off line prematurely. Nimby, rather than energy policy, limits new builds.

        • @Todd Mason
          > Existing plants won’t be taken off line prematurely.

          Existing nuclear units are being taken offline prematurely, because utilities are being forced by law to accept garbage-power from wind turbines on a “priority” basis, making it uneconomical to operate any baseload power plants, regardless of cost efficiency:

          Electricity market challenges

          In states with deregulated electricity markets, nuclear power plant operators have found increasing difficulty with competition on two fronts: low-cost gas, particularly from shale gas developments, and subsidized wind power with priority grid access. [...] A second problem is the federal production tax credit of $22/MWh paid to wind generators, coupled with their priority access to the grid. When there is oversupply, wind output is taken preferentially. Capacity payments can offset losses to some extent, but where market prices are around $35-$40/MWh, nuclear plants are struggling. According to Exelon, the main operator of merchant plants and a strong supporter of competitive wholesale electricity markets, low prices due to gas competition are survivable, but the subsidized wind is not. Though it is a very small part of the supply, and is unavailable most of the time, its effect on electricity prices and the viability of base-load generators “is huge”.

        • It isn’t necessarily a trick. The industry paid the government to build Yucca Mountain and then refused to let Yucca mountain open. So yes they paid the costs and know what it would cost if nimbies would let the deserted Yucca mountain open.

          Note also that a new type of reactor – thorium reactors do not have the super long waste problem. Their waste stops being radioactive much sooner.

          • @marque2
            > thorium reactors do not have the super long waste problem

            Spent fuel has never been a technical problem.

        • @Todd Mason
          >>> Existing plants won’t be taken off line prematurely.
          >> Existing nuclear units are being taken offline prematurely, because utilities are being forced by law to accept garbage-power from wind turbines on a “priority” basis
          > Sez here that shale gas is making some nuke expansion uneconomic

          Uncontested. We weren’t talking about expansion.

          • I think there is a bigger problem with plants being taken off late. Nuke is a decent power source so utilities like to keep the plants open – and Eco nuts raise the costs with lawsuits – further pushing out the length of time open, and Eco nuts wontnallow new plants – further keeping plants open – so we end up with a bunch of 50 year old technology nuke plants that really are prone to issues. The Fukushima plants should have been replaced years ago. New plant technology is not only more efficient – there are new designs that work with passive cooling – if the water pumps were cut off there would be no problem.

            So we end up with really old plants.which do have some safety issues that should be replaced with new safer designed, but can’t be – but when an accident happens the Eco groups don’t get blamed – even though it is their fault – the “evil greedy” power company gets blamed.

  2. Having worked in the nuclear industry all my working years it is interesting that the same old arguments are used both pro and con. Nuclear Power is kinda like global warming either you buy into it or you don’t. It is proven to be save and cheaper. The long term waste issue was a non problem until Harry Reid decided that he would get political points by closing down Yucca Mtn.

    Like so many things we have the answers and technology but are limited in our ability to get the public behind them. It is a lot easier to scare people than educated them.

    • Harry Reid created the issue?

      I’m 60 years old and have followed nuclear for 45 years. Waste has ALWAYS been an issue.

      If you want to talk nuclear do it. But making up garbage isn’t the way to do it.

        • I’m from Pittsburgh. Shippingport nuclear power plant, the world’s first, opened in 1957. I toured it as a school student.

          Obama became president in 2009. That’s 52 years.

          So tell me how Obama and Reid prevented any solution to the waste problem for half a century before they came to power.

          • as ever, poo bear seems to be either incapable of comprehending what he reads and employing simple logic, or so dishonest that it’s truly vomit inducing.

            there WAS a solution.

            they made it impossible to keep using it.

            federal regulations made it impossible to use well established and safe long term storage options despite the fact that no problems had arisen from them.

            this has forced plants to store vitrified waste on site.

            there is no issue with the technology or the safety. both are excellent. the issue is purely one of absurd regulation.

            they have taken a non problem and made it into a problem out of dogamtism.

            give it a rest robbie.

            do you really expect the sort of counter factual, disjointed, and mindless drivel you are spewing to be accepted as a serious argument?

          • Uh, I appreciate your efforts to backpedal and move the goal posts.

            YOU said it was Reid who was responsible. When I pointed out that for over half a century we haven’t had a solution, you started hemming and hawing.

            Well, yes, that’s what the right does.

            Where was the solution under Bush? Under Reagan?

            Obama wasn’t even BORN when Shippingport started producing power. Yet somehow it’s all his fault.

            Why? Did he invent a time machine?

            So, again, tell us about how Reagan came up with the solution that’s somehow invisible, and that’s because of Reid and Obama.

