Cost of solar vs. nuke

OK, so Sen. McCain just said “Nucler power is clean.” And my bleeding heart, tree-hugging, nuke-hating knees jerked right up into my own chin as I choked back epithets.

After I calmed down I decided toplay devil’s advocate. Ok, as long as nothing goes wrong at the nuke plant sure, you get nothing emitted but steam. And I hear tell you can take plutonium and do some kind of magic to it to render it less wicked. Like besides bury it in Eastern Washington. And I also know that solar panels are expensive. So a question:

Speaking strictly dollars, which is more cost-effective per kilowatt hour:

Building, maintaining & operating a field of solar panels (Let’s float them on styrofoam way out in the ocean to minimize environmental impact).


Building, maintaining, operating, decommissioning and fueling a nuke plant, and processing the waste into a reasonably safe state.

Assuming the turbulence of the ocean doesn’t tip over and sink the solar panels every couple of days?

And that nothing leaches from the styrofoam into the seawater, and that the reduction in ambient light below the panels doesn’t result in the formation of algae blooms which choke out other flora and fauna.

And that you figure out a way to connect your solar panels to the grid hundreds of miles away?

Hypothetical, guys, hypothetical. Assuming there was enough room to support solar panels, how much does it cost per kilowatt hour.

I think a big part of the answer depends on how long you’re able to anualize the initial cost over. A cursory Google gave values for nuclear anywhere from 5.2 to 15+ cents.

I don’t think this question can be answered as written, since we have no idea how much a giant floaty styrofoam solar farm would cost to build, let alone design.

This being the SDMB and all, I’m sure somebody from MIT will show up in the morning with links to the blueprints for the giant floaty styrofoam solar farm they’re designing for GE…

It’s difficult to find agreement on the exact costs of different types of power generation, so offered without comment (perhaps Una Persson could offer her valuable comments?)

From here:

Anyone who can shed light (heh) on this shocking subject can feel free - I’m not conversant enough to back or deride what Harding is saying.

The probelm is that you are trying to compare apples and oranges. Solar isn’t an alternative to coal, while nuclear is.

Coal and nuclear both generated energy on demand, when it is needed, where it is needed. They can generate energy at night, during rainy weather, in Alaska or Florida, in the heart of a city of in the middle of the desert.

In contrast solar generates power when the sun shines. It takes up a lot of roome, and they are weather dependent so they can only sited in a few suitable locales. You can overcome those problems to a large degree with massive storage batteries, addition of hydro dams for levelling out the power supply and so forth, but those things all increase the cost a lot.

The practical upshot of all that is that it is impossible to compare the costs. Solar is a great adjunct supply to coal or nuclear, it’s not a replacement supply. You still need coal or nuclear plants to generate power during those times when solar can’t . Even if you have fantastic power storage facilities you’re still going top get a couple of days a year when the weather means that the solar plant can’t cope. But you can’t manage a modern country with a power supply that fails for a couple of days every year.

So the cost of solar increases as it take sup more andmore of the demand. Once it reaches some limit, probably around 25%, then you need to start build nuclear or coal plants as part of your solar program to take up the slack. That makes the cost of solar at that point the same as the cost of nuclear or coal plus the cost of the solar itself.

It’s a bit like asking which is more efficient: a city where everybody shares rides, or a country where everybody drives their own car. Obviousy when some people share rides efficiency goes up, but at some point the number of people wanting to share someone else’s ride exceeds the number of rides available to that destination. At that point people are unable to get to work at all and efficiency declines sharply.

Solar is much the same. A nation using some solar is going to be have chaeaper electricity than a nation using purely nuclear because the solar is hitching a ride on the coat tails of the reliable nuclear service. But as the proportion of solar increases their simply isn’t enough nuclear capacity to compensate when the solar can’t meet demand: the solar can no longer hitch and needs to start pulling its own weight. At that stage we either build solar stations that generate orders of magnitude power above their standard peak load to make up for those few occasions when they struggle to meat demands due t weather, or we start building nuclear stations as part of the solar program. Eithe roption is going to cause solar prices to skyrocket.

So the price of nuclear today is a pretty good indicator of the price of nuclear even if the nation goes to 100% nuclear electricty. But the price of soalr today is only an indciator of the price of solar so long as solar remains a minor player. The more soalr you want to use the more it’s going to cost.

