Any Good Analyses Comparing Renewable and Nuclear Costs?

Lynne Kiesling

Today several items have floated across my radar screen contending that renewables are cheaper than nuclear power. Here, for example, is a snippet of a talk from Eric Schmidt of Google on the topic.

I can see the possibility, given the innovations in renewables, incorporating the savings in foregone wires construction (although that depends …), and the costs of construcing nuclear plants. I’m not sure either way, though, and it’s hard to get a good read because both industries have such convoluted subsidies. Moreover, researchers are working on cheaper, more modular, smaller scale nuclear plants, so the fact that both industries are experiencing innovation makes answering this question even more difficult.

Have you seen any good analyses comparing these costs? I’m keen to learn more.

9 thoughts on “Any Good Analyses Comparing Renewable and Nuclear Costs?

  1. I haven’t seen any good analyses of this type, but as I’ve pointed out before, cost of electrical energy at the plant busbar isn’t the proper comparison. The *value* of energy at the time and place it is generated, less its cost, is a more complete measure. Busbar cost comparison is pushed into popular press by self-interested parties.

    To compare, say, wind generation directly with nuclear on a cost-only basis would require the costs of shaping storage, delivery to a common location, and firming capacity to be included in the costs of both. You have to shape the output of the wind generator to look like nuclear. Otherwise, comparison of cost-only doesn’t really tell much about which alternative is better from a planning perspective.

    This is the same issue that we have with conventional generation technologies. A gas-fired combustion turbine operated baseloaded like a nuclear plant is most likely much more costly than a nuclear plant on a life-cycle basis under normal cost-escalation assumptions. Remember ye olde screening curves. But combustion turbines are frequently the economical choice for capacity addition, depending on the marginal costs of other capacity in the system or in the market. The two technologies serve two different system needs,so direct comparison of their per-unit energy costs is irrelevant.

  2. This isn’t even an easy question within a single technology. A solar tower out in the Arizona desert is a very different animal from solar panels on hundreds of warehouse roofs in Los Angeles.

    Which I guess is a good argument for having a market.

  3. Exactly, Cheryl. Any generator planning to build in a market will be cognizant of the *value* of the product at the time and place generated, rather than just its cost per kWh. If you’re going to generate at night, it’s not going to be worth much. Busbar costs/kWh in press reports are usually red herrings, promoted in self-interest. That’s not how regulated utilities make portfolio decisions, nor is it how independent generators make portfolio decisions.

  4. Quite true that both are experiencing innovation, making it a difficult question. Also agree with the comments that say making such a generalized comparison isn’t very helpful. However, its much easier to get data on renewable project costs (e.g. because there so many more recent installed projects compared to nuclear. While some have called Amory Lovin’s analysis ( biased, I think its pretty rigorous. It sure will be interesting to see if a nuclear generation station can ever be cost effective enough to be privately financed.

  5. Cheryl and Doug have made a valuable contribution. I do not have their professional expertise, but as a concerned citizen I have been trying to get a handle on the energy issue. I have searched a great deal, and fecklessly, for information that would give me a handle on the cost of non-fossil fuel power systems.

    There are a number of problems. All cost estimates are based on the cost of materials and labor as they are now. Before mid September and the collapse of the commodities bubble, items like steel, concrete, and copper seemed to be very expensive and much skilled labor and construction equipment was otherwise occupied. That has changed.

    Second, As Doug rightly points out, neither solar, nor wind machines alone, or in combination, are an answer to a question anybody sensible asked. Both produce power intermittently, both take up lots of space, and neither is ubiquitous. Any system that expects to receive meaningful input from either of them will need lots of transmission, and lots of storage.

    The storage issue is one that has produced lots of hand waving but not much analysis. There have been few electricity storage systems produced other than pumped hydro and batteries. I found a couple of articles about large battery installations (which seem to run $2.50-$4.50/Wh) but they are clearly still in the development phase.

    Another cost issue is the American legal system. Right now it is wildly tilted in favor of NIMBYism, and there is no movement to bring it under control. Nuclear projects have long been the target of black-robed robed terrorists and their wing-tiped accomplices, but as the cape wind project has demonstrated, the same tactics can be used against wind. As for solar, Google Devils Hole Pupfish.

  6. A good analysis on solar PV is:

    Borenstein, S., The Market Value and Cost of Solar Photovoltaic Electricity Production, 2008, University of California Energy Institute

    You can download it.

    I watched a minute of Schmidt’s presentation. Obviously, he offered no supporting analysis or references, because he’s quite wrong. Only by considering a full lifecycle analysis of sources and delivery systems will you start to understand true costs and the complexities. Remember, the relevant cost of electricity is what it costs to deliver a kWh when and where it is needed, not the cost to produce it at another location or at a time when it isn’t needed. Only factoring in a complete system of storage and transmission that meets the demand makes real sense, as others have already stated.

    The University of Chicago did a comprehensive study of overnight costs of base load systems a few years ago. Cost will scale upwards due to the cost of materials climbing, but that will affect all alternatives. You can find this study on the web.

    Also, the Congressional Budget Office released an analysis just last year addressing base load systems.

    One big advantage of these systems is that they can be located near large demand centers, on existing grid supply locations. Almost all newly proposed nuclear plants are planned for existing sites.

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