I found this great piece in my inbox this morning from Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who can be found at my Who gets it? page. It has just been published to the Wall Street Journal.  

Over the last several decades, the cost of electricity from solar panels has declined dramatically, while the cost of building new nuclear plants has risen steadily. This has reaffirmed the long-standing view of many environmentalists that it will be cheaper and easier to reduce global warming emissions through solar electricity than with new nuclear plants. But while continuing price declines might someday make solar cheaper than nuclear, it’s not true today. Yet the mythmaking persists.

Ted Nordhaus
Ted Nordhaus
Michael Shellenberger
Michael Shellenberger

Nuclear is “the least economical probably of any” energy source, Natural Resources Defense Council Senior Attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told the San Francisco Commonwealth Club in 2011. Activist Bill McKibben late last year told the Daily Beast that nuclear is “incredibly expensive, it’s like burning $20 bills to generate electricity.”

Exhibit A for green leaders is a beleaguered new nuclear plant in Finland. It was supposed to cost $4 billion and begin generating electricity in 2009. It is now projected to cost $11 billion, and Finland’s electric utility says it won’t open until 2016.

The same environmental leaders point to Germany’s solar program as a model for effective action on global warming. Mr. McKibben describes Germany as “the only major country that’s really pursued renewable power at an appropriate pace” and points out that its state of Bavaria boasts more solar panels than the entire U.S. Germany’s solar panels were “enough to provide close to 50 percent of the nation’s power,” Mr. Kennedy wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times.

All of this has led many to conclude that electricity from Germany’s solar power is far cheaper than Finland’s new nuclear power will be. The opposite is the case.

The cost of building and operating the Finnish nuclear plant over the next 20 years will be $15 billion. Over that time period, the plant will generate 225 terawatt-hours (twh) of electricity at a cost of 7 cents per kilowatt hour.

Olkiluoto NPP Finland NY Times

Since 2000, Germany has heavily subsidized electricity production from solar panels—offering long-term contracts to producers to purchase electricity at prices substantially above wholesale rates. The resulting solar installations are expected to generate 400 twh electricity over the 20 years that the panels will receive the subsidy, at a total cost to German ratepayers of $130 billion, or 32 cents per kwh.

In short, solar electricity in Germany will cost almost five times more for every kilowatt hour of electricity it provides than Finland’s new nuclear plant.

Over its 60-year lifetime—which can be extended by relicensing—the Finnish plant likely will generate more electricity than Germany’s solar panels ever will. That’s because solar panels only have an expected lifetime of 25 to 30 years and lose about a half a percent of their efficiency every year. Compared over their full lifetimes, the Finnish plant will produce power at a cost of about 4 cents per kwh, while Germany’s solar panels will produce electricity at a cost of 16 cents per kwh.

Does that mean we should give up on solar? Of course not. Thanks to several decades of public support, solar panels have gotten better and cheaper. Continuing efforts to develop better panels deserve our support. But the insistence that solar is ready to play a major role in meeting our energy needs today is both delusional and irresponsible.

Messrs. McKibben and Kennedy, for instance, have boasted that on one day in 2012 half of Germany’s electricity came from solar. They neglect to mention that it was a cool and sunny day over a weekend, when demand was unusually low. The real story is much more sobering. In 2012, solar generated less than 5% of Germany’s electricity despite a decade and over $100 billion spent in subsidies.

Misleading claims about solar’s readiness might be excused as the exaggerations of enthusiasts if the claims weren’t coming from environmentalists who believe that global warming is a planetary emergency. If they were really serious about the need to move to zero carbon energy, they would see nuclear energy as the obvious answer.

The only nations in the world that have achieved emissions reductions at a pace and scale that begins to approach what will be necessary to mitigate global warming are France and Sweden. Both did so by switching to nuclear energy. France shifted over 80% of its electricity to nuclear in about two decades. Renewable energy, despite decades of public subsidies, can make no such claim.

