Solar rises, nuclear falls

My piece for the National Interest is now up. It ran under the headline “The end of the nuclear renaissance”, but that’s only half the story and probably the less interesting half. The real news of 2011 was the continued massive drop in the price of solar PV, which renders obsolete any analysis based on data before about 2010. In particular, anyone who thinks nuclear is the most promising candidate to replace fossil fuels really needs to recalibrate their views. There’s a case to be made for nuclear as a backstop option, but it’s not nearly as strong as it was even two years ago.

Feel free to comment here or at NI.

119 thoughts on “Solar rises, nuclear falls

  1. @Chris #48

    I’d suggest that classical economics says that costs should be some where near prices. (Ignoring monopoly rents, externalities etc.) But these classical market conditions definitely do not apply in the PV market at the moment.

    You are spot on about me not having a clue on China’s PV cost structure but neither does anyone else outside the Chinse PV industry. Unless you have some inside knowledge, I’d suggest you don’t know the real cost of PV manufacture in China either. The place is completely opaque. I don’t think they have made any manufacturing break throughs so my guess is their price advantage is coming from the sweat off their population’s backs. Mainly, through cross subsidising the capital expenditue on Silicon Foundaries and the like. Maybe there is a contribution from the violation of the PV intellectual property rights, you mention. All in all, I cannot see the situation resulting in a viable, innovative, sustainable PV industry in the long term.

    For these reasons, I can’t see any case for putting money into PV firms. Still, it early days yet! If you want to put your money into the PV industry, don’t let my China bashing stop you.

  2. John, There is a simple case for choosing a mix of power sector technologies given the marked changes in solar costs and the fact that the degree of economies of scale based on standardised technologies has not really been tested. Its a portfolio issue with large lumpy investments.

    I think CCS should also be pursued for some time yet given the technological uncertainties associated with it. There is obviously a case for public investments in all these technologies and for cooperative international efforts to determine where cost efficiencies are converging to.

    Its too early yet to declare a win for solar. The race isn’t finished.

  3. @Sam
    The lesson to draw from Solyndra is this:-

    If you are manufacturing a high-volume commodity item sold to engineers, don’t use a high-cost process and insist on a non-standard size and shape.

    Solyndra went bust because its product was not competitive. That’s how markets are supposed to work.

    Should the US government have guaranteed loans to Solyndra? In an ideal world – one in which there is a $50/tonne price on carbon, no externalities, and no subsidies for anything – perhaps not. Given the political realities, absolutely. And if anything it should be argued that there have been too few Solyndras, not too many. The programme hasn’t been aggressive enough. But people don’t understand venture capital.

  4. I wouldn’t write off nuclear entirely (for the rest of the world, this is. It’d definitely be silly for Australia to go nuclear before a decade has elapsed, and everyone else has shown that it’s a bad idea).

    Personally I much prefer solar PV. The idea of building big kettles to boil water – for that’s what nuclear reactors are – seems so Victorian, so teak-and-brass. And all that digging and delving busywork to get the ore – so unnecessary-seeming, these days. That was Jules Verne’s future; it doesn’t seem like ours.

    PV, on the other hand: no moving parts, except the electrons and holes in the semiconductor. It seems more modern, somehow; and at the same time timelessly mystical. Get things done by sitting in the sun! Zen, or perhaps Tao, tapping into the flow of chi. Anyway, to me there’s no comparison aesthetically.


    Politicians like – greatly desire – monuments to themselves, things they can stick a brass plaque on, saying “The Hon. Hilda Baggins opened this facility on 1/4/2017”. Can they do that with nuclear? Yes. With PV? Not so much.

    No doubt you’re inclined to write this off as facetious and bringing down the tone of the conversation here, but reviewing the history of infrastructure might change your mind. Political ego is one of the larger forces in the world – quite large enough to overwhelm common sense or economic soundness, or aesthetics.

    And in the end the important thing is to get off coal. If that’s most easily done by (metaphorically) winching out the coal furnace and smokestack and dropping in a reactor, then so be it. I’ll be watching for progress reports from the UAE.