Defying economics, the Germans are going ahead with solar. The german government gives subsidies, so farmers are setting up solar arrays on their land. It seems to be a hurculean effort-considering that northern Germany isn’t a very good place for solar arrays.
Any word on this?

I was there a month ago. Solar power may be under development, but little evidence of this is apparent. By contrast, “farms” of giant windmills can be seen all over the place. We were told that Germany gets something like 18% of its electrical power from these.

According to the Energy Information Administration, the estimated cost for building a new nuclear plant would be less than half the cost of a photovoltaic plant of equal capacity. Cite - Warning PDF.

Also note that right now solar & wind power are receiving much larger subsidies per amount of power produced than nuclear power. Solar and Wind receive ~$24 in federal subsidies per megawatt-hour, while nuclear receives $1.59 per megawatt-hour. How much does the Federal Government spend on energy-specific subsidies and support?

It’s not only farmers who build solar arrays. For the last 15 years or so (since the law about cheap credits to install solar panels and about a guaranteed payback from the energy companies for surplus energy fed into the grid was passed) many homeowners have put up solar panels (both thermic and photovoltaic) on their roofs. In both southern states (Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg) we get over 8 hrs. of sun on average; a well-constructed new house needs only 2 hrs. of sunlight for heating (a thermic solution for a single-family house uses a big 90 or 120 liter water tank in the basement that stores the heat energy, plus new houses are 3 liter houses* because of the new Energy house law.)

It’s true that in northern Germany, esp. close to the sea, wind power is better suited. But then, if you put up photovoltaic panels, you don’t need a lot of heat; they actually work better in moderate temps. And if you use those tuned to UV light - you get 70% of UV even on overcast days.

  • That means they need no more than 3 liters of heating oil or equivalent for one year per square meter for heating and cooling.

Where exactly were you? Whenever I take the train through the countryside, I notice solar panels everywhere. On average, one roof in ten (skewed though it is to count through a train window) will have one kind of solar panel.

There are alternatives such as solar towers. They can store steam generated during the day to use later. The article says they can only hold it for an hour now but hope to extend that. Additionally, peak demand tends to be during the daytime so alternate sources need not be as big to meet demand. Also, while that thing takes up a fair chunk of real estate I am not sure it is much more than a conventional fossil fuel plant would be for the same effect.

To the OP it should be noted that new nuclear powerplant designs are not dangerous in the sense of them blowing up. They now have “inherently safe” designs where the very physics of the reaction precludes a runaway reaction/China Syndrome like thing. Basically you could not blow one up ala Chernobyl even if you tried (via mechanical failure/stupid people). There is still the waste to deal with of course but I thought that could be minimized with Breeder Reactors which, for some reason, the US does not use.

I don’t know why everybody wants to put solar out to sea, where connecting to the grid is difficult and it’s more subject to weather and could more easily interfere with marine wildlife and shipping, instead of putting up some acres of panels in Arizona or New Mexico? You aren’t using the desert around Las Vegas for anything much besides maybe burying bodies, are you? Or are people seriously overestimating the amount of space needed? The Club of Rome recently suggested a new type of solar in the Sahara, and to get all the world’s amount of electricity, an area the size of Germany and Austria taken together would be needed … which is really small compared to the whole of Sahara. So putting your US panels into the Arizona desert wouldn’t mean plastering every free inch.

The obvious answer is: Solar is cheaper, because there are no fuel costs. Both plants will cost money to build, will take to do impact studies and safety plans before (though obviously, the nuclear plant will cost more there because of the added security).

Both plants will cost money for maintenance (though the amount necessary will vary; at a guess, I’d say that nuclear plants need many more skilled workers daily than a solar plant that basically runs automatically and just needs a worker to check that nothing is broken).

Only the nuclear plant, however, will cost money every year to mine the ore, refine/enrich the material, transport the material, and get rid of the waste afterwards*. And if nuclear material becomes scarce for some reason (like oil currently, or coal in certain places), the price will rise. The sun doesn’t raise its price.

  • This is also the reason why nuclear isn’t CO2 free: the necessary prelimiminary steps use CO2. The drills don’t run on electricity, they run on oil.

