Nuclear energy is expensive, but what about wind and solar?

Continuing with previous post in which I wrote about the Stop and Go-campaign site that claimed that nuclear power is just a marginal power source and this provoked with me the question how their own preferred energy sources of those organization behind this campaign did compared to this. Not well, as it seemed. The fun didn’t end there. They brought even more arguments to the table. Let’s start where I left off (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):

The total number of plants would have to rise incredibly spectacular, before nuclear power would make a real difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To decrease global emissions by 6% by 2050, the current number of 436 commercial nuclear reactors should be quadrupled. This is much too late and too little. Moreover, this is unrealistic if we see that the cost of a single new nuclear reactor exceeds 5 billion euro.

Aha, the cost argument. A nuclear plant isn’t cheap, but wind and solar aren’t exactly cheap either. For 5 billion one can definitely build a lot of windmills, but there are other things that should be taken into account.

A windmill farm might cost less than a nuclear plant of the same capacity and don’t have fuel costs after they were build, but they produce intermittently (only on average about 25% of the installed capacity) and the lifespan is shorter than that of a nuclear plant. So the wind park needs to be rebuild in the life time of the nuclear plant and the cost of construction of the windmills therefor will be higher than that one single build.

There are also hidden costs that are not taken into account when presenting those costs of for example windmills to the public. Like higher infrastructure cost because the windiest places are not necessarily close by (and it will get more difficult to find suitable places). Very important, wind energy is intermittent which means that (conventionally fuels) power plants needs to be stand-by and running less efficient (using more fuel) in order not only to follow demand, but also the variability of wind and solar. Also, wind energy (as well as solar) is a low density energy source. This means that a lot of space has to be available and higher infrastructure costs.

When calculating the cost of wind power, the costs of keeping fossil plants on standby, running at reduced loads, space requirements and higher infrastructure costs are not taken into account. I think it should be, it is a real cost resulting from adding that “clean”, “green” electricity to the grid.

Nuclear energy on the other hand also has a whole range of issues like a high upfront cost for building a plant and later there are costs like fuel costs, security, storage of radio active waste, decommission and so on. That is obviously a huge cost, but the plant will produce electricity on a steady basis for 30-40 years.

Comparing those two will always be difficult, it will be more than just comparing the cost of the plants with the windmills. To compare apples with apples, one has to compare all costs over the complete life cycle of the power source. This is called the “Levelized Cost of Electricity”. I found this report from IEA that estimates this costs: Projected Costs of Generating Electricity 2015 edition from IEA. In this report the LCoE of the baseload technologies is shown:

and compared to that of renewable energy:

Before you say that renewable energy has a rather similar levelized cost of electricity, first look at the scale. The highest value on the scale for base load is $160/MWh, that of renewables is $400/MWh. I don’t have the actual numbers, so I tried to copy and paste the base load graph into the graph of the renewables at the same scale with a image processing program. Here is the result:

LCoE base load + renewables

This comparison makes it clear that the ranges for renewables are considerably larger than the base load ranges and also higher than the renewables. Only the lower end of onshore wind comes in the range of nuclear.

The numbers are at plant level and therefore do not include transmission and distribution costs. Which, according to me, should be accounted for because it is a real cost that is the direct result of the use of a hugely decentralized energy source.

To conclude: again, by their own reasoning, if nuclear energy is so incredibly expensive and therefor unrealistic, then what about renewables that over their lifetime are even more expensive than nuclear energy?

7 thoughts on “Nuclear energy is expensive, but what about wind and solar?

  1. manicbeancounter

    In Britain there is only one new nuclear power station in planning. The Hinkley B power station cost had now risen to about €27bn. That is more than the 5 billion mentioned above even allowing for the vast size of 3.2GW.


  2. trustyetverify Post author

    Belgium is a small country and we build small plants (our current plants are around 500 MW and around 1000 MW). So I assume they were talking about the price of a small one.


  3. chrism56

    As other people have pointed out LCOE is a very poor way of valuing renewables. This is because they are not dispatchable. Because of this, wind (or solar) needs to having a weighing factor for their alternates, be it storage or backup plant. That raises their costs significantly and gives a better indication of their worth..


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      You are absolutely right that LCOE is still not a complete comparison between conventional and intermittent energy sources. LCOE is calculated at plant level, without looking at the whole. The need for backup and/or storage is a hidden cost resulting from the use of intermittent energy sources and this will make the difference even bigger than the LCOE figures show.


      1. poitsplace

        And as the technologies have been put in place, it’s quite likely that they’ve attributed the costs of wildly throttling power plants…to the fossil fuel plants. But in reality, they are in fact the result of renewables. It would actually be more reasonable to count the bulk of the upkeep costs for the fossil fuel plants as a cost for renewables, because they are absolutely required at this point…but that would instantly destroy the case for renewables, both by driving up costs and by demonstrating that they simply are not very compatible with our needs.

        As with so many “Wouldn’t it be nice IF…” scenarios, that “IF” comes with a massive heap of near magical requirements that simply cannot be expected to come to pass individually, much less simultaneously.


        1. trustyetverify Post author

          I also think that part of the costs (and emissions) of fossil-fuels should be attributed to renewables. The intermittent nature of renewables like wind and solar results for example in a decrease in efficiency of the backup plants and therefor more fuel use. These costs (and emissions) are therefor the direct result of the intermittent nature of the renewables.


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