Energy Bailout Showdown: Solar vs. Wind vs. Nuclear (Episode 60)

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A hundred billion dollars here and a hundred billion there, and before long you’re taking about some real money! The US Congress approved the $700 Billion bailout just a few months ago, and within days they doled out half the money. Now it seems congress has virtually no idea what the banks did with $350 Billion of taxpayer money. To make matters worse, they declared a financial emergency to justify these drastic measures, yet the stock market crashed anyway, leaving working class retirement funds and 401K accounts with half their pre-crash values.

All this made me wonder, “What would be the impact of spending that same $350 Billion on creating a secure, emissions free energy grid?” and “How much clean energy generation would $350 Billion buy?”

To answer these questions I started with a little Internet research. The four primary means of generating emissions free electricity are solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear. I decided to concentrate on those four. First off, experts agree that hydro-electric capacity in the USA is pretty much tapped out, so even if we had the money to spend we could not buy more hydro. Scratch hydro-electric off the list.

Next I researched current examples of each technology to obtain cost estimates. For solar energy I used the Clark County Nevada 18 MW project, the largest solar PV installation in the world, and data from the Energy Information Administration. For wind energy I used two projects; Cape Wind in MA and the London Array in the UK. For nuclear energy I used the proposed two-unit plant that Progress Energy is building in Florida. Here are the published cost estimates:

  • Solar: $117 Million for 18 MW of rated capacity
  • Wind: $1.2 Billion for 420 MW of rated capacity
  • Nuclear: $14 Billion for 2210 MW of rated capacity

Next, I researched the capacity factors for each energy type because as we know, the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine all the time. A MW of “rated capacity” does not equal a MW of true power output. Nuclear plants don’t run all the time either and must be shutdown periodically to replace fuel or for maintenance. For wind and solar I used best available estimates because both technologies are improving. For nuclear energy I used actual performance data. Here are the capacity factor results:

  • Solar – 19%: Solar energy suppliers say capacity factors vary depending on location from 12% in the US upper Midwest to 19% in Arizona. I’ll assume we use the best location for our investment and capacity factor will be 19%.
  • Wind – 32% : Cape Wind project planners say today’s CFs are 28%, but I used 32% because they promise performance will increase over time. I realize this is unproven, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • Nuclear – 90%: for the last several years the capacity factor for US nuclear plants have averaged about 90%. While new plants will likely have a “shake down” period with lower capacity factors, it’s reasonable to assume over their entire lifetimes the new plants will perform at least as well as existing plants.

Finally, since I’m considering energy produced over the life of our investment, we need to consider how long each power facility will last.

  • Solar – 20 years: I recently attended a Power Engineering workshop in which a representative from the Solar Energy Consortium (TSEC) spoke about the economics of solar installations. According to TSEC, solar panels last 18 to 20 years. For this calculation I’ll use 20 years as the life expectancy.
  • Wind – 30 years: According to Alliant Energy, one of the largest wind producers in the USA, wind turbines last for 20 to 30 years. I’ll use 30 years for this calculation.
  • Nuclear – 60 years: Today’s nuclear plants are licensed for 40 years, and about half have received extensions to allow them to run for 60 years. It is reasonable to assume that new plants will also operate for 60 years.

Now it’s time to crunch the numbers. I’ll do this step by step. Remember, the goal of this exercise is to determine how much energy we can buy with an initial capital investment of $350 Billion. The final results will be expressed in Gigawatt-hours (thousands of Megawatt hours).

Step one: determine rated output for a $350 Billion investment.

  • Solar: if $117 Million buys 18 MW, then $350 Billion will buy 53,846 MW (rated).
  • Wind: if $1.2 Billion buys 420 MW, then $350 Billion will buy 122,500 MW (rated).
  • Nuclear: if $14 Billion buys 2210 MW, then $350 Billion will buy 55,250 MW (rated)

Step two: determine average power produced considering the predicted capacity factors.

  • Solar: 53,846 X 19% = 10,231 MW (average)
  • Wind: 122,500 X 32% = 39,200 MW (average)
  • Nuclear: 55,250 X 90% = 49,725 MW (average)

Step three: determine power produced over the expected life of the plant (there are 8,766 hours in a year and divide by 1000 to convert from Megawatts to Gigawatts).

  • Solar: (10,231 MW X 8,766 hours/yr X 20 years ) / 1000 = 1,793,699 GW-hours
  • Wind: (39,200 MW X 8,766 hours/yr X 30 years) / 1000 = 10,308,816 GW-hours
  • Nuclear: (49,725 MW X 8,766 hours/yr X 60 years)/1000 = 26,153,361 GW-hours


An investment of $350 Billion in nuclear energy would provide 2.5 times more energy than the same investment in wind energy, and 14.6 times more energy than an investment in solar. Another way of looking at the value of the various investments is this: $350 Billion invested in solar energy will provide the same amount of energy as $23 Billion invested in nuclear energy. Also, as a nation we could choose to invest $350 Billion in wind energy, or we could get the same benefit from just $140 Billion invested in nuclear energy. In these troubled economic times, where should we be investing our finite resources?

Just a few months ago I sat in the audience at a workshop and liste
ned to someone in the solar energy business tell us “…and with 50% government subsidies the return on investment is 18 to 20 years.” I could hardly believe my ears! Who do they think pays for those subsidies? I’ll also point out solar modules last only 20 years. Even with the taxpayer footing half of the bill, the return on investment happens just as the solar panels wear out!

The story for wind is a little better, but it still does not make sense for large scale investment. We need an energy source that is reliable and steady, not one that is intermittent and unpredictable. The economic barriers are still significant for wind.

By the way, in this analysis I neglected to add the cost of rapid-start power plants that would need to be in place to pick up the load to keep the grid stable when the wind stops blowing. That would add significantly to the cost of wind energy. I did include the cost of used nuclear fuel disposal because those costs were included in the Progress Energy cost estimate.

In summary, I don’t believe the average American family is willing to pay 2.5 times to 14 times more for their electricity just to support the wind and solar industries? For the millions of people struggling to keep homes warm and food on the table in these tough economic times that simply would not be a responsible choice for us to make. That does not mean we should stop investing in research and development that may someday make wind and solar energy more cost effective. That is important, but we should not confuse R&D with large scale economically viable energy production.

In the coming months we are going to hear a lot about how the new administration will use our tax dollars to stimulate the economy, improve energy security, and address climate change. I hope you’ll keep this analysis in mind when you listen to proponents of the various industries try to make their case.

John Wheeler

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Author: John Wheeler

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