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Nuclear vs Solar: The Race For Renewable Dominance

Alternative Energy

Back in October, Texas GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw opined that solar and wind “don’t work,” calling them “silly solutions.” Instead, nuclear energy would be a “far better energy resource than solar and wind if [Democrats] cared about zero emissions.” Crenshaw will likely be challenged on this – quite seriously.

On Nov. 4, the day after the election, the United States officially withdrew from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, a global pact it helped create in an effort to avert the threat of catastrophic climate change. Newly elected president Joe Biden has vowed to rejoin the accord on the first day of his presidency, a task that does not require Congressional approval.

Biden has outlined his $1.7 trillion Climate Plan that targets a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero status for the country not later than 2050.

Although the Democratic Party leader has distanced himself from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal that was roundly defeated in the Senate last year, Biden has gone ahead and picked AOC and former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry to co-chair his Climate Change Plan – a potential win for renewable energy.

But given the Senate deadlock, the plan of the Democrats to implement sweeping changes to federal policies to mandate aggressive investments in renewable technologies that will accelerate decarbonization goals is likely to be severely hampered.

And now some nuclear experts and activists are suggesting a middle-ground: The Green Nuclear Deal.

Far more Republicans (65%) than Democrats (42%) are pro-nuclear as per Gallup Polls.

Green Nuclear Deal

Madi Czerwinski, the founder of the Campaign For a Green Nuclear Deal, has opined that not only should Biden aim to revive the United States’ ailing nuclear sector but should also pursue legislation that will raise its contribution to the electricity generation mix from the current 19% to 50% by 2050.

It’s a sentiment supported by the Atlantic Council, which argues that nuclear energy is an established low-carbon source of reliable power that’s likely to enjoy bipartisan support from both sides of the aisle.

The Atlantic Council notes that there’s clear precedent here: In 2018, Congress passed the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA) that will facilitate public-private partnerships through the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) to fast track the development of the next generation of nuclear reactors. In the same year, Congress passed the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) to help modernize the regulatory process for nuclear reactors.

The nuclear energy camp has received further support from unexpected quarters. Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) has declared that “Without nuclear power, the world’s climate challenge will get a whole lot harder.”

These are valid points.

We have discussed the gains being made in the development of advanced nuclear reactors that use thorium instead of uranium. Thorium is now being billed as the great green hope of clean energy production, producing less waste and more energy than uranium. Thorium is meltdown-proof, has no weapons-grade by-products, and can even consume legacy plutonium stockpiles.

The United States Department of Energy (DOE), Nuclear Engineering & Science Center at Texas A&M, and the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have partnered with Chicago-based Clean Core Thorium Energy (CCTE) to develop a new thorium-based nuclear fuel they have dubbed ANEEL. ANEEL, which is short for “Advanced Nuclear Energy for Enriched Life”, is a proprietary combination of thorium and “High Assay Low Enriched Uranium” (HALEU) that hopes to solve some of the knottiest problems nuclear power faces, including high costs and toxic wastes.

That said, we pointed out that the main sticking point to the promotion of thorium as a cleaner nuclear fuel is that it remains unproven on a commercial scale. Thorium MSRs (Molten Salt Reactors) have been in development since the 1960s by the United States, China, Russia, and France, yet nothing much ever came of them. Further, only about 50 of the world’s 440 reactors can currently be configured to run on thorium.

We have also highlighted how scientists have finally broken ground by kicking off the five-year assembly phase of the massive International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the world’s largest fusion reactor, in Saint-Paul-les-Durance, France. Funded by six nations, including the U.S., Russia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea, ITER will be the world’s largest tokamak fusion device with an estimated cost of ~$24 billion and capable of generating about 500 MW of thermal fusion energy as early as 2025. Unfortunately, practical nuclear fusion remains a long-shot and could be decades away from becoming a commercial reality.

We simply don’t have the luxury of time.