In addition, there are large costs in the nuclear formula which have to do with the time to build, which is heavily dependent on regulation and the legal system. The capital outlay for a nuclear plant is huge, and therefore if you budget for a construction time of 3 years before you start getting a return on investment, but instead the plant is held up for 10 years in regulatory reviews and environmental lawsuits, the cost per kWh skyrockets because the lifespan of the nuclear plant is finite. You can calculate how much power it will generate over its design life, and figure out the capital cost per kWh that way. So if your capital costs twice as much, the price per kWh goes up.

In addition, anti-nuclear activists like to factor in every single cost associated with the entire life cycle of the plant to show how expensive it is. Everything from design, to construction, to maintenance, to disposal of waste, and finally to the costs of decommissioning and cleaning up the site after the plant is removed. That’s fine, and it’s an important number to track. However, the same isn’t done for other sources of energy. We all know that other non-renewable sources are getting a huge subsidy because they they are not being charged for the externality of CO2 emission and other pollutants. Carbon taxes address one of those, and make nuclear power more competitive, but there’s also the issue of particulates - economic and human consequences from traditional emissions (emphysema costs, for example). And we don’t factor in things like the reconstruction of expired open pit mines into the cost of coal power, or the environmental costs of oil spills.

On a completely level playing field, nuclear is very competitive. That’s why so many countries use it, and have used it long before global warming became an issue. Nuclear wasn’t competitive when oil was $14/bbl and no one cared about the cost of CO2, but today it is.

There’s another factor - risk. Nuclear power has less risk than fossil fuel power. Yes, less risk. Economically speaking, the biggest risk to new fossil-fuel based power is the price of the fuel and the cost of the emissions. Fossil energy’s cost is largely determined by the price of fuel. That means energy costs are quite variable, as we’ve seen over the past few years. That adds risk to every business that consumes power. That gets priced into our products. But nuclear power’s fuel costs are a tiny fraction of the overall cost of operation. So once a nuclear plant is running, you can make very good estimates over what the energy cost will be over a long span of time. In addition, businesses have to deal with the risk that new carbon taxes or the cost of cap and trade or carbon sequestration will spike energy prices at some point in the future. Again, nuclear power doesn’t have that problem.

Solar and wind are not base-load energy sources. You can not run an entire country on them. For one thing, they can’t always be located where the power is needed. Good wind sources are only found in specific places. Solar is more cost-effective in regions that get the most sunlight. So you wind up having to transmit your power over longer distances, and these losses have to be factored in. Then, if you want to store energy for when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, you either need giant batteries, or you need to use the power to fill a reservoir or to heat a giant thermal pile or something. All this causes losses, which can cut efficiency in half and cause costs to skyrocket. Then you need a plan for those outlier cases where there’s no sunlight for a long period of time, or no wind for a long period of time. So you need backup energy sources, which further increases the cost.

The focus on wind and solar as a replacement for baseload energy is folly. Wind and solar have their place, but it’s going to be as a supplement, not a replacement for other conventional power sources. For example, I think that within 5-10 years you’re going to see commercially viable thin-film solar sheeting that can be applied to many surfaces. You might buy ‘solar shingles’ for your house, get a solar car cover for your car, etc. Plug-in hybrids can trickle-charge during the day from solar cells covering the car, or built into the roof, maybe cutting the grid-power needs of the car by 5% or 10%. With a city full of houses with solar panels on the roofs of houses, all feeding into the grid, things like electric buses and light-rail transit and stop lights and such can be fed from solar sources, with a backup power plant coming online on cloudy days. The city of Calgary is powering its LRT system using wind power from the Pincher Creek wind farm. Good application, so long as there is backup power available if the wind isn’t blowing.

Overall, solar and wind might make up 10% to 20% of our energy needs. Maybe a little more. But you’re still going to need something else. If you factor in the cost of CO2, nuclear is very competitive.

What wind, and especially solar, are also going to do, however, is increase our consumption of energy, because they will open up new ways to use it. You already see solar-powered landscape lighting all over the place. We don’t know what new products will spring up when there is cheap, efficient solar power available, but you can bet that there will be plenty. Solar-powered attic fans are already very popular - they make lots of sense, since the time you want to vent your attic is exactly when the sun is shining brightest. As solar gets cheaper and easier to use, more of these kinds of applications will start to develop, and we can’t even guess at what they’ll be - just as the improvement of battery technology has opened up entire new markets for battery-powered devices like cell phones and laptop computers.

How much space do YOU think is needed? Got some figures?

How are they planning to get that energy from the Sahara to the rest of the world? Did they factor in all conversion costs to put the energy in a form that can be shipped?

