HERE AT THE CROSSOVER, SOLAR BEATS NUCLEAR
Nuclear Energy Loses Cost Advantage
Diana S. Powers, July 26, 2010 (NY Times)
16 cents per kilowatt-hour. It doesn’t sound very profound, but its impact could be as big as 9-11 or 1776 or E=MC2.
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, 2 wrongs make a right.
According to Solar and Nuclear Costs – The Historic Crossover; Solar Energy is Now the Better Buy, from John O. Blackburn, a Duke University professor of economics, solar photovoltaic (PV) energy-generated electricity now costs around 14-to-19 cents per kilowatt-hour (kW-hr) and nuclear plants in the planning stages will not be able to sell their electricity at less than 14-to-18 cents per kW-hr. That makes NOW the “crossover point” at which solar achieves price parity with nuclear and it makes "16 cents per kW-hr" the numeric formulation heralding the arrival of what visionary Hazel Henderson called The Age of Light.
Nuclear power cost expert Mark Cooper, a senior fellow for economic analysis at Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and Environment, says the cost of a nuclear power plant went from ~$3 billion per reactor (average) in 2002 to ~$10 billion per reactor (average) in 2010. (Costs are, of course, somewhat variable by region.) (See THE TOO, TOO COSTLY CASE OF NUCLEAR POWER)
Opponents of solar PV often say it is only competitive because of subsidies. But a report in 2000 – when nuclear plants were only enormously expensive and not prohibitively expensive – found that ~$151 billion in federal subsidies went to the wind, solar and nuclear industries and 96.3% of it went to nuclear.
With the price of nuclear energy-generated electricity steadily rising and the price of solar PV-generated electricity steadily coming down, the Blackburn study predicts the cost of solar PV will be price-competitive WITHOUT subsidies by 2020.
In late 2009, both Citigroup Global Markets and Moody’s issued official statements warning against investments in nuclear. Even nuclear energy industry advocates can no longer deny the widely reported evidence that nuclear power plants are more and more expensive to build. Marvin Fertel, President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, recently issued a statement admitting it is not a good time to invest in nuclear.
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The nuclear industry has devised a couple of strategies to get around the unaffordable costs of building their plants. One is to shift the risk to the U.S. government by demanding federal loan guarantees. Another is to shift the risk to ratepayers by using the “construction work in progress” financing system that adds a fee to each utility customer’s bill for new plant construction and keeps them paying for 6-to-12 years before getting any electricity for their investment.
There are good reasons to reject such multi-hundred billion-to-trillion dollar schemes in favor of using the money to build more cost-effective forms of emissions-free electricity generation infrastructure like wind and solar.
The 1980s nuclear "boom" is now regarded as a managerial disaster and it cost electricity users an estimated $100 billion.
Nuclear proponents say that will not happen with modern plant designs and technology but only one of five proposed designs now being considered has ever been built. New technology, no matter how well thought out and tested, inevitably introduces unforeseen complications. Cost over-runs, at the very least, are a veritable certainty on the proposed plants. Cooper said 90% of those with applications pending have had a delay, a design problem, a cost increase or some other financing problem.
The only thing that keeps proponets’ dream of a “nuclear renaissance” alive is global climate change. Nuclear is, at the plant, emissions-free power generation. Lobbyists have been able to get government attention and negotiate loan guarantees and tax breaks in compromise deals with New Energy advocates fighting for a sliver of subsidy money.
But a bad investment is a bad investment and some are finally realizing there is little point in throwing good money after bad. Loan guarantees make credit for the billions that go into nuclear plants cheaper but lay all the risk off onto the taxpayer while retaining all the benefit for investors.
Meanwhile, there are much better ways to use taxpayer money. New Energy (NE) and Energy Efficiency (EE) grow ever less costly and could easily meet rising demand for emissions-free electricity generation at a much lower cost. Only electricity generated by nuclear reactors built before Ronald Reagan left the Presidency is cheaper than NE and EE.
A calculation from Cooper found that the 100 new plants proposed by the advocates of a nuclear renaissance would cost taxpayers and electricity users $1.9 trillion-to-$4.4 trillion more than a similar investment in NE and EE capacity.
