For at least the next 10 years, when considering new capacity, there should be little doubt that renewables will be the generation method of choice. Utility PV, solar thermal (especially with molten salt storage as a baseload source), wind, rooftop solar and biomass will be the highlights, along with contributions from biogas (sewage, landfills and
For at least the next 10 years, when considering new capacity, there should be little doubt that renewables will be the generation method of choice. Utility PV, solar thermal (especially with molten salt storage as a baseload source), wind, rooftop solar and biomass will be the highlights, along with contributions from biogas (sewage, landfills and livestock), geothermal, and maybe even some wave and tidal. Advances in storage technologies and reductions in price will help remove the intermittency concerns of some renewables. The next ten years should be another decade of rapid growth.
When considering a transition from the dirtiest ofÂ fossil fuels, nuclear is also a possibility, and therefore, nuclear will beÂ discussed along with renewables. Nuclearâ€™s time to build, risk, waste andÂ especially costs will be scrutinized, as the costs for nuclear are rising whileÂ renewable costs are decreasing.
Cities and nations are rapidly installing small andÂ large-scale renewable power sources and new storage technologies. Even China,Â currently the most aggressive country with respect to nuclear power, is addingÂ more capacity with wind and solar compared to nuclear â€” and itâ€™s not justÂ nameplate capacity â€” itâ€™s actual generated power. Last year alone, China addedÂ 20.72 GW of wind (4.8 GW output as their capacity factor is only 23 percent)Â and 28 GW of solar (10.6 GW output), with around 90 percent of their solarÂ installations coming from utilities. New capacity from wind and solar were moreÂ than the 5 nuclear plants added in the same year (5.7 GW output). China is justÂ one example of how wind and solar can be built faster while generating moreÂ power. By the time (and if) China completes their 28 nuclear plants (many areÂ already behind schedule), with an added capacity of 34 GW, they will have addedÂ more power from wind and solar in the same timeframe â€” again, taking capacityÂ factors into account.
InÂ the next 10 years, renewables will add well over 100 nuclear reactors-worth ofÂ electricity.
The above output numbers for renewables assume noÂ advances in wind or solar efficiency and no grid storage. Both assumptions willÂ become completely false, so the 131 GW number should be considered a minimumÂ number. Capacity factor numbers used were 40 percent wind, 25 percent utilityÂ solar, 20 percent rooftop PV, 85 percent biomass/biogas, 80 percent geothermal.Â Note that some of the utility solar added to the grid was solar thermal withÂ molten storage, with an 80 percent capacity factor, so 25 percent capacityÂ factor number was used to encompass all utility solar. Obviously, we can notÂ use EIAâ€™s capacity factor numbers for renewables, as they only have renewableÂ generation data for the last four months of 2014. That means no summer monthsÂ for solar and a few missed windy months for wind.
The additional nuclear power output of 5.1 GW will comeÂ from 5 under construction plants that are behind schedule and billions overÂ budget. They include Watts Bar, Summer and Vogtle. Even favorable policies andÂ new plant approvals wonâ€™t change nuclearâ€™s contribution â€” nuclear is expensiveÂ and takes too long to build. The next 10 years = five reactors = 5.1 GW output.
The 10 year projection for renewables is highlyÂ conservative. We excluded EIAâ€™s projections due to flawed data (more on that
here, here and here), but Iâ€™ve considered Exxonâ€™s really low projections andÂ ACOREâ€™s really high projections. The estimate of 131 GW for renewableÂ generation is about half of the optimistic generation estimate of 254 GW,Â although even that estimate is obtainable with favorable policies.
So, here is the big question: why are renewablesÂ growing faster than nuclear, even in places like China where they are building
the most reactors? In places like the U.S., Japan and Europe, is it because ofÂ nutty environmentalists and anti nuclear groups? Isnâ€™t that what happened withÂ Vermont Yankee? Actually, no – Vermont Yankee really closed because the O&MÂ costs became too high. The real answers: risk, cost and time to build.
NuclearÂ Takes Longer to Build and Costs More than Renewables
Nuclear plants today are far more complex than the onesÂ built decades ago. The AP1000 is a new reactor, and both China and the U.S. areÂ behind schedule with their reactors. Here in the U.S., take Vogtle for example.Â Vogtle is now running three years behind schedule â€” and over $2 billion USDÂ over budget. The revised expected price tag for the two reactors is now around
$15 billion USD, and rising. These delays and budget overruns so far have costÂ Georgia ratepayers an extra $14 per month on their electric bill. When finished,Â Vogtle’s two reactors will generate wholesale power at rates around $120 perÂ MWh â€” thatâ€™s $0.12/kWh which is the current national average RETAIL rate. TheÂ other three reactors will have generation rates at least $108 per MWh,Â equivalent to $0.108 per kWh. So, the next time you hear Ted Cruz or the KochÂ brothers talk about how renewables are going to raise utility bills, remember,Â reality proves otherwise.
