Study: Solar power is cheaper than nuclear

The Holy Grail of the solar industry — reaching grid parity — may no longer be a distant dream. Solar may have already reached that point, at least when compared to nuclear power, according to a new study by two researchers at Duke University.

It’s no secret that the cost of producing photovoltaic cells (PV) has been dropping for years. A PV system today costs just 50 percent of what it did in 1998. Breakthroughs in technology and manufacturing combined with an increase in demand and production have caused the price of solar power to decline steadily. At the same time, estimated costs for building new nuclear power plants have ballooned.

The result of these trends: “In the past year, the lines have crossed in North Carolina,” say study authors John Blackburn and Sam Cunningham. “Electricity from new solar installations is now cheaper than electricity from proposed new nuclear plants.”

If the data analysis is correct, the pricing would represent the “Historic Crossover” claimed in the study’s title.

Two factors not stressed in the study bolster the case for solar even more:

1) North Carolina is not a “sun-rich” state. The savings found in North Carolina are likely to be even greater for states with more sunshine –Arizona, southern California, Colorado, New Mexico, west Texas, Nevada and Utah.

2) The data include only PV-generated electricity, without factoring in what is likely the most encouraging development in solar technology: concentrating solar power (CSP). CSP promises utility scale production and solar thermal storage, making electrical generation practical for at least six hours after sunset.

Power costs are generally measured in cents per kilowatt hour – the cost of the electricity needed to illuminate a 1,000 watt light bulb (for example) for one hour. When the cost of a kilowatt hour (kWh) of solar power fell to 16 cents earlier this year, it “crossed over” the trend-line associated with nuclear power. (see chart below)

Solar-Nuclear cost comparison (from Blackburn and Cunningham)


The authors point out that some commercial scale solar developers are now offering electricity at 14 cents a kWh in North Carolina, a price which is expected to continue to drop.

While the study includes subsidies for both solar and nuclear power, it estimates that if subsidies were removed from solar power, the crossover point would be delayed by a maximum of nine years.

The report is significant not only because it shows solar to be a cheaper source of energy than nuclear. The results are also important because, despite the Senate’s failure to pass a climate and energy bill this year, taxpayers now bear the burden of putting carbon into the atmosphere through a variety of hidden charges – or externalities, as economists call them. Fossil fuels currently account for 70 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. annually. (Nuclear generates 20 percent.)

Having dropped below nuclear power, solar power is now one of the least expensive energy sources in America.

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6 thoughts on “Study: Solar power is cheaper than nuclear

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  2. This article is a joke. You can run a nuclear plant, including fuel, for 2-3 cents/kwh. The new 1300MWe nuclear plants being installed for $5 billion will produce at least 600 billion kwh over a 60 year life. And the nuclear power is available every minute of every hour of the year versus erratic solar. Those authors at Duke must have gotten a little too much sun on a recent trip to the beach,

    • That’s rather like saying that I can drive my car for 10 cents a mile. That’s only the price of gas, it doesn’t count the capital costs of owning a vehicle, the interest expense, insurance, maintenance, etc.

      A nuclear facility has a fixed life span, there are significant construction costs and then decommissioning costs when that life is complete. Nuclear is an important part of the energy picture, but it’s not nearly free as you imply.

      Then you have to account for nearly all power utilities left in the US being corporations instead of entities owned by the communities they reside in. They’re not free of the profit motive, far from it.

      • J. Goodwin says, “A nuclear facility has a fixed life span, there are significant construction costs and then decommissioning costs when that life is complete.”

        True. However, solar systems also have a limited life, significant constructions costs, and decommissioning costs. Also, with solar systems, the grid has to be extended to the solar systems at considerable cost whereas nuclear systems can be built where the grid is already designed to receive the power.

        Also consider using thorium instead of uranium for power. Liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) have projected costs considerably less than pressurized water uranium reactors and have many other advantages as well. They should be developed and put into production.

        • Frank Eggers says, “Also, with solar systems, the grid has to be extended to the solar systems at considerable cost whereas nuclear systems can be built where the grid is already designed to receive the power.”

          In Arizona, we have a Renewable Energy Standards. Part of the standard is to have Distributed Energy (DE). So many homeowners and businesses are putting solar PV on their rooftops and covered parking structures. These buildings and structures are already connected to the grid. So a large percentage of these solar systems do not have to have the grid extended to get to them. They supply energy to the grid when there is excess available.

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