Reactors, Solar

Nuclear versus solar

Nearly all environmentalists love nuclear power. What they’re divided on, really, is where to locate the reactor(s). Should we be building nuclear reactors distributed around our little planet where they’ll produce energy for the surrounding area? Or should we instead just focus on harnessing the power produced by the massive nuclear reactor built for free by the cosmos and situated nearly a billion miles away at the center of our universe–what most people call solar power?

Writing in The Wall Street Journal this week, two environmentalists with the Breakthrough Institute, a pro-nuclear think tank, made the vital point that, for many environmentalists, has been hiding in plain sight for years. That point, articulated by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, is basically the following: anyone legitimately concerned about both the climate and the cost of energy cannot be against nuclear power located here on earth, at least in the near term.  

Their case goes like this: Some leading environmentalists in the fight to save the planet from breakaway global warming say nuclear power can’t be the answer because it’s too expensive (or because it’s unsafe, but that’s for another discussion). These green campaigners, like Bill McKibben, say renewables like solar power are our only hope and they point to Germany to illustrate the possibilities of a rapid shift to renewable energy sources.

What Nordhaus and Shellenberger lay out is the glaring contradiction of this position simply noting that the assumption it’s built on is not true. Germany’s solar panels are far and away more expensive per unit of electricity produced than any fleet of nuclear plants (unmentioned is the fact that Germany’s shift over to solar has also included a significant shift over to exceptionally dirty coal). Their words below…

“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.

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.”