And do you have any idea just how big of an engineering project you’re talking about? “Oh, we’ll just build an energy facility the size of Germany and Austria put together.”

And given that this is the Club of Rome suggesting this, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that all errors in their estimates are on the optimistic side. The wildly optimistic side.

Nuclear power’s fuel costs are only a couple of percentage points of the entire cost of nuclear power. That doesn’t mean nuclear power is dirt cheap. For solar, you have the cost of construction and maintenance. Solar is low-density power, which means you may have more raw material required to capture it. This stuff has finite lifespans. There’s no way you can say that solar is ‘obviously’ cheaper simply because the sun is the fuel source. Currently, solar is NOT cheaper. It’s not even close right now. Solar needs huge subsidies to be competitive. It may get there in a few years, but it’s certainly not there now.

On what do you base this guess? Because I’d guess the opposite. I think a field of solar panels the size of Germany is going to require thousands of maintenance workers replacing corroded parts, fixing valves, working on transformers and wiring, and in general monkeying with it constantly. Huge hailstorms, earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters could be devastating. UV radiation will break down exposed parts. Lots and lots of maintenance.

Nuclear power plants produce tremendous power in a small size with highly automated control systems.

Again, the fuel costs of nuclear are a tiny fraction of the overall cost, and could be driven even lower with breeder reactors. So the cost of nuclear power isn’t very sensitive to the price of the fuel. And there’s plenty of fuel around for hundreds or even thousands of years.

And how did that germany-sized solar plant get built? And what’s powering the maintenance vehicles? How much energy goes into making the solar panel, and how does that compare to how much it emits over its lifespan? How much of the power produced in the plant has to go to running water pumps, storing power, converting electricity to different voltages, etc? If it’s a solar thermal plant, how much energy is lost as waste heat in the water lines and storage tanks? How much maintenance is required for the valving of a water-flowing system the size of Germany?

This is the problem with debating solar advocates - they have very detailed cost breakdowns of nuclear. We’ve had decades to discover all the little gotchas, all the extra costs that spring up that weren’t anticipated, and all those get factored into the cost for the debate. But solar power costs are vague estimates with a lot of hand-waving and optimal assumptions and outright ignoring of all the ancillary costs that every power source has.

For example - one cost I never hear mentioned with solar is property tax. Every other power plant has to pay it, and it’s a significant part of the cost. A typical nuclear plant pays $10-$20 million a year in property tax. So… How much property tax is it going to cost to build on, say, 10% of Nevada? Or are you expecting the government to just hand the property over? If so, shouldn’t this be considered a subsidy when comparing the cost of solar to the cost of other energy sources?

Really this is more a debate than a GQ…in the form the OP gave I don’t think there is a set answer.

Are you cool then with killing off large swaths of wildlife in Arizona and New Mexico then because it’s just desert? Do you realize that a lot of stuff actually lives out in that desert? It’s not all rock and sand in either Arizona or New Mexico.

No…‘we’ aren’t. However, like in Arizona and New Mexico, the area surrounding Las Vegas is not only rock and sand (though it’s less vegetation and animal life than in either of the other states). Again…you cool with essentially killing off large swaths of said desert ecosystem?

Don’t know…what’s your estimate of the solar foot print exactly? How much energy are we talking about trying to generate here? Enough for Las Vegas? Phoenix? Albuquerque? Or enough for the states the solar system would be located? Enough for the states AND additional? You’d first need to define what we are trying to achieve before you could even calculate how much of a foot print we are talking.

Then there is the power infrastructure to GET the power to the grid…but leave that for now.

Well, you know, there are also other things in Arizona…like cities and such. So, if you are looking to cover the same square area of Germany and Austria you are talking about a rather large swath of Arizona or New Mexico to do so…and you are talking about killing off most of what is under those panels, most likely. If you are cool with that then fine…I’m NOT cool with that, since I live here.

This leaves aside the power loss of trying to GET the power out of the deep desert and onto a nation grid of course…but I’m sure The Club of Rome has a solution to that as well, ehe?

The obvious answer is generally the wrong one. Do you realize that solar take constant maintenance of the panels to keep them in condition to generate power even at the low efficiencies they normally run at? And you are talking about putting these panels out in the frickin desert…do you realize what the maintenance would be like in such an environment? How often would the panels need to be replaced due to damage and scratching? How often would they need to be cleaned?