Further, nuclear power in the U.S. faces an uncertain future. Of the country’s 97 currently active commercial nuclear reactors, 11 are scheduled for retirement by 2025. Only the Watts Bar plant in Tennessee has been commissioned over the past two decades, though two new reactors at the Vogtle plant in Georgia could be pressed into action as early as 2021.

The biggest obstacle for nuclear power, however, is that it remains a tough sell with well-publicized nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island still looming large in the American public’s psyche. A Morning Consult survey has revealed that just 29% of Americans view nuclear energy favorably with 49% viewing it negatively thus making it the most unpopular energy source.

Solar rising

Whereas the nuclear sector comeback has its work cut out for it, solar power has clearly been on the ascendancy thanks in large part to falling costs.

Nuclear advocates have pointed to rising electricity costs in California as the reason why other states should think twice before adopting its model. Environmental Progress has reported that between 2011 and 2018, power costs in the Golden State increased by 27.9% compared to a 4% national average. This period coincided with a period when California has been aggressively ramping up its renewable generation capacity. Renewable sources currently account for ~30% of California’s electricity generation with an aim to double that by 2030 and hit 100% by 2045.

But that’s being a bit disingenuous because it fails to capture just how much solar costs have fallen over the timeframe.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), solar installation costs have dropped by more than 70% over the past decade, opening up vast new markets and systems nationwide. The organization says prices as of Q2 2020 dropped to their lowest levels in history across all market segments, with utility-scale prices ranging from $16/MWh – $35/MWh, thus making it competitive with all other forms of generation. Meanwhile, costs for the average-sized residential system were cut in half from a pre-incentive price of $40,000 in 2010 to roughly $20,000 today.

And no, renewables are not to blame for California’s blackouts.

Source: Solar Energy Industries Association

Higher Soft Costs Remain

A common complaint is that solar power is only becoming cheaper for utilities but not for residential applications.

Related: Can Colombia Replicate Brazil’s Offshore Oil Boom?

That’s partly true but not entirely so because residential costs have actually been falling but at a slower clip than their bigger brethren.

According to SEIA, residential PV pricing fell only 20% between 2014-2020 to $2.84/Watt mainly due to soft costs, including labor, overhead costs, supply chain, customer acquisition, and permitting/inspection/interconnection costs remaining high. Further, inconsistent permitting practices and building codes and permitting practices across jurisdictions have led to some regions not being able to enjoy the full benefits of falling hardware costs.

Source: Solar Energy Industries Association

Strongly Bullish 

Despite these challenges, the solar sector remains strongly bullish.

Indeed, S&P Platts says that the shift to renewable energy is likely to continue full steam ahead regardless of fed policies noting that the energy transition has “clearly been moving forward on a regional basis,” despite lacking clear endorsement at the federal level under Trump.

It remains to be seen whether nuclear energy can command the same level of support.

By Alex Kimani for

7 Comments on "Nuclear vs Solar: The Race For Renewable Dominance"

  1. Harquebus on Sat, 14th Nov 2020 2:50 pm 

    The manufacturing of solar Pv panes has moved. The result is:
    Quality has decreased.
    Toxic byproducts are dumped into the local environment.
    The industry pays slave wages, has poor working conditions and little occupational health and safety.
    The cost of decommissioning has not been included.
    They can not manufactured without fossil fuels.

    BUT! They are cheaper. Hooray!!!

    Planet of the Humans | Full Documentary

  2. Antius on Sat, 14th Nov 2020 5:40 pm 

    Notice that installed capacity remained miniscule until 2010. At this point, interest rates had dropped to zero in all advanced economies and massive quantitative easing started at about this time.

    The problem with zero interest rates is that it tends to make capital intensive projects look artificially cheap. The shale revolution and the solar revolution were both enabled by the same thing – extremely cheap credit. And unsurprisingly, both happened at the same time. But it is burning tomorrow for the sake of today.

    The same factors lie behind the cheap module costs. Companies with access to zero interest rate loans and able to issue bonds with returns lower than inflation, can sell their product very cheaply.

