Clean Power

Published on November 27th, 2013 | by Dr. Karl-Friedrich Lenz


The Cost Of Nuclear Is Still Unknown, But The Cost Of Solar Is Known

November 27th, 2013 by  

Originally published on the Lenz Blog.

Eduard Porter makes the case for nuclear energy as a countermeasure to global warming in the New York Times. I learned of that article by reading the thorough debunking of the cost assumptions for nuclear by Charles Komaneff here. Thanks in turn to this tweet by Chris Nelder for that link.

SunEdison technician at ABB solar power plant in Nevada.

SunEdison technician at ABB solar power plant in Nevada. (CC BY-SA license, credit to Zachary Shahan / CleanTechnica, removal of links not permitted in republishing.)

As Komaneff points out in detail, the cost of nuclear projects are hard to understand exactly. That’s because it takes a long time to build a nuclear power plant. Lots of things can and do go wrong in that long process. Recent experiences with projects Vogtle and Olkiluoto, Finland show that cost estimates with nuclear tend to be unreliable. And in most cases, costs go up later.

In contrast, we know exactly what one kWh of solar electricity from a large project in Germany costs right now, including a profit for the investor.

And since you only need weeks to months to build a solar park, everyone involved in such a project can rely on those very exact costs. They won’t change much while building it.It costs 9.74 cents Euro for anything starting operation this month. That will go down to 9.47 cents next January.

We also know that solar will continue getting cheaper all the time. Prices have dropped already by a factor of 200 in the last forty years, while oil has gone up by a factor of 5o, for a change of a factor of 10,000 in only forty years.

Porter uses the cost estimates for 2018 by the American “Energy Information Administration” (not “Agency”, as Porter mistakenly writes). They give “14.43 cents (US)” as costs for solar in 2018.

Hey, wait a moment. We got less than that already in Germany right now, a country with the solar resources of Alaska. Let’s just say I think this is another great example of predictions for solar prices being way off base, and way too high.

Porter also writes:

Japan is unlikely to be the only country to miss its targets. In response to the Fukushima disaster, Germany shut down eight nuclear reactors and said it would close the remaining nine by 2022.

Actually, Germany has met its targets. Germany promised a 21 percent reduction compared to 1990 for 2012 in the Kyoto protocol, and it has achieved 25.5 percent. Meanwhile, the United States didn’t even have a target, having failed to ratify Kyoto.

He also writes:

Everybody is promising to fill the gap with renewables. So far, however, coal and natural gas have won out. CO2 emissions in Germany actually increased 1 percent last year, even as they declined in the United States and most of Western Europe.

For debunking this claim, I can just refer to what Komaneff wrote:

Indeed, from 2010 to 2012, a two-year period encompassing the March, 2011 Fukushima catastrophe and Germany’s subsequent decision to turn off 29% of its nuclear power production (reducing reactor output from 140.6 terrawatt-hours in 2010 to 99.5 TWh in 2012), Germany actually held constant its use of fossil fuels to make electricity.

How did German society make up for the 41.1 TWh drop in reactors’ electricity generation? Numerically, it was simple:

  • German solar-photovoltaic generation grew from 11.7 TWh to 28.0 TWh (a rise of 16.3 TWh).
  • Wind generation grew from 37.8 TWh to 46.0 TWh (a rise of 8.2 TWh).
  • Total consumption of electricity fell by 16.4 TWh (from 610.9 TWh to 594.5 TWh), despite GDP growth.

(Figures are based on data from Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Technologie, Statistisches Bundesamt, Arbeitsgruppe Erneuerbare Energien-Statistik (AGEE-Stat).)

It is of course true that it would be easier and faster to get rid of fossil fuel with nuclear still in the mix. But the idea of Germany failing in the reduction goals because of shutting down nuclear has been false for the Kyoto goals.

The next target has been 40 percent until 2020 since 2007 (with no nuclear energy contribution assumed). That goal is still in place right now, and new goals for 2030, 2040, and 2050 have joined it (55, 70, and 80 to 95 percent respectively).

Of course we don’t know yet if those goals will be achieved. But we know the price of solar right now, already lower now than Eduard Porter thinks it will be in 2018.

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About the Author

is a professor of German and European Law at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, blogging since 2003 at Lenz Blog. A free PDF file of his global warming science fiction novel "Great News" is available here.

  • Jouni Valkonen

    Actually, the cost of solar is mostly unknown, because there is no way tell what will be the actual productive live of solar panels.

    On the other hand the cost of nuclear even more unknown than what Lentz thinks, because nuke under construction blocks other investment on baseload. And if nuke is delayed, the shortage of electricity is often compensated with imported electricity that hurts local economy.

  • Jouni Valkonen


  • HearYe

    The U.S. already successfully produces the energy-equivalent of 60 nuclear power plants with Wind Energy alone!

    This success with Renewable Energy shows how truly obsolete and unnecessary nuclear energy is.

    It would be easy to double the Wind Power output and thereby allowing the shutdown and decommissioning of every npp in the U.S.

    To learn how dangerous nuclear energy can be, go to the highly recommended site called ENENEWS.

    • Ronald Brakels

      I get a fair bit less in terms of kilowatt-hours produced (unless those 60 reactors are really small) but wind certainly has the capacity to produce more electricity in the United States than nuclear at a much lower cost and much more safely.

      • Anthony

        It has proven that South Australia wind turbine technology and solar power grid users are complete failure to drive down electricity costing in prices. Wind turbine and grid connected solar had the opposite effect, bankrupted the state, the highest cost electricity in the world, as the company’s move offshore because of this energy price crisis, as people pack up and South Australia to Victoria for cheap, affordable electricity.

  • CaptD

    Lets hope that the people of Germany will demand that their elected officials not yield to the fiscal pressure being put upon them by the Coal and Nuclear industry who are desperate to stop Germany from leading the way away from both RISKY nuclear and Dirty Coal…

  • JamesWimberley

    American LCOE estimates are likely to assume a higher cost of capital in the formula than German ones, so the number will differ by a cent or so. That said, the EPA statisticians are stuck in a time warp. The NREL is far more reliable.

    • Bob_Wallace

      The EIA (not EPA) folks are predicting onshore wind at 8.66c/kWh in 2015 when it’s selling for 4c/kWh right now. They’re predicting solar at well over ten cents when it’s selling for well under ten cents right now. In fact, solar is selling in the US SW for 5c/kWh.

      A couple other data points we have for the cost of new nuclear come from the ‘turnkey’ bids acquired by Ontario Canada and San Antonio Texas in 2009. The low bids would have meant 15c to 20c/kWh electricity. Those reactors were not built.

      About the same time Turkey asked for guaranteed kWh price bids in the same way the UK is trying to negotiate a fixed price. The low bid they received was 21c/kWh.

      That’s four known prices for nuclear higher than 15c/kWh. Any claims that nuclear could be built cheaper is mere speculation. (Remember, the Chinese are involved in the UK build. Don’t let people claim that the Chinese know how to build nuclear for cheap.)

      • CaptD

        Great comment with factual numbers!

      • Ronald Brakels

        One thing I will mention that few people seem aware of is that in places such as Australia rooftop solar provides electricity at a lower cost than any utility scale generating capacity. This means nuclear power plants would have to produce electricity at negative cents per kilowatt-hour to compete with it. The same goes for coal and gas plants. (And just in case anyone wants to mention that the sun doesn’t shine at night, I’m am actually aware of that fact. It doesn’t stop rooftop solar outcompeting grid electricity during the day.)

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