          • i appreciate your complete inability to read and grasp simple concepts, but as that was my first comment on this thread, clearly, i did not just say that.

            seriously, do you even try to keep up in these discussions?

            if so, that’s deeply sad. you are not doing much of a job, are you?

            your absurd, dishonest accusation of goal post moving is just a smokescreen for what you, not i am doing.

            “On July 18, 2006 the DOE proposed March 31, 2017 as the date to open the facility and begin accepting waste based on full funding. On September 8, 2006 Ward (Edward) Sproat, a nuclear industry executive formerly of PECO energy in Pennsylvania, was nominated by President Bush to lead the Yucca Mountain Project. Following the 2006 mid-term Congressional elections, Democratic Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a longtime opponent of the repository, became the Senate Majority Leader, putting him in a position to greatly affect the future of the project. Reid has said that he would continue to work to block completion of the project, and is quoted as having said: “Yucca Mountain is dead. It’ll never happen.”[10]

            In the 2008 Omnibus Spending Bill, the Yucca Mountain Project’s budget was reduced to $390 million. Despite this cut in funding, the project was able to reallocate resources and delay transportation expenditures to complete the License Application for submission on June 3, 2008. Lacking an operating repository, however, the federal government owes to the utilities somewhere between $300 and $500 million per year in compensation for failing to comply with the contract it signed to take the spent nuclear fuel by 1998.[11]

            During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to abandon the Yucca Mountain project.[12] After his election, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Obama he did not have the ability to do so.[13] On April 23, 2009, Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and eight other senators introduced legislation to provide “rebates” from a $30 billion federally managed fund into which nuclear power plants had been paying, so as to refund all collected funds if the project was in fact cancelled by Congress.[14]”

            there was a solution in place, obama and reid poleaxed it.

            the facts here are quite simple and clear.

            the studies had been going on for decades.

            this was the long term plan: one big, safe repository right next to the spot where we had done piles of nuclear weapons testing.

            reid was thrilled to such up the billions in study money, but then decided he would derial the project (once his cronies had been paid).

            prior to yucca, there were several high level waste facilities.

            hanford, idoaho, st vrain, savannah river, etc. (my girlfriend’s father was a pioneer in vitrification at hanford)

            regulation ended their use and on site began to build up.

            yucca was to be the answer.

            it was set to open, the reid, obama etc killed it.

            when there is a good, workable plan to solve a problem and you eliminate that plan and fail to replace it with anyhting else, then YES you have become the problem.

            no time machine required.

            so save us the dishonest histrionics.

  3. Seems to me the cost trends for solar and nuclear are very different. Solar is on a steep decline. Nuclear isn’t.

    The tail risk of nuclear is extreme and, despite all the reassurances from the industry, we had 2 major, uncontained nuclear disasters in 25 years. Yes, one of them was in the former Soviet Union, and one of them was the result of a natural disaster. But, you do have to assume that there will be natural disasters and poorly-structured incentive systems from time to time, too.

    Taking the social cost of those two meltdowns alone, and spreading it across the nuclear industry would probably raise the all-in cost of the power quite a bit.

    Did I mention that solar is on a near-vertical downward cost slope? (Wind, by the way, isn’t.)

    • thomas-

      “near vertical” seems like a bit of an exaggeration, but solar is definitely getting better. (wind never will, the physics does not work)

      the issue with solar is that it is not real, baseline power. it is intermittent, varies widely by time of day, cloud cover, and season, and there is no good way to store it in large quantities.

      this makes it inherently hard for a power grid and demand matching especially as demand tends to go up during times when the sun is weak.

      the “morning ramp” occurs during a period of poor sun angle (6-8.30 am) some of which is before sunrise in the winter.

      peak demand is 6-6.30pm, which is well past peak sun (and has little sun at all in the winter up north)

      until we have the ability to cheaply and efficiently store large amounts of electricity, solar cannot be a major portion of the power grid.

      production and use simply do not line up.

      • Cost per Watt in 2012 dollars:
        2008: $3.80
        2009: $3.00
        2010: $2.00
        2011: $1.50
        2012: $1.00
        2020: ?

        Tail risk of solar power: zero.
        No question, storage is an issue. Baseload solar is much more expensive.

        • Thomas I’d be interested in seeing the source of those numbers on solar cost per watt so I can better understand what’s included in that remarkably low price.

        • Solar Energy Industry Electricity Prices – March 2012 Update

          Residential Installed System: $13,829

          “The residential index is based upon a standard 2 kilowatt peak system, roof retrofit mount. It is connected to the electricity grid and has battery backup to allow it to operate during electricity downtime.”

          That’s $6.91 per watt. Unlike a nuclear power plant, it doesn’t run at 100% capacity factor in December (or ever, for that matter). If, in a given location, it operated at 10% capacity factor in December, the corrected cost per installed watt would be $69.15. A 15-gigawatt plant, therefore, would be a cool trillion dollars.