  5. I am wondering if Australia will build large amounts of grid connected PV in deserts and use long distance HVDC to get the electricity to coastal cities. Maybe it won’t be considered worthwhile. If a HVDC transmission line was built across a desert anyway, connecting desert PV to it would be pretty straight forward, but I’m not sure if it would be worth building long distance HVDC lines just for the purpose of building desert PV. This is because Australia is so darn sunny the desert isn’t that much sunnier than population centres. Looking at Queensland, PV will only generate about 14% more electricity in Cloncurry than it will in Brisbane and Cloncurry is almost the sunniest place in Australia. I don’t know how much long distance HVDC transmission lines cost, but they may not be worth it for for a 14% difference, particularly since there would be about a 5% power loss from Cloncurry to Brisbane.

    PV out around Moomba will produce nearly 30% more electricity than it will in Melbourne, so this would be more worthwhile, but it’s only about 14% more than what PV will generate in Mildura, or about 12% more with HVDC transmission losses, and Mildura is much closer to Melbourne.

    Geographic dispersion of PV has definite advantages, but I don’t know if it will be considered worthwhile given Australia’s low carbon price and the large amount of existing fossil fuel generating capacity that will be sitting around ready to meet demand once the spot price of electricity goes above the combined cost of fuel and carbon price.

    The most important factor determining how much grid PV will be built is probably competition with point of use PV. At three dollars an installed watt, lots of people with a reasonable discount rate should be able to make money from point of use solar. However, since grid PV is only worth wholesale electricity prices rather than retail electricity prices, by the time grid connected PV is competitive with other grid generating capacity, there might be an awful lot of point of use solar installed. Maybe enough to lower electricity prices during the day and damage the economics of grid connected solar.

    Grid connected solar potentially has very low installation costs and if built on grazing land the cost of land is insignificant. The land could even still be used for grazing if the panels were spaced out. But point of use solar also has the potential for very low installation costs as well. If solar panels are built into roofing material and installed during building construction, the installation cost could be very low. After all, the roof and its installation would have to be paid for anyway and the electrical connection could be done along with the rest of the building’s wiring.

    So, maybe a world with cheap PV will be a world without much desert grid connected PV and maybe it will also be a world without much grid connected PV at all. If the installed cost of PV gets low enough we may simply have a lot of point of use PV and simply let the price of electricity drop down to zero early in the morning after sunrise and on mild sunny weekends. If solar PV is cheap enough and the cost of infrastructure to send it where it might be more valuable is high, then this might be the cheaper option. Of course, in a world where the price of electricity often drops down to zero, but with reasonably high prices early in the evening or on cloudy days, it might make it worthwhile to invest in thermal storage of the sort developed for concentrated thermal solar power, provided the cost is low enough. Instead of concentrated sunlight these would use electrical resistance heating to heat the storage medium when the price of electricity is low. If practical, unlike pumped storage these could be built small and local, which would help avoid the need to build long distance transmission infrastructure.

  6. I think any PV energy storage system would have to have a round trip efficiency of at least 50% and not require site specific advantages. One system with 7% efficiency is PV to water hydrolysis to hydrogen fuel cell. Google for example Stewart Island Initiative.

    It’s been suggested that the modern industrial system cannot live with oil at a real price over $150 a barrel. If it tries to exceed that economic contraction will pull it back into line. I suspect that the economy cannot be inclusive with electricity prices over say 50c per kwh. When smart meters tell us that is the power price on hot afternoons people will fry in the heat instead. If we go to the shopping mall to keep cool maybe they’ll charge admission fees. Even if affluent countries seem for now to be able to afford very high electricity prices (read Germany) I don’t think the other half of the world can get there. Affordable energy is a matter of social justice.

  7. John,
    I have just returned from holidaying with family in Germany. I have to say that the take up rate of solar and wind power is amazing – there are turbines and solar panels appearing everywhere. Note that this is the country which has also announced it is going to decommission its nuclear power plants. Ahh the Germans – so much cleverer than us.

  8. A relatively unbiased analysis of German energy policy is here in the form of a slide show. This week Merkel and Putin opened a section of the Nord Stream gas pipeline that bypasses Ukraine. Other neighbours of Germany are watching closely as well.

  9. “It’s been suggested that the modern industrial system cannot live with oil at a real price over $150 a barrel.”