Warning of the end of the world and delivering the good news about solar and wind plays well with green audiences, but anyone truly concerned about climate change will need to reconsider their opposition to nuclear. It is the best chance we have to make big reductions in carbon emissions quickly.

http://www.thebreakthrough.org/

12 comments

  1. Hmmm. Some of these figures are compelling, but I don’t think your nuclear figures capture all the costs. $15b to operate for the next 20 years, less 11 to build it means $200m a year in running costs, which seems low. But I’ll accept it.
    None of your costs include decommissioning, and the current examples we have of that are not very encouraging are they?
    You also suggest the Finland build is exceptionally long; I assume you’ve been following the UK and France builds as well? They aren’t exactly going smoothly either http://www.esaa.com.au/Library/PageContentFiles/93d12466-5467-4996-b289-e7baa0bc4208/Aircons_making_power_bills_pricey.pdf Doubling the construction cost estimate AFTER construction starts is a worrying development don’t you think?
    Then no mention of how slow it is to respond to climate change. I wrote this http://evcricketenergy.wordpress.com/2013/01/01/if-the-answer-is-nuclear-you-dont-understand-the-question/ on how inadequate nuclear is as a response in Australia and much of the maths holds elsewhere. Sure nuclear power is cheaper than solar once it’s in. But what about the 10 years or so when solar panels are producing electricity and the nuke plant is still being built? Does that have a cost? I would strongly argue ‘yes’.

    1. Detail about the analysis can be found here.
      http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/energy-and-climate/cost-of-german-solar-is-four-times-finnish-nuclear/

      At $1 per MWh, a decommissioning fund would raise $225 million over the first 20 years alone, assuming no interest earned on this fund. It’s hardly a small amount of money, but it’s bugger all per unit of electricity sold.

      I agree the increased build time is not a good development. It seems to me that the EPR is a severely over engineered design, yet it still leaves solar power in its wake. Other new designs elsewhere in the world, notably UAE, China, South Korea, are going along just fine. Even letting the tail wag the dog of the nuclear cost argument, it’s a winner if you care about climate change in both cost and amount of electricity, not to mention reliability. It seems curious to me that nuclear advocates are perfectly happy to engage on the Finnish example, but those opposing nuclear steer well clear of where nuclear is kicking arse.

      We discussed your article a bit over Twitter. It is patently obvious that removing nuclear power can only hinder, not help, efforts to decarbonise electricity supplies. I am not suggesting (nor are Shellenberger and Nordhaus from what I can see), that developments in wind and solar should be halted. Why would we do that? As usual, it seems that those advocating nuclear are more caring about decarbonisation, so happy to see all solutions rationally deployed. Those arguing against nuclear… are just arguing against nuclear.

      “So if your answer is nuclear, you don’t really understand the question.”

      What nonsense. Your analysis is predicated on marginal additions of renewables to systems with a fossil foundation. The question, as you put it, is how to get rid of the fossil fuels. That means replacing all the existing fossil generation.

      The train of logic relating to energy payback, and whether this is of benefit from a climate change perspective, has merit right up to the point where you actually try to get the job done properly by doing more than just adding little green increments. If you tried to run our country on renewables, AEMO have told us we would need double the nameplate capacity of maximum demand, 5,000 km2 of land given over the the task, a massive network reinforcement and a massive biomass industry coming from no-one-knows what that raises all sorts of concerns, requiring probably two and a half times the capital of a nuclear approach to the task. http://bravenewclimate.com/2013/05/02/100pc-renew-study-needs-makeover/

      How will all that over-build affect the renewable payback? Assuming of course anyone could secure agreement for such an idiotic approach to providing energy all at once, as opposed to one fight after another for each gargantuan wind or solar installation. Your numbers don’t tell you, because they are not actually built around the premise of getting the whole job done. I’m not surprised there are no numbers for this, because no one has even come close to doing it, whereas France got the job done in 20 years using nuclear.

      My comparative study for the replacement of a coal plant found that the hybrid wind and solar solution, which still failed on the reliability front, used massively more materials to deliver less maximum energy, even before considering that the whole thing may need to be rebuilt at year 30. http://www.zerocarbonoptions.com

      Seriously, using the “too slow” argument against nuclear is juvenile. The fact is, nuclear is completely unmatched in its ability to displace fossil fuels at a scale that matters. It is both the fastest and best solution available, so what do we gain from fighting it on these illogical grounds? That just leads to more decades of losing the fight, bitching and moaning every step of the way while holding a placard with a picture of the sun on it.

