SunEdison technician at ABB solar power plant in Nevada in 2013. Photo by Zach Shahan | CleanTechnica.

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

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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.

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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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Dr. Karl-Friedrich Lenz

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.

Dr. Karl-Friedrich Lenz has 67 posts and counting. See all posts by Dr. Karl-Friedrich Lenz