    The price has been at or above $100/barrel for quite a few years now, and doesn’t seem to have caused any major problems for countries (like Australia) that have managed to avoid the impact of the GFC, which was unrelated to oil

    I’m sure the same would be true for electricity at 50c/kwh and even for life without airconditioning on hot afternoons – I grew up quite happily without it, and I’m sure the same is true for most readers over about 30. But since the cost of solar PV is now well below 50c/kwh, and PV is most available on hot afternoons, I don’t suppose we will ever find out.

  10. One of Australia’s real problems right now is the domination of politics by the coal and metals mining lobby. Labor and Liberal are in the pockets of this lobby. Until we can break the power of this lobby (which contributes only about 5.6% of Australia’s Gross Domestic Product and only about one third of our exports) we will not develop the solar and renewables economy we need for our survival.

  11. In Murray Bridge solar PV has gone from “Look Dad, there’s a goddamn hippy” to nothing at all unusual—just witness the drive up Adelaide Road heading out of town towards the freeway; multiple houses along the route have substantial PV rooftop installations.

    Without getting into the nitty-gritty of subsidies, efficiency, etc, the main take-home message is that people have surpassed that “social anxiety factor” about whether it is worth doing, what the neighbours will think, whether their most conservative Liberal mates will ever talk to them again, etc. Once a an innovation has got past that social hump, it has moved well beyond the early adopter stage and is ready to pass into the ubiquitous stage (mature business). If Murray Bridge, full of conservatives, can have a noticeable coverage with solar PV, then so can anywhere else in Australia. Mind you, it is still a minority choice, but change is clearly afoot.

  12. @hc

    And with the usual escape clause – that the lifespan is not relevant if old plants can pass (vague) safety tests.

    This just illustrates how ‘spin-meisters’ get into public policy and media mouthpieces.

    Personally I doubt that modern nukes are more expensive to build and operate – but they are more expensive in terms of risk of catastrophe and leaks of radioactivity into the ecosystem at all points in the fuel cycle. The economic argument is irrelevant – the thought of so much cheap energy monopolised just makes capitalists drool.

  13. chrisl :
    As Hermit said above, the cost of the PV cells is not the only issue

    Great link to right wing, Montford conspiracy theories. According to the site:

    How I uncovered a plot to greenify the BBC’s output.

    and of course accompanied with the usual the-hocky-stick-is-illusion dogma.

  14. @Chris Warren

    Indeed so. The proposed new FITs are

    4 10 50 250 kW: 8.5 p/kWh

    The UK Climate Change Committee’s Renewable Energy Review found that the project cost of new nuclear generated electricity in the UK to be in the range 6-10 p/kWh slowing declining through 2040.

    Could you or anybody else please explain, in the light of the extravagant claims being made of PV being cheaper than or even close to the cost of nuclear, why the proposed FITs are sufficiently high that investors would have to be beaten way with sticks in the solar gold rush.

    Just why should these new proposed FITs cause projects to be cancelled?

  15. Oops, the HTML rendering ate the relational symbols. The proposed FITs are:

    Up to 4kW: 21 p/kWh
    4-10 kw: 16.8 p/kWh
    10-50 kW: 15.2 p/kWh
    50-250 kW: 12.9 p/kWh
    over 250 kW: 8.5 p/kWh

  16. Chris Warren. When you write “cuts” to incentives, I think you mean cuts to subsidies.

    From the article”The cuts were understandable since the cost of solar panels has fallen steeply, boosting demand for them and income from the tariffs far beyond original projections: the former tripled between June and October alone.”

    The article seemed to be written in sorrow,the cheering was coming from the comments section.

  17. There are three critical demographic groups in terms of public perception of nuclear energy: actual and potential host communities (which have nuclear plants in their backyards), the broader public, and political elites.

    Casual observers might have imagined that the most vocal opponents of nuclear energy would be found in communities that have similarly vulnerable facilities or are slated to receive them in the future. This, however, is not the case. To induce cooperation from host communities, the Japanese government has distributed hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives, loans, infrastructure, and assistance. Working through official government agencies, such as ANRE, the Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, the Japan Industrial Location Center, and the Center for the Development of Power Supply Regions, the central government has tried to bring the opinions of these communities in line with national energy plans. As a result, the actual and potential host communities have been less concerned with health and environmental hazards and more worried about the loss of revenue streams, taxes, and jobs.