    2. I might also add, on a supportive note, that yes it does matter how quickly emissions reductions occur, as well as how much. The sooner, very much the better. To that end I remain supportive (overall and conditionally) of the contribution wind and solar have made in Australia to date, and will keep making in the next decade. The best avenue for quick gains with decent scale is land use and agriculture, specifically steeply reduced meat consumption in western diets, better agricultural practices like no-till (which is assisted by the use of GE crops), reforestation, afforestation and other innovative land use solutions. If, as the title says, this is a planetary emergency, then we attack all avenues: short term (e.g. efficiency, solar PV), short-medium term (land use changes, wind developments) and longer term (nuclear, esp. for Australia where we are only just approaching square 1). The staggeringly large contribution nuclear can make in every part of the world means it must be deployed, the time frame is not relevant. The other solutions also have their role, and we should not be banking on nuclear and ignoring them.

    3. How long will the panels last ? How long before the inverter karks it ? How many truly awfully toxic products were used and dumped into the biosphere during the manufacture of solar panels ?

    4. Evan, I agree its worrisome though there are only really TWO examples…the new builds in the UK haven’t yet started. Both of the two example are EPRs being built in Finland and France. But if you look at the 2 EPRs being built in China…it’s on budget and mostly on schedule. The last 3 new builds in Japan in the 1990s, APWRs, were also on budget and on schedule. So what we see here is that the US and European examples, building first-of-kind reactors, have a very steep learning curve.

      The S. Korean APR-1400s being built in the UAE are now also on time and at budget.

      The big worry for anti-nuclear activists generally is that prices and schedules will in fact stabilize; that the predictability of costs and build times becomes increasingly predictable, due to the fact that all new plants are both standardized in design and modular in construction. It would remove one of the big ‘hits’ against nuclear. This is why you still see “$10 billion for a reactor…” when in fact…the prices are already coming down.

      A good bet with be the 5th and 6th AP1000s if they are built in the U.S. The U.S. has the highest construction costs but…the same companies that are building several in China right now are also involved in building the first 4 in the U.S. So the Chinese have done the learning for us. That’s a big help. If the plants come in under $10 billion per reactor (all costs included) then they are well worth the costs for this reliable and on-demand power. If they start coming in at $6 and $7 billion then it’s good bye to most other non-carbon alternatives.

  2. Remember also, that AEMO’s study referred to by Ben above did not include costs of land acquisition, transmission upgrades and more.

    So, the cost estimate for replacement of electricity from wind+hydro+PV is not 2.5 times the competitive price, it is closer to 5 times it, once all the costs are considered.

    Even further, the so-called green electricity solution to our energy woes is not phtsically or technically scaleable to accommodate other fossil fuel energy-based carbon emissions. Electricity is only one third of the energy used in western societies. The other two thirds is primarily transport and heating. Nuclear power offers solutions to most, if not all, of these loads, eg via methane or hydrogen production for road transport and marine nuclear power for shipping.

    The credibility gap confronting PV+Wind is not 2.5 or even 5. It is at least 10 or 20 if the goal is a fossil fuel free world energy system.

    Not even Germany, the strongest economy in Europe, can contemplate devoting either the physical or the financial resources to achieve that goal. Indeed, no other country has has a credible PV+Wind option either. It is time for the Capital G Greens to listen to the truly green arguments. Facts will eventually speak louder than belief systems, but when will that be? Before or after the global climate crunch?

    1. You and Ben are completely right. But the shoe is going to drop sooner than we think, maybe. For example, more and more people are realising (in Germany) that the cost of the ‘energiewende’ is going to keep rising. It is not a matter of paying now in order to have a clean, abundant energy system later. Rather, it is a matter of paying more and more, year after year, and never reaching a clean and abundant energy system, because there will always be a need for fossil fueled backup.

