Solar energy emerges as a potential climate change solution to Nuclear
In 2020, renewable energy sources generated a record ~21% of all the electricity generated in the United States. Only natural gas produced ~40% which is the only source that generated more electricity than renewables. Renewables surpassed both nuclear which generated ~20% and coal which nearly generated 19% of total electricity generated in the US, for the first time on record. This outcome was due mostly to significantly less coal use and steadily increased use of wind and solar.
The rap against solar is that it is too expensive, right? Wrong! And the big deal about nuclear is that it is so cheap, right? Wrong! In this case, these two wrongs make a right.
In 2010 itself, solar created a “cross-over point” at which solar achieved price parity with nuclear. Simply put, electricity from new solar installations became cheaper than electricity from proposed new nuclear plants.
Secondly, opponents of solar PV often say it is only competitive because of subsidies. A report found that when billions in federal subsidies is granted for wind, solar and nuclear industries, 96.3% of it went to nuclear. Let us tell you with another example.
Federal support during the first 15 years (which are critical to developing new technologies) works out to $3.3 billion annually for nuclear energy and $1.8 billion annually for oil and gas, but an average of only $400 million a year in inflation-adjusted dollars for renewables.
As we discussed that solar created cross-over point with nuclear in 2010 itself then why do we keep investing in nuclear? The reason which we all know is that the sun ultimately sets, but the nuclear power plant runs 24/7/365 in wind, rain, snow. Then came batteries, to store the energy for later use when the sun is not shining, or the wind is not blowing.
Like any other technology, it takes time to become financially viable. But this isn’t the case today. Today researchers have an opinion that 80% of the U.S. can be powered with solar, wind, and 12 hours of energy storage, which is sufficient to replace a nuclear power plant, hasn’t been financially viable these days.
The prices of solar panels have fallen by more than 99.8% from over $100 per watt down to nearly $0.20 per watt today in less than 50 years. Whereas the prices of battery packs falls from $1,191/kWh in 2010 to $137/kWh in 2020 – a price decrease of greater than 88%. Hence, we can expect prices to continue trending downward in the coming years.
What can we expect to pay when we replace a nuclear power plant with a Solar + Storage facility? is the question still buzzing in your mind? If so, then we are left with no choice but to give you another example:
- Cost of Project: If you calculate the expense to build a nuclear power plant and a solar plus storage facility for the same capacity of energy output, you will save not only millions but billions.
- Space: It is undisputed that despite producing massive amounts of carbon-free power, nuclear energy produces more electricity on less land. Let’s talk about solar; When you develop a similar energy output solar + storage facility, it would require thousands of hectares of land which is unlikely to be available at one place and would split among many landowners in the state/country creating thousands of leases generating millions in revenue to landowners.
- Time Period: Solar PV Plants started generated electricity and revenue within about 2-3 years as compared to Nuclear Plant, which sometimes took 10 years to build for one or other reasons.
- Maintenance: A Solar + Storage facility saves a huge number of regular operations and maintenance costs, as well as specialist manpower costs as compared to a nuclear power plant.
- Upgrade: Any upgrade to the Solar + Storage facility is easy and doable but the same is not available easily in the case of a Nuclear Power Plant and sometimes it may go horribly wrong. It may also go wrong with the Solar + Storage facility but again the cost of repair will be very less as compared to a nuclear power plant.
Certainly, nuclear is a zero-emission clean energy source and it would be great if we had a healthy ecosystem of clean energy generation systems that include nuclear plants too. However, if we are going to argue over the costs, then it is no longer a discussion.