    While those residents most at risk from nuclear power have said little, broader public opinion polls have revealed a gradual and clear movement toward anti-nuclear sentiment without large-scale anti-nuclear demonstrations. Recent polls conducted in early July show that roughly 70% of Japanese respondents favor ending Japan’s use of nuclear power and seeking alternative energy sources and higher levels of energy efficiency.

    Among political elites, the prime minister himself and the governors of prefectures with nuclear power plants have been increasingly anti-nuclear in recent days. While the current prime minister may not be in office much longer, the next administration will need to set out a clear and well-conceived plan for Japan’s energy policy.

  18. @Michael

    There might be PV panels “everywhere”, but they don’t produce much electricity. In fact just over 3% of Germany’s electricity in 2011. An amount that will be dwarfed by new fossil fuel generation capacity under construction and planned in Germany. It is an inescapable fact that Germany’s decision to exit nuclear power means that it’s CO2 emissions will be higher than they otherwise would have been.

    As recently reported in the Guardian, a single company in India, Essar Energy, is building eight new coal powered power stations. The output from these will about the same as that of the entire world’s installed PV capacity. And also around about the same as seven AP1000 nuclear power plants. There are about 430 nuclear power reactors in the world. Output from PV is not even in the same order of magnitude as output from nuclear. Not even close.

    About 13 GW of PV capacity was installed world wide in 2011 – over half of that in Germany. All new German capacity for 2011 would produce less electricity than the single New Shin Kori 1 nuclear power plant that entered full commercial service in Feb 2011.

    The overselling of PV to an extent that would make a marketing execute blush seems to me to exhibit a cavalier disregard for risk. James Hansen discusses these issues in his rather emphatic recent essay Baby Lauren and the Kool-Aid

    There is something very wrong with the situation where some environmentalists demand (rightfully) the acceptance of mainstream science on the issue of climate change but prefer to put their faith in cranks such as Busby or Caldicot on radiation risk, steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the mainstream science. Indeed they have publicly promoted these people at every available opportunity. Sorry, but picking and choosing what science one believes based on ideology is both wrong and exceedingly dangerous for the future of the biosphere. It cannot possibly lead to an objective approach to energy.

  19. Your numbers are wrong
    As regards your final para, we have seen a long thread here and, AFAICT no-one has cited “cranks like Busby and Caldicott”, or relied on claims made by such people. Certainly I didn’t do so in the original post. You are fighting shadows of your own invention, while nuclear power is being killed by economics.

  20. As regards the Hansen essay, he doesn’t seem to have any data past 2008, which makes it a bit difficult to take him seriously – how hard can it be to Google these numbers

    I’m sure he’s a fine climate scientist but he doesn’t know any economics – he was last seen claiming that there are fundamental differences between a carbon tax (he’s pro) and an emissions trading scheme (he’s against). That’s nonsense as can clearly be seen from the debate over the semantics of what we have here (a fixed price emission permits scheme, supposed to become an ETS over time).

  21. @John Quiggin
    The link points out that PV uptake depends on the continuation of subsidies. There is a danger in extrapolating the uptake of a niche product to a future in which the favourable conditions may no longer apply. Those favourable conditions include generous subsidies, fashion and the ability of the grid to accommodate small amounts of reverse flow.

    The growth of PV may well move from the West to Asia. In Japan there is the Fukushima factor and in China there may be the need for domestic stimulus. However as in the West it seems likely that the subsidies will taper off. A decade hence the world will end up with a relatively static x% of all kilowatt hours being generated by PV. I suggest that x will be a smallish number, my guess 10% maximum world wide. It won’t make a dent in fossil fuel dependence.

  22. So I was out driving my humvee the other day when I slammed into the passenger side of a porsche. “Sorry, for denting your car,” I said.
    “That’s not a dent!” said the porsche driver. “You’ve only reduced the width of my car by 10%. A ten percent reduction in width doesn’t count as a dent! Forget about it!”
    So I headed home, being careful not to stave in any vehicle I met by more than 10%, and when got home I set fire to a big pile of coal in my back yard, as I am required to do by the Jevons paradox ever since I had the roof insulation put in.