      That’s not all. Some Germans (friends of mine) have realised that the cost of the ‘energiewende’ is going to be put *completely* on the shoulders of the household. Since businesses need to compete internationally, they cannot be asked to help pay for the ‘energiewende’. And commercial businesses inside Germany will pass on all costs of the ‘energiewende’ to the customers, which are the households. So Germans are realising now that ‘their’ Energiewende is going to eventually lead to electricity prices (for households) of at least 1 €/kWh at best, or 2€/kWh at worst. This boils down to increasing the yearly energy bill for households in Germany by about $4000 to $8000 per year! And even if they manage to get the political will for that, then they still have to *start* making their transport and industrial heat applications carbon free.

      In other words: When even Germans themselves are understanding that the ‘energiewende’ is going to make them into the poorest people in Europe, and that it at best will only reduce their co2 by about 30%, then I think it could go very quickly. Therefore, I think within one or two years the ‘energiewende’ will totally collapse in Germany and they will reopen their nuclear plants. They will also restart their nuclear program and double-down on it. The collapse of the ‘energiewende’ is likely to lead to a rejuvenation of the nuclear program in the whole of Europe, and not a moment too soon.

  3. The transcript of last night’s ABC Lateline interview with McKibben is here
    http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2013/s3766303.htm
    Again I think he is barking up the wrong tree. If pension funds sell their shares in coal companies someone else will snap them up. However refraining from lending to or buying newly issued shares in creators of future CO2 is a good thing.

    Now strangely I see a connection between the Pozible concept, the previous sentence and something I think was promoted on BNC by Gene Preston ….. let the public invest directly in a new nuclear build. The payoff may not be dividends but discount or stable price electricity to stockholders. Hopefully this would not go the same way as Geodynamics shares that plunged over 90% in value. I believe 40% of the public has made its mind up.that NP is the way to go. They are not heard over the shrieking noises made by the antis. However under the right conditions a sharefloat/IPO to directly fund a new NPP might raise a lot of money.

    1. A much overlooked facet regarding the “renewable” arguments are the “intangibles” like the natural aesthetics and scenic heritage aspects which ironically are the keystone of most greens. In their feverish hate to banish nuclear power many of them would rather raze nature to the ground and despoil historic vistas — priceless natural treasures — just so that nuclear is punished for what unique evil it perpetuated at Hiroshima or whatever philosophical hang-up/guilts they have. A lovely article by Meredith Angwin ( http://ansnuclearcafe.org/2013/05/28/farmers-city-folk-and-renewable-energy/ ) on sacrificing nature for energy is one all greens should peek to reconsider their anti-nuclear crusades.

      I put small big-disappointed faith in Bill Gates doing any meaningful shout-outs for nuclear energy. This highly regarded media neo-Renaissance man, just at one one-minute press conference, could’ve largely blown away the FUD-slinging that caused so much needless misery and upheaval at Fukushima by declaring his faith and support in nuclear energy despite the nil-mortality non-Doomsday event, not to talk about boosting the image and support for plants like Vermont Yankee and Indian Point or even Germany. This low-key nuclear investor act of his just doesn’t help the struggle to help enlighten and encourage crucial public nuclear perception and acceptance one wilt. I much regret that the late highly celebrated liberal actor and ardent environmentalist Paul Newman only turned pro-nuke in his last days because he would’ve been the respected and media-savvy pro-nuclear Carl Sagan that we so sorely miss.

      James Greenidge
      Queens NY

  4. I think had Bill Gates discussed nuclear it would have been a mood killer, another network’s view of the show being
    http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1771868/Bill-Gates-lets-his-defences-down-on-ABC
    My feeling is that the heart-on-their-sleeve crowd in the audience were not yet ready for harsh reality. Perhaps they will wonder if BG is a good guy on other fronts can he be so wrong about nuclear.

    Germany is cutting down ancient beech forests for ‘biofuel’ and is criss crossing pristine landscapes with transmission lines. Meanwhile their low income earners are getting disconnected for non-payment of ever increasing power bills. That’s the ‘tsunami’ Germany faces, one they’ve made for themselves.

    On another front the Greens have commissioned a report which concludes a remote outback uranium deposit will be uneconomic once it is ‘cleaned up’
    http://www.businessspectator.com.au/article/2013/5/28/science-environment/why-wiluna-worth-watching
    I think they should insist the soil should be scooped up immediately and stored in bright blue bags Fukushima style. Think of the untold damage it’s doing.

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