Again, the obvious answer is generally wrong. Solar takes a lot of maintenance. Nuclear does too of course…and much more highly skilled technicians. I would hazard a guess though that solar maintenance more than makes up for the cost of nuclear fuel, which is actually a pretty minor cost, all things considered. And I’d hazard a guess that traditional solar panels have a bigger ecosystem impact than a nuclear power plant…though the new tower solar systems may not have as big an impact (though they may have OTHER impacts of course).

I think Blake did a really good job in his above post though explaining why solar is a tag along energy source, not a viable replacement for coal.

This simply isn’t true.


Actually, I believe nuclear is the cheapest power available, with a modern plant. In the U.S., not-very-well-thought-out beliefs by environmentalists and popular (if misguided fears) mean that all our plants are older and less efficient. C’est la vie.

I gave the Club of Rome figures which was calculated towards the Sahara and used German comparisions, because I don’t know the sizes of US states to compare to.

It was an example of how small the area needed is compared to the vastness of aera available and to show people that it’s not necessary to cover the whole desert in cells.

If we build a plant that covers Europe’s energy needs, we can put a cable rather easily across the med and connect to the already existing European power net. (The electricity companies are already bartering and selling power all over Europe - water power from Norway is sold to Austrian citizens.)

If you want to supply the US, the logical choice is to use your own local desert. The alternative is to use electrolysis and ship the hydrogen to burn at destination.

I was talking about the SIZE only. Of course nobody proposes building one big factory in one continous area - too big a security problem/terrorist target, and bad impact on the wildlife. Instead, you build a normal-sized solar plant, use the money from energy provided by it to build the second, etc.
If all countries worked together to cover the worlds needs, it could be done in 15 to 25 years, according to the guy from the club of Rome.

Are you talking about a different Club of Rome than I am? Because the Club of Rome I know is a world-wide respected group of top experts , serious scientists very thorough in their research. But hey, you don’t have to believe facts that you don’t like.

Yes, and? How does the size of the percentage change my point that, all other costs which apply to both sides, fuel is only required for one type? How much is it not in percentage points, but in dollars?

Which also applies to nuclear! You have to build and maintain a nuclear plant, too!

A nuclear plant has also a finite life span. Or do you think the concrete lasts a 100 years? I don’t know what you mean with low-density power, but the effectiveness and the power harvested from solar cells has continually increased. And I repeat again one last time:

Construction costs: both nuclear and solar.
Maintenance: both nuclear and solar.
Repairs, wear-out and replacement: both nuclear and solar
Fuel: only solar.

Obviously, one cost factor less.

Oh, the subsidies argument. I wondered when that would come up. I have to do more research, but at least here in Germany … Nuclear is subsised by the state, too. Only more covertly.

Because there will be many small fields, not one gigantic plant compared to one regular-sized nuclear plant. Please don’t argue unfair like a typical nuclear proponent. And how many hailstorms, floods and other natural disasters do you regularly have in a desert? Do you seriously calculate that in regular maintenance costs, or are you clutching at straws here?

I said it was an estimate, based on the observation that a power plant needs a lot of specially educated workers (with degrees), while a solar plant needs mechanics and engineers to replace stuff (so difference in pay).

But the fuel isn’t delivered free and usable to your doorstep like a ray of sunshine. Fuel has to be dug out of mountain and processed and transported.

No, the problem debating with the nuclear advocates is that their figures are skewed. And we have had decades to discover that the companies who build the plants, who run the plants, the politicans who get paid/influenced by them, all lie and distort figures. EON for example was discovered recently to have hidden from reporting over 250 infractions/problems, against the law. I don’t trust these people from past experience, nor their motives and sudden conversion to “coal is bad, but nuclear will save us all, and we are only thinking of the enviroment, not our pockets”.

I didn’t mention it because I didn’t mention any costs or figures, because a) I don’t build or own shares in solar plants b) I didn’t have time to research figures from serious people. Plus, most of my figures will apply to Germany, not the US.

To answer the OP cynically: it doesn’t matter what the real figures are, because both coal and nuclear plants are run (and built) by big companies with big pockets and lots of lobbysts to buy /influence the politicans, while solar cells are built and installed by mid-size companies / investement funds without much lobbying power. So nuclear will go on and solar will remain niche no matter the real numbers.