  23. We already agreed, above, that nothing is going to beat coal in the absence of a carbon price or a subsidy, and that the optimal solution would be to phase out all the specific subsidies and replace them with a carbon price.

  24. No, the problem is that the report you cite refers to 2010, and its forecasts for 2011 were way too low.

    In this lengthy thread, I haven’t seen anything to suggest that you have been paying any attention at all to the developments of the last year. You formed your views at some point in the past, and you are going to stick with them regardless of the contrary evidence. Unfortunately, that seems to be par for the course in this discussion.

  25. @John Quiggin
    Certainly good news for consumers and good news for the environment; however there is a scent of economic hypocrisy in the justification. Of course, that’s of little significance for the very real threat that faces us… well… unless of course you’re a shareholder or venture capitalist who’s helped fund these companies, but I suppose we should always be wary of businesses involved with government subsidies & other temporary assistance programs.

  26. @John Quiggin

    Yes, I read everything in the article except the date and was about to retract that comment. However the general principle still stands. According to your link the projected deployment in 2015 is about 44 GW. The latest OECD monthly electricity stats report that 2010 electricity consumption in OECD countries alone was 10,309 TWh. By my calculation, assuming 15% capacity factor, that 44GW in 2015 of new worldwide PV capacity would satisfy just 0.56% of 2010 OECD demand.

    According to Wikipedia, world energy consumption in 2008 was 132,000 TWh. That 44 GW of PV represents 0.042% of 2008 world energy consumption.

    World energy consumption is forecast to grow at an annual rate of 1.5% to 2030. That 2015 PV deployment rate would need to be 35 times greater each and every year just to meet the increase in energy demand. Of course, growth may be greater or less than these projections, but the picture is clear.

    Quite simply there is no deployment of PV or projected deployment of PV over the next decade at the very least that can possibly contribute more than a small fraction of what is truly needed to address the climate problem. That is what the big picture tells us and if we want to shy away from the big picture one has to ask what is the point of all of this?

    Claims to the contrary are just distributing large amounts of the sustainable energy kool aide. If matters change over the next 5-10 years and PV deployment has hugely exceeded projections, and the LCOE of PV is comparable to nuclear then a reassessment is obviously due but for now that is the situation based on the numbers.

    The situation looks bleak, and is made more bleak by spreading false hope through gross overstatement of the contribution of PV spread by renewables zealotry. The fossil fuel industries just love this because it engenders a public attitude that there is a solution in sight, when in fact there is not. Their own PR machines could not hope to do such a good job of getting them off the hook.

    There is every indication that all forms of low emission generation are and will continue to be needed and there are some very difficult engineering and economic problems in making them co-exist due to intermittency issues not to be dismissed by lightly by hand waving about “myth of baseload”. For me any other position is taking gross and unacceptable risks with our climate future unwarranted by the current evidence.

  27. Total nuclear output output in 2010 was 2630 TWh, or about 2 per cent of total energy consumption, and equivalent (using your 15 per cent assumption) to about 2000 GW of solar PV

    That’s for an installed base that has been built up over many decades. If solar PV installations continue to rise at the rates observed over the last decade or so, cumulative installations would surpass 2000GW sometime in the 2020s.

    Of course, that’s nowhere near enough to solve the problem. For the next decade at least, the main gains have to come from some combination of wind, gas, energy efficiency, and reduced energy use. But that doesn’t change the conclusion that solar is now a potentially important contributor in the longer term, while nuclear is almost certainly not.

  28. @John Quiggin
    ” to about 2000 GW of solar PV”
    Do you mean 2000 GWh here?


    ” cumulative installations would surpass 2000GW sometime in the 2020s”

    Do you mean 2000TWh?

  29. @Sam

    cumulative installations would surpass 2000GW sometime in the 2020s

    Do you mean 2000TWh

    Most unlikely. That wasn’t his point. PrQ was speaking of installed capacity {If solar PV installations …} rather than output.