When considering Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE),Â nuclear decommissioning costs are excluded from the calculation. This is a bigÂ deal, because recent decommissioning costs have been running between $1 billionÂ USD (Vermont Yankee) and $4 billion USD (San Onofre). Then, there are ongoingÂ costs, as nuclear waste remains on-site and must be guarded and secured. While
ratepayers pay a fee to cover the decommissioning costs, the fees collectedÂ were based upon old cost estimates. $900 million in subsidies have already beenÂ provided for decommissioning costs (more on that here), and this figure isÂ expected to rise as current deficits are in the tens of billions of dollarsÂ range (more on that here).
Also not included: potential cleanup costs from aÂ nuclear incident. Japanâ€™s government has already spent over $100 billion USD onÂ cleanup efforts related to Fukushima, and itâ€™s projected the cost will exceedÂ $300 billion USD. Bottom line is that even without cleanup costs, wind, solarÂ and other renewables are less expensive to build and electric rates are lessÂ expensive than nuclear. More on LCOE can be found here. Remember, nuclearÂ decommissioning costs are NOT included, even though those costs are eminent.
Speaking of subsidies, are you tired of hearing howÂ renewables are highly subsidized compared to fossil fuels and nuclear? AnyoneÂ that makes this statement is either lying or they simply have not done theirÂ homework. When considering lifetime subsidies, the oil, coal, gas and nuclearÂ industries have received approximately $630 billion in U.S. governmentÂ subsidies. Wind, solar, biofuels and other renewable sectors have received aÂ total of roughly $50 billion in government investments. Also, oil and gasÂ subsidies were five times greater than renewables during the first 15 years ofÂ each subsidyâ€™s life and more than 10 times greater for nuclear. Furthermore,Â consider that non-renewable subsidies are guaranteed to renew, offering thoseÂ industries decision-making security, while renewable subsidies have beenÂ uncertain. How fair is that? You can find more info on subsidies here and here.
Who makes the decision whether to build nuclear orÂ renewables? Is it the pro nuclear or pro renewable camps? No, itâ€™s theÂ utilities and consumers, and they are the ones choosing renewables. UtilitiesÂ are purchasing wholesale power cheaper from renewables than from coal, nuclearÂ and sometimes even cheaper than from gas. Hydro has always been cheap, butÂ consider wind and solar. Utilities are securing PPAs from wind and solar atÂ rates in the 2.5 to 5 cent/kWh range for wind, and 5 to 9 cent/kWh range forÂ solar. For example, the 50 MW Macho Springs solar plant in New Mexico deliversÂ power for 5 cents/kWh under their PPA. That is especially low, but most U.S.Â solar projects in the U.S. have PPAs in the 6 to 8 cent/kWh range. Even if youÂ take out the PTC from wind in Texas, a utility would still be buying powerÂ under 5 cents/kWh. Furthermore, prices for wind and solar continue to dropÂ rapidly. More info on recent PPAs here.
DoÂ we need nuclear as a baseload source of energy?
If we are to transition from fossil fuels, itâ€™sÂ important to note that during this transition, existing nuclear power plantsÂ are needed. Nuclear provides 19% of our baseload electricity. The nuclearÂ plants in operation today have already been built, and decommissioning costsÂ are eminent, no matter when they close. Provided they continue to operateÂ safely, they will continue to help offset fossil fuel use. With plant extensionÂ plans, many plants can operate for another 30 or more years.
What about renewableâ€™s intermittency andÂ dispatchability? First, consider the fact that not all renewables areÂ intermittent. While the U.S. does not intend to add much more hydro, it is anÂ existing source of baseload energy, currently generating 6% of our needs. SolarÂ thermal with molten storage, biogas, biomass (especially cleaner electro andÂ biochemical biomass) and geothermal all provide baseload sources of energy.
Itâ€™s usually those in the pro nuclear or fossil fuelÂ camps that cite intermittency as the key issue with renewables. I find itÂ ironic, that those who have even a fundamental understanding of nuclear, canâ€™tÂ seem to find answers to relatively simple problems. Compare and contrast theÂ difficulties of fission, handling nuclear waste, building dozens of nuclearÂ plants simultaneously, along with the costs â€” to solving intermittency. InÂ other words, humans can construct highly complex reactors, prepare fuel, splitÂ atoms and manage radioactive waste, all of which require immense short and long-termÂ financial investments, yet we can not utilize various storage techniques,Â generation diversity and a smarter grid? Obviously, we can, and we will.