As Cooper pointed out recently, the very fact of the “nuclear renaissance” PR pitch demonstrates the industry cannot win its way with real numbers. What th4e nuclear industry is now discovering is that Wall Street knows the difference between a PR pitch and a good investment. If only Capitol Hill could make the distinction.
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The cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems has fallen steadily for a decade and is expected to continue doing so for another decade.
The cost of nuclear power plants has risen steadily for decades and is expected to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.
In 2010, the 2 costs crossed in North Carolina. New solar installations now generate electricity that is less expensive than the cost of electricity would be from proposed new nuclear plants.
Though North Carolina’s utilities – like utilities across the country – are clinging to old ways and the Old Energies, it would appear the state will be a proving ground for getting by with New Energy (NE) and Energy Efficiency (EE) and without nuclear because state law requires generators of electricity system to follow a “least-cost” path.
Many major utilities still seem oblivious to cost trends in energy economics. Electricity costs will go up, inevitably, but they will go up more for those who do not build 21st century sources of generation and institute EE.
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Commercial-scale solar developers now offer North Carolina utilities electricity at 14 cents or less per kW-hr. Duke Energy and Progress Energy, the state’s 2 biggest investor-owned utilities (IUOs), are buying relatively little solar and pushing ahead with plans for new nuclear power plants despite the fact that projections see them paying 14-to-18 cents per kW-hr for nuclear energy-generated electricity.
On subsidies: Solar PV is just emerging as a utility-scale generation source and warrants subsidies to allow it to continue emerging. The Blackburn study foresees present support allowing it to mature to price-parity without subsidies by 2020.
Nuclear plants continue to require subsidies after 40 years as a commercial generation source. This is inappropriate. It is the federal government backing a loser. The Blackburn study found no projections that nuclear will ever be price-competitive without subsidies.
The success of EE over the last 3 decades has proven the cheapest method, superior to new generation, of controlling demand. Where EE has been aggressively and effectively applied, demand has grown only a little. It is expected that EE will grow more and per capita electricity demand will decline.
Even with the expanded use of battery electric vehicles (BEVs), fossil fuel consumption will decline because cars use electricity more efficiently than they use petroleum fuels. The grid will supply much BEV charging with off-peak power generated by wind and mouch of the rest with peak power generated by solar.
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Grid operators are learning to effectively integrate New Energy sources at up to a 35% penetration.
Distributed generation such as small wind, solar rooftop PV and solar water heating are further diminishing power demand.
Industry and commercial buildings are being adapted to use combined heat and power (cogeneration) to reduce consumption.
These efficiencies make coal and nuclear plants wasteful and expensive. Coal and nuclear plants also require excessive amounts of water in a world in which the waste of water is becoming expensive.
In short, the traditional utility business model of “build plants; sell power” is becoming obsolete.
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Research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that tracked the price of solar PV showed it going from $12 per installed watt in 1998 to $8 in 2008 (average). Costs declined even more in 2009 and 2010 when an excess supply of silicon caused a drop in the price of panels.
The 12-year system cost decline was 50% and the mid-2010 price of solar PV in North Carolina was 12-to-14 cents per kW-hr for large systems and 14-to-19 cents per kW-hr for residential systems for an average of 16 cents.
The average price in 2020 is expected to be 7.5 cents per kW-hr.
The cost of solar water heating will follow and heating water is 15-to-25% of a typical homeowner’s utility bill.
(1) 2009: The world intstalled 7,000 megawatts (MW). Germany did most, almost 3,500 MW. The U.S. did 429 MW. California and New Jersey led in the U.S. North Carolina did 8 MW.
(2) Cumulative: The world has 22,000+ MW. Germany (~9,000 MW), Spain and Japan led. The U. S had 1653 MW. California had 1102 MW and New Jersey had 128 MW. North Carolina had 13 MW.
(3) No U.S. nuclear power plants have come online since the late 1980s. Most
proposed reactors are 1100-to-1200 MW.
(4) In general, the trend is from centralized power plants to distributed generation.