    He went to the trouble of converting output to capacity allowing for the CF of 15%

  30. @John Quiggin

    Suppose there is 2000 GW of PV installed sometime in the 2020s. That will still generate a little less electricity than today’s 367 GWe of nuclear capacity. IEA projections for nuclear in 2030 range from low 501 GWe to a high 746 GWe. So we might conclude with some ambitious estimates for PV growth that by 2030 PV might generate roughly the same amount of electricity as nuclear. How much confidence do we place in these figures? In IPCC jargon, are they likely, very likely? Would those figures in 2030 warrant the claim that nuclear is unnecessary, let alone today? I would suggest that there would be at least one essential precondition and that is that the storage problem has been solved definitively and cheaply. How likely is that? Very likely, likely, better than 50:50? Who really knows and it really is very uncertain.

    In the end, it’s about risk.

    This is my last comment. I really don’t want to go round and the same circle. I can’t see that it adds anything.

  31. A bit late back to the conversation, but:

    A word on peak demand: As I see it, there are two aspects to the discussion of peak demand:

    1. Generating power roughly during times when demand is high might mean you can sell your generated power at a higher price. This should be good for the economics of solar, which doesn’t generate electricity at off-peak times, only during shoulder and peak times during the day. (according to my Time-of-use electricity bill, peak time is 2pm to 8pm).
    2. Deferring the need for new infrastructure by offsetting peak demand requires that you lop the top off ALL peaks, not just take a chunk out of one peak, and leave others etc. If there is even one big peak, then you need the infrastructure to handle that peak. An unfortunate chunk of our electricity infrastructure is there just to deal with the small handful of very hot or very cold days each year.

    As Robert Merkel said, PV output peaks in the middle of the day, while summer peak electricity demand is later in the afternoon, and winter peak demand is even later (early evening).

    I cant see how PV will be of any benefit in reducing the need for infrastructure to handle demand at these peak times. If anything, PV might hurt the economics of new infrastructure, because new generation/transmission/distribution infrastructure will be needed for those peaks, but there will be less total energy delivered over that infrastructure – in other words, rather than lopping the tops off the peaks, PV is carving a chunk out of the side of the peak – the peaks are pointier, and the additional infrastructure to deal with the peak is needed for a smaller amount of time.

  32. Bear in mind that peaks can also be lopped off by pricing – we are nowhere near getting this right yet. If you need to construct a lot of infrastructure to deal with a few hours of demand per year, the price on those hours (multiplied by the quantity used) should cover the cost of the extra infrastructure. If users aren’t willing to pay that price, the infrastructure shouldn’t be built.

  33. In Australia peak demand is on hot, cloudless days in summer, as a result of all those air conditioners being run, and to a smaller extent more water being pumped. As this summer daytime peak is much higher than other peaks, PV is a huge help and does avoid the need for additional infrastructure. It cuts the top of the highest, most expensive to reach peak.

  34. @Ronald Brak

    In Australia there is a big peak in both summer and winter – it has historically been an unambiguous winter peak, and it is only in the past decade that the summer peak has caught up and even overtaken the winter peak in some climates, due to the growing popularity of air-conditioning.

    Even then, the summer peak is not at midday or 1pm when PV output is at its highest. It is later in the afternoon. Even if the summer peak is successfully lopped, there is still the comparably very high winter peak, in the evenings on the coldest few nights of the year.

    And this is before we even discuss intermittency – ie what happens on that hottest day of the year when a storm rolls in, and demand is still very high but PV output drops off – while temperature can drop quickly with a southerly, the sun can disappear behind a cloud with even greater speed (this issue can be mitigated somewhat by siting industrial scale PV systems in the desert, as JQ suggests.

  35. Here in Adelaide, we only have rolling blackouts due to an inability to meet demand in the afternoon during summer heatwaves when the sun is shining. I assume this is true for the rest of Australia.

  36. @Ronald Brak

    See page 5 of this presentation by Brian Spalding, commissioner of the Australian Energy Market Commission:

    Click to access spalding-presentation.pdf

    It would be nice to find out the assumptions etc behind this model to examine its legitimacy – it suggests that PV will not impact greatly on peak demand in NSW (ie the highest point in the graph on the left hand side is only taken down a small notch by the addition of 500 MW of PV.)

    Figure 1 from this doc:

    Suggests Victorian summer peak demand on a high demand day in Feb 2006 was after 4pm, and for a high demand day in winter in June 2006, the peak was after 7pm. Not good for solar. Although I would point out that the charts seem to be sourced from a nuclear energy site, so they may have been cherry picked or something.

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