We’ve got a lively debate going on the economics of nuclear power.
It began with Brad Plumer and Matt Yglesias arguing that it’s surprising that conservatives like nuclear power, when nuclear requires so much help from government.
I answered here that the conservative view is not at all surprising. If we are to reduce the use of coal to generate power, we’re going to need huge amounts of new electricity from alternative sources. North America’s resources of hydropower are mostly tapped out (the big exceptions – the Nelson River system in northern Manitoba and the rivers of the Canadian Arctic are remote and prohibitively expensive). High-tech conservation (smart meters, etc.) can make a difference at the margin, but cannot begin to replace 50% of all U.S. power – which is what coal provides.
Nuclear stands out as the only hope because it is so much cheaper and more reliable than wind and solar, never mind the boutique sources: biomass, etc.
The rule of thumb I hear when I talk to industry folks is this: the cost of producing electricity runs approximately as follows
Coal: 3 cents per kilowatt hour.
Nuclear: 5 cents.
Natural gas: 5 cents.
Wind: 8-10 cents.
Solar: 15-20 cents.
Windpower is sometimes described as competitive – but that’s only after the various tax credits etc. are figured in. These numbers reflect the cost of production.
Caveat: The 3 cent figure for coal averages all coal plants, including those that are half a century old, with their capital costs long since retired. Power from a new coal plant that meets all current environmental regulations costs more, almost as much as nuclear and gas.
On those numbers, a plan to move the country from coal to wind is essentially a plan to double the nation’s electric bill. Include solar and you are quintupling the bill.
Alternative energy advocates promise that the cost of wind and solar will decline in future. This will not happen, and here is why:
The big cost in wind and solar is not the turbine or the solar panel. The prices of turbine and panels could fall to zero, and still wind and solar would cost much more than coal or nuclear. Electricity cannot be stored and it is expensive to move. Cheap power is power that flows at predictable levels and is generated near to its users.
A modern nuclear reactor can generate about 1300 megawatts of electricity. A single nuclear plant with two or three reactors can generate enough power to sustain a fair-sized city – and can be sited as close to the population center as politics permits, so long as there is a body of water nearby for reactor cooling.
A modern wind turbine generates at most 2 megawatts. To equal a single reactor you’d need 650 turbines – probably many more, since they are so unreliable. Now think of the cost of the land assembly to support this vast array of machines. Next – think about the wiring required to connect them to a grid. Finally – think of the cost of moving that power across the country, because wind blows strongest in places like west Texas and the Dakotas, about as far as you can get from the nation’s big consumer markets. It’s the wiring that makes wind so costly, and that cost is not going to be reduced anytime soon by technological improvements.
Solar of course confronts this problem in even more radical form. The basic solar panel we’ve all seen emits only about 120 watts. You’d need acres of them to equal even the output of a wind turbine. And again, the sun shines brightest where people don’t live.
Like coal, nuclear runs consistently 24/7/365. In the northern hemisphere, the wind blows strongest when electricity use is lowest: at night and in the winter. So wind must be backed up by an array of gas turbines – and that kind of backup is again very expensive.
Without massive government subsidies, wind would find no place in the power mix. (Solar finds no place even with massive government subsidies.)
Nuclear by contrast stands as the next cheapest alternative to coal for large-scale electricity production. Yes it costs more than coal. If we’re willing to keep burning coal, then there’s no need for nuclear. But if you want to curtail the emission of greenhouse gases – without a shocking hit to the American standard of living – nuclear is the only currently feasible substitute.