          For comparison, a 15-gigawatt nuclear power plant, composed of 13 AP-1000 nuclear power units, might cost around $30 billion.

          Which seems cheaper to you?

        • Note those are cost per watt at peak production time, in Los Angeles – and other southern US locations that average 1000 watts per meter sunlight. Peak usage is about 4pm when solar is working at say 50% and then consider using solar in say Iowa where only 60% average light shines compared to LA.

          Then when you consider the extreme variability you find out that the energy generate by solar is almost useless – requiring 92% backup power vs wind which only requires 80% backup.

          The cost per watt could be free and it still wouldn’t work in our grid electric system.

          Solar is great for remote sites and emergency phones on the freeway, but as a primary power source – terrestrial solar will always be worthless – except to give tax and rate breaks to the rich.

      • In cooling-dominated climates, peak insolation and peak use do line up. Germany’s climate is a stretch for solar, but the govt thought it was subsidizing a green industry in addition to reducing carbon. China took care of that.

        • @Todd Mason
          > In cooling-dominated climates, peak insolation and peak use do line up.

          In the future, residential and office cooling will be irrelevant. Virtually the only user of electrical power will be the computer. The cooling requirements will be about the same in every climate and every season.

    • @Thomas Boyle
      > the cost trends for solar and nuclear are very different. Solar is on a steep decline. Nuclear isn’t.

      How much does December baseload-capacity cost?

      • Depends on how you want to generate it. Natural gas? Coal? Desert solar over long DC power lines? There are some very sunny places in December.

        • Remember that you don’t have to generate ALL the power with any one technology. The question, at present, is what will provide the additional power, at the margin.

          • “Remember that you don’t have to generate ALL the power with any one technology. The question, at present, is what will provide the additional power, at the margin.”

            the question is actually more complex than that.

            because solar only works for part of the day and is far less effective in the winter (even ignoring snow and ice cover on panels) you need redundant power to back it up.

            thus, you have to build a gas plant as well. solar can never really be “additional power at the margin” that replaces anyhting else. it is just not baseline power. at best, it’s peak power, but it has to be replaced in the mornings, evenings, nights, and on cloudy days.

            the marginal benefit of adding it in terms of what other plants you have to build is negligible.

          • Rooftop solar is a nonstarter in most places, and will be for the foreseeable future. As you note, the insolation is poor in the northeast, but even in sunny places the installation costs make it noncompetitive – the only reason it has appeared at all has been “net metering”, which is not economically sensible.

            Utility-scale solar is starting to have very different economics, though, and there is work being done on the use of high-voltage DC power transmission, which could allow power to be moved over long distances to places that don’t get much sun (equivalently, the same technology could be used to locate nuclear powerplants far from population centers).

  4. I think there is a little more here than nuclear power.

    Germany has been trying to rely heavily on renewables such as solar and wind for a long time now, with the government phasing out traditional power plants and nuclear. The problem is, as we know, renewables are not cheap in the least.

    Germany’s increased reliance on renewables (a trend which they are now reconsidering as it is driving government debt), coupled with the US using cheap, abundant natural gas I think are stronger reasons for the price divergence than nuclear power.

  5. Europe’s Energy Portal is a data collection service. The main difference between Eurostat’s number and EEP’s number is Eurostat’s excludes taxes, fees, etc whereas EEP’s includes all of those.

    Eurostat’s number is the price on the market.

    EEP’s is what the customer actually pays.

    • Well, the problem with that demand is that the data is behind a paywall. Chances are, they would not be able to comply. My company uses auto data from Ward’s Auto. We can cite the data as being from Ward’s, but we are forbidden from distributing it. I’d imagine the same thing here.

      Also, there are lots of ways energy costs rose 80%. 80% seems like a lot, but it is just $0.08 per KWH. It’s a big percentage, but that’s only because it’s coming off a small number.

      Since the EEP data includes taxes and fees, if taxes and/or fees are raised, that can cause the jump.

  6. @Thomas Boyle
    > Utility-scale solar is starting to have very different economics

    Let’s check:

    Actual Costs of Electricity (US cents/kWh)
    Solar photovoltaic OECD Europe:
    At 10% discount rate: 38.8-61.6
    At 5% discount rate: 28.7-41.0


    • City-owned Austin Energy is about to sign a 25-year PPA with Sun Edison for 150 megawatts of solar power at “just below” 5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

      Solar isn’t going to provide all the world’s power for a very long time, maybe ever.

      But I think folks are seriously underestimating the long-term effects of technology.

      • The devil’s in the details. Here’s a quote from Austin Energy:

        “Austin Energy has negotiated a Purchase Power Agreement (PPA) with Sun Edison for 150 megawatts of solar energy from sites in West Texas. The 25-year agreement will provide solar energy for as low as 4.5 to 5.5 cents/kWh.”