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North Carolina utilities like Duke Energy and Progress Energy support the 2 popular strategies to get around the high cost of new plants, (1) federal loan guarantees and (2) construction work in progress financing.
Ironically, many who oppose subsidies to the New Energies and bailouts for big banks call for (1) federal loan guarantees for nuclear construction which could leave taxpayers responsible for billions of dollars if cost over-runs occur and (2) federal underwriting of nuclear plant insurance which could leave taxpayers responsible for hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars if there is a serious accident.
Utilities, which often oppose increasing power charges for New Energy, advocate increasing ratepayer prices to pay for new nuclear plant construction even if electricity users pay high prices without getting new nuclear generation for 6-to-12 years and even if the nuclear plant is never completed.
Ironically, the elevated prices charged to finance a nuclear plant can cut demand and eliminate the need for the new plant. This demonstrates how effective well-designed EE programs could be. In addition, new nuclear will permanently raise rates and keep the demand down, making the new plants unnecessary.
North Carolina’s 2007 Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) has a price cap protecting ratepayers from a too-rapid rate rise. There should also be such a cap for nuclear.
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Construction work in progress financing of consumer solar would eliminate the one obstacle to increased solar installations, the high up-front costs.
During the “nuclear renaissance” of 2000-to-2010, the cost of new nuclear rose from an estimated $2 billion per reactor to an estimated $10 billion per reactor. No new U.S. plants were completed. No new plant will come on line for at least 6 years and most projects are 10-to-12 years from service.
The Blackburn study puts the cost of nuclear energy-generated electricity at 18+ cents per kW-hr and transmission (which distributed rooftop PV requires very little of) puts the delivered price at 22 cents per kW-hr. Cooper’s work puts the price at 12-to-20 cents per kW-hr, verifying the Blackburn analysis.
The Blackburn study includes sections comparing nuclear energy and solar PV energy on jobs, manufacturing, utilities, financing and subsidies.
In its conclusion, it points out that while utilities cling to the “necessity” of Old Energy in general and new nuclear in particular, the real need is for the more cost-effective options of NE and EE.
The Blackburn study suggests that the crossover in price competitiveness is just a signpost on the way to a much bigger crossover, from the Old Energies to the New Energy economy.
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- November 2009 report from credit rating service Moody’s: “Moody’s is considering taking a more negative view for those issuers seeking to build new nuclear power plants…Historically, most nuclear-building utilities suffered ratings downgrades — and sometimes several — while building these facilities. Political and policy conditions are spurring applications for new nuclear power generation for the first time in years. Nevertheless, most utilities now seeking to build nuclear generation do not appear to be adjusting their financial policies, a credit negative.”
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- Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis/nuclear power cost expert, Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and Environment: “The utilities insist that the construction work in progress charged to ratepayers also include the return on equity that the utilities normally earn by taking the risk of building the plant — even though they have shifted the risk to the ratepayers…If the plant is not built or suffers cost overruns, the ratepayers will bear the burden…[T]he utility is making a one-way bet, allowing it to make a profit even when the project fails…The people bear the risks and costs; the nuclear utilities take the profits. Without loan guarantees and guaranteed construction work in progress, these reactors will simply not be built, because the capital markets will not finance them.”
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- Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis/nuclear power cost expert, Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and Environment: “In an attempt to circumvent the sound judgment of the capital markets, nuclear advocates erroneously claim that subsidies lower the financing costs for nuclear reactors and so are good for consumers…But shifting risk does not eliminate it. Furthermore, subsidies induce utilities and regulators to take greater risks that will cost the taxpayers and the ratepayers dearly…“The risks that have dismayed Wall Street should be taken seriously by policy makers because they would cost not just hundreds of billions of dollars in losses on reactors that are canceled, but also trillions in excess costs for ratepayers when reactors are brought to completion by utilities that fail to pursue the lower-cost, less risky options that are available…The frantic effort of the nuclear industry to increase federal loan guarantees and secure ratepayer funding of construction work in progress from state legislatures is an admission that the technology is so totally uneconomic that the industry will forever be a ward of state, resulting in a uniquely American form of nuclear socialism.”