    So you have artificially cheap products being purchased with zero interest rate loans. Altogether this makes solar projects appear very cheap. But the situation is not indefinitely sustainable. When interest rates eventually return to more normal levels, solar infrastructure is unlikely to be affordable.

  3. Kevin Ronald Cobley on Sun, 15th Nov 2020 6:47 pm 

    Thorium reactors are simply “fast Breeder Reactors” that turn non fissile thorium into fissile Uranium 233, they must be initially fuels by Plutonium or Uranium 235.
    Reprocessing of wastes is a prerequisite of a thorium reactor system.
    Thorium changes nothing in a nuclear reactor system, it’s inherently far more expensive than any form of renewable and has the same set of dangers as conventional nuclear reactors.
    Not one Thorium reactor has ever been successfully designed or tested which puts industrial deployment several decades into the future.

  4. Antius on Sun, 15th Nov 2020 7:12 pm 

    ‘Thorium changes nothing in a nuclear reactor system, it’s inherently far more expensive than any form of renewable and has the same set of dangers as conventional nuclear reactors.’

    I don’t know how you reach that conclusion. Renewable energy has never been cheap and is even less so when storage costs are factored in. Wind and solar only appear affordable at present because interest rates and bond rates are close to zero. Zombie renewable energy companies can sell their products at artificially low prices, thanks to QE money funnelled into them through pension funds and bonds that pay back at less than inflation.

    At the customer end, wind and solar infrastructure is bought and installed using zero interest loans.

    For an energy source in which capital costs dominate total costs, these effects obviously make wind and solar appear relatively affordable. But it is clearly not something that is going to be sustainable for very long.

    For a better understanding of the likely future practicality of energy sources, one should look at the mass of materials for each baseload MW. This report does exactly that.

    It is noteworthy that the total steel and concrete inputs for 1MW of wind power do not include the materials required for the storage plant or the extra wind generating capacity needed to overcome storage losses. Suffice to say, 1MW average of wind power requires at least an order of magnitude more steel and concrete than a 1970s era PWR. When one considers that offshore wind turbines have effective life 20 years vs 80 years for a nuclear reactor and even more materials are needed for the storage plant and to cover its losses; we are probably pushing towards two orders of magnitude more embodied energy in a renewable electricity system compared to a nuclear one.

    In the absence of fossil fuels, power can be produced in the large amounts needed for industrial civilisation, only by using nuclear reactors. Thorium may of may not be a superior fertile material to 238U. You are correct in your assumption that its advantages over uranium are often overstated.

  5. Cloggie on Mon, 16th Nov 2020 1:15 am 

    “ITER will be the world’s largest tokamak fusion device with an estimated cost of ~$24 billion and capable of generating about 500 MW of thermal fusion energy as early as 2025. Unfortunately, practical nuclear fusion remains a long-shot and could be decades away from becoming a commercial reality.”

    “We simply don’t have the luxury of time.”

    “That said, we pointed out that the main sticking point to the promotion of thorium as a cleaner nuclear fuel is that it remains unproven on a commercial scale.”

    “But that’s being a bit disingenuous because it fails to capture just how much solar costs have fallen over the timeframe.”

    Whatever the potential merits of thorium, it will all come too late. The entire world minus the US are full steam ahead with renewable energy at the government AND public level. Renewable energy has won the PR battle over nuclear, certainly in Europe.

    There is no cheaper way of generating a kWh of electricity than this:

    “More Solar Price Erosion – Abu Dhabi 2 GW, 1.24 Eurocent/kWh”

    Offshore wind power has shown fantastic price erosion too.

    All hinges on the price of storage and very promising hydrogen-based storage solutions are underway:

    Not sure about thorium, but uranium reserves are very limited. There is just enough uranium left for 10 years 100% global electricity production.

    There is a huge social advantage to renewable energy, in that finally poor third world countries have something they can compete with on international markets: perfect solar conditions. Let Africa produce a large share of hydrogen, they can sell on international markets.

    Sorry, renewable energy has won.

  6. DT on Tue, 17th Nov 2020 1:05 am 

    The only thing truly renewable is entropy.

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