        What would that have to do with anything I wrote? What will the production cost be?

        > Solar isn’t going to provide all the world’s power for a very long time

        Solar will never account for even 1% of the world’s power, without subsidies.

        > folks are [...] underestimating the long-term effects of technology.

        Please show your math. Show the production cost of baseload solar power if solar panels cost only 10 cents per watt.

        • First part’s easy: production cost will be zero. Solar is all fixed cost; you have to allocate, to get cost/kWh.

          Okay, that’s a cheap shot. I just couldn’t help it.

          I’m not a solar specialist: I don’t know. But people I respect, in and out of the solar industry, make the same point: the costs are coming down, as they have done for a very long time; they are already competitive in some locations (including Hawaii); and if the cost decline doesn’t stop abruptly in the near future, solar will very suddenly be “real”.

          It will be one of those cases of “overnight success, after 30 years of practising”.

          It’s certainly true that there are some big issues, including construction costs, storage, and duty cycle. But my original points stand: solar is getting cheaper, faster than most people realize; and it doesn’t have the catastrophic “tail risk” that nuclear does.

          • @Thomas Boyle
            > Solar is all fixed cost

            If solar is all fixed-cost, then so is nuclear. It would actually be easier to make the latter truly fixed-cost, since it’s inherently denser.

            Show me a solar power plant that has zero maintenance- and zero decommissioning-costs.

            > the costs are coming down

            Costs (of all types, including danger) are driven by fuel diffuseness. Solar isn’t getting any denser. On and near Earth, it will always suffer from the problem of being 91.4-94.5 million miles from the sun.

            > [solar costs] are already competitive in some locations (including Hawaii)

            Source? Numbers? Hawaii happens to have expensive electricity to start with. Retail prices are 38.51/35.69/31.47 per kWh for residential/commercial/industrial. Do you really think nuclear couldn’t compete at those prices in Hawaii?

            It says here that Hawaii’s electricity is mainly petroleum-fired, with some also coal-fired. That seems odd if solar is supposedly competitive there.

            > It will be one of those cases of “overnight success, after 30 years of practising”.

            Solar was abandoned because denser fuels were developed. This occurred longer than 30 years ago.

            > [solar] doesn’t have the catastrophic “tail risk” that nuclear does.

            Solar has a greater risk of catastrophe than nuclear does. The reason is difference in density. It’s more likely for solar to kill any given number of people than it is for nuclear to do the same.

  7. My Thesis Ken Lay killed nuclear. Lay was a big proponent of de vertically integrating electric power (deregulation). In this market type you have generators, transmission providers, distributors and retailers. We can take the two middle pieces out of the equation, the transmission and distribution parts. At this part you have generators and retailers. Consider now that it takes 10 years for a new nuclear plant in a best case to come online, with a fairly unknown cost of electricity at the end. So now you are a retailer who needs more energy for its customers, do you sign up for a pig in a poke in 10 years or a gas plant that can be built in 3 years, and because so many are built the cost is much more predictable, than a nuclear plant (since every nuclear plant is somewhat customized). As the CEO of a retailer you would be a fool to sign a contract for nuclear power in 10 years. Now as a generator unless you have either a big pot of money or signed contracts, you can not get financing for the plant, thus no plants get built. Note that the plants currently being built in the US are in areas that have not de-vertically integrated, allow the utility in conjunction with the PUCs to stick the customers with the costs of the nuclear plant long before it comes on line (as increased electric rates). It is the lack of vertical integration that killed off the proposals in Tx for more nuclear.

    It appears that nuclear power plants only work in a state supported monopoly which of course the traditional electric utility industry was. The deregulated market makes taking the kind of risks required beyond the capacity of those folks who are in the deregulated market. (Note further that the Japanese companies who were going to invest in the new Tx plants dropped out after Fukushima as well).

    • @Lyle
      > it takes 10 years for a new nuclear plant in a best case to come online

      When you say “plant”, do you mean “unit“? If you design your plant for a potential 1,024 identical units, does each unit, from the first to the last, require at least 10 years to come online?:

      8th unit 5 yr build, 60 yr life 3.4 c/kWh

      • Assume you are ceo of an unbundled elecricity retailer. Eventually when you get to the 100th identical unit as you describe above, then the cost and time to come online might be predictable, currently they are not. In terms of 1000 plants we are talking about smaller scale plants than are currently built, and none are currently operating. If you had the first 100 built then the CEO might be willing to look at your contract. Essentially today the combined cycle turbine plant is where the nuclear plant would be once unit 100 comes online. What kills nuclear is the variability between plants, and yes it can be done away with as EDF did but that is not the way the US operates by the regulators saying build copies of this plant.

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