Monday, April 4, 2011

Solar vs. Nuclear: Solar is the Better Buy

I wrote this on my new solar site:

-By Ryan Moody

Recently I posted my discontent about the Japanese nuclear crisis on Facebook, and a couple of my friends criticized me and tried to defend nuclear power for some reason. Was I being too emotional in reaction to catastrophic events? I didn't think so, because I try to base such decisions on economic reasons. But I didn't know enough to defend my position. So... I decided to do my own research to see which is actually economically better, without considering the safety risks or health hazards.

First, I found this seemingly unbiased article at
From this and some other sources, I gleaned that essentially, despite cheaper costs in China (due to labor..), the cost to build a new nuclear plant in America will be at least $3K to $4K per kilowatt (kW) of capacity, in other words $3 to $4 per watt. What does this mean? Simply, for a 1-Gigawatt nuclear plant, the "capacity" is 1 billion watts, so it will cost at least $3-4 billion for the whole plant. Usually, they build a 2-Gigawatt plant, so it will cost $6-8 billion for that, and take 3 to 5 years. And this will of course be taxpayer money backing the loans and we'll take all of the risk in case of overages, unexpected delays, etc.

Compare this to solar costs. This article ( explains how the cost of solar will soon reach $2 per watt of capacity. That site actually references this longer paper by Professor Emeritus of Economics and former Chancellor of Duke Univ, John O. Blackburn (ref: Blackburn explains that the actual cost of producing solar power is already cheaper than nuclear power, as of 2010! 

I've also found companies like First Solar who can manufacture panels at less than $1 per watt. So that's how after labor and installation it's certain we will achieve solar plant costs for as little as $2 per watt of capacity. Wind power is already comparable to these prices, too. And for time frame, to build the largest solar field in Spain took just 11 months. Remember this is for plant-sized projects. But we should keep in mind solar is modular, so you don't have to finish a 2-Gigawatt project to start getting electricity. If builders are smart about it they could start generating power within a few months, and add capacity as they go.

Back to the nuclear plant. Once it's finished being built, hopefully in less than 5 years, it will then generate a lot of reliable electricity every year. But it will involve operating costs for the fuel (uranium or plutonium) and for the highly skilled workers (like Homer Simpson ~kidding~) that should work and monitor the facility, and for the special trucks, drivers, and security personnel to transport all nuclear fuel and waste to and from the plant. OK, but it IS efficient at producing energy, and it can run all hours of the day unlike solar plants. So, when all that is said and done, it will still be relatively cheap for a kWh of electricity to reach your home, relative to coal cheap.

Coal and nuclear seem cheap for now, but according to the research I cited above, solar is already CHEAPER. Also, on a future outlook note, both nuclear and coal have something important in common: limited resources. Whether its uranium or coal, they both use fuel. With competitive interests from China, the EU, Japan, Brazil, and other developing countries, these fuel prices will continue to rise with demand, and it should be more viable for the US to be exporting coal rather than consuming it. Solar power, as far as we know, is a sustainable and virtually unlimited resource that is being given to us whether we use it or not. Plus, you don't have to be a team of nuclear engineers to monitor a field of solar panels.

So I think I've made my point that solar power is economically more viable than nuclear power, WITHOUT even mentioning the words meltdown, natural disaster threats, radiation, climate change, waste disposal concerns, terrorist attacks on nuke plants, nuclear arms proliferation.... JEEZ you get the point right?

Solar prices will continue to drop, especially as technology advances and economies of scale bring costs down. But that's actually beside the point, because we don't need to wait for better technology. Just like, even though everyone knows the next iphone that comes out will be better than the current one, they've already sold 100 million iphones. Why? The current technology is good enough and affordable enough to meet our needs. Solar power is ready and affordable. Now.

So why is our government going to spend ANY money, let alone BILLIONS of DOLLARS on Nuclear power when Solar power is right here and ready? We could easily just spend the same amount on solar and wind power. Why? It doesn't really matter. What matters is, what are we gonna do about it?

I'll say it again: Solar power is ready and affordable. Now.

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