In the much belated follow up to the eligibility criteria post on nuclear power, I consider the first merit criterion; is nuclear power a good investment? Is building a nuclear power plant a good way to turn a pile of money into a bigger pile? Or are there better ways of doing that?
Imagine you’ve been saving for a while and you have $50 billion burning a hole in your pocket and want to invest it in some clean electricity production. Nuclear looks okay, people keep telling you it’s clean and reliable, and everyone in the neighbourhood seems to have solar now as well, so might look at that too.
There’s a bit to consider; nuclear takes a long time to build, but once it’s running it produces electricity almost all the time. Solar is very quick to build, but only produces power when the sun shines. Which will give you more electricity from your investment?
In the first post I assumed an 8-year construction schedule, the Nuclear Energy Agency allows 4-8 years depending on where you are, and excluding permitting, finance raising and design. As this would be the first ever nuclear power plant built in Australia I think ten years is reasonable. It’s taken Hinkley Point, with full government support, at least two years to even decide if they’re going to build it and they’re expecting electricity in 2022 or so.
$50b is about the expected cost for the Hinkley Point reactor. For that price you get 3200MW, provided by two steam turbines. These will generate power almost all the time, for a modeled capacity factor of 85%. This might be a touch low, but it doesn’t make much difference in the model; the US hit about 91% capacity factor last year, a record, and their long term average is around 90%. France in comparison was closer to 80%, but nuclear makes up a much higher proportion of generation in France, so has to ramp up and down to follow the load. The construction period is about ten years, so construction costs are around $5b each year.
How much solar would that buy? I’ve been using $2/Watt as an estimate for about 18 months, and it’s probably a bit high now for rooftop where the installation market is very competitive. I’ve seen commercial systems go in recently at $1.1 – $1.4/Watt, but they have all been on flat rooftops. If you spend $5b a year on solar it will require more space than some factory roofs, so the cost of installing in a field is more accurate. These tend closer to $2.4/Watt, which is what I’ve modeled.
Solar’s capacity factor is quite easily determined using climate data, driven by maps like this from the Bureau of Meteorology. Find the insolation, multiply it by the panel efficiency and it’s possible to calculate the average energy output per kW. Like this table. For the model I have assumed 4kWh/kW/day, slightly more than Sydney’s average, but a lot less than Brisbane, Cairns and Alice Springs. 4kWh/kW per day is an implied capacity factor of 17%.
Solar is much easier to build. Australia has been adding about 800MW each year for the last 5 years, without really trying. At $2.40/Watt, $5b will buy a touch over 2GW of capacity. That represents a pretty big increase in current installation rates, so maybe 2GW in the first year is a bit ambitious. If this were an actual 10-year program then your installation capabilities would ramp up and should easily install 2GW/year by the third or fourth. I have modeled a constant program of 2GW per year to keep it simple. Again this doesn’t make much difference to the result.
I also haven’t modeled any change in the price of solar, which is extremely generous to nuclear. Installed prices have roughly halved in the last 5-years, continuing the trend of the last 40-years. It would be quite reasonable to assume that the cost of solar would halve again during this period.
The price of nuclear hopefully doesn’t change during the build, although these plants have a bad record of hitting their construction quotes and timelines. This excellent article in Grist gives a summary of some studies into power projects and how often they run over time and budget. Nuclear is the worst, on average being more than 100% over budget, and almost 100% of projects running over time. Of generating technologies, solar is the most reliable, with average cost overrun of less than 10%, with 40% of projects running over schedule.
First the graph of capacity over time. Solar installs just over 2GW a year, nuclear installs nothing for ten years. This is just peak output though, nuclear can provide that around 90% of the time, solar less than 20%.
The interaction between capacity and capacity factor are shown in the annual output graph. Solar’s output increases each year for the first ten as new capacity is added, then decays over time as the panels degrade. I’ve modeled 1% reduction in capacity each year. Nuclear generates nothing for ten years, then 3200MW forever. Degrading at 1% solar’s annual output falls to match nuclear’s some time after year 30. The solar array would have replaced some panels and inverters by this time, but many of the original panels would still be working.
Solar gets a massive headstart through easy construction and modular design, which theoretically generates electricity from day 1. Even with the panels degrading and nuclear power’s famous high capacity factor, it doesn’t generate as much electricity as solar until about 80 years into this scenario.
There’s a gentle curve in solar as the panels wear over time, but in anything less than a 50-year investment solar is going to make more electricity per dollar than nuclear, by some margin. Solar provides returns much faster and with much lower risk than nuclear, with the strong chance that construction will get cheaper throughout a program, rather than more expensive. The numbers used above are extremely favourable for nuclear, assuming that the nuclear project will be delivered on time and on budget, which is demonstrably unlikely, and assuming that solar will not experience any cost improvement, despite doing the same thing every year for ten years, with a product demonstrated to lower its manufactured price over time. Nuclear produces nowhere near as much electricity as solar on conservative estimates and it’s only going to get worse.
The absurd complexity in manufacture and design of nuclear power plants is a weakness that leads to severe cost and timeline uncertainty, while the opposite is true of solar. No one will build a nuclear power plant in Australia without significant government intervention. And it won’t just require money, but the political stamina to commit to a project of staggering cost and no discernible output for over a decade. It won’t happen. Nuclear has already lost.