For the past few years, energy policy makers -- President Barack Obama and Gov. Chris Christie included -- have touted a "nuclear renaissance," a surge of support for building new nuclear power plants both to satisfy expected increases in energy demand and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuel.
Not even the Fukushima disaster seems to have slowed the rush to restart nuclear construction after a 35 year de facto moratorium following the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island and the 1986 Chernobyl explosion.
Now comes a little-noted study by John Blackburn, an economics professor emeritus at Duke University. The year-old report, sponsored by the North Carolina Waste Awareness & Reduction Network, or NC WARN, casts serious doubt on one of the mainstay arguments for nuclear: that it is so much cheaper than the alternatives, especially solar.
The study's title leaves little uncertainty as to its conclusions: Solar and Nuclear Costs -- The Historic Crossover: Solar Energy is Now the Better Buy..
As the report explains: "Solar photovoltaic [electric] system costs have fallen steadily. They are projected to fall even farther over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, projected costs for new nuclear plants have risen steeply over the last decade and they continue to rise."
Most significantly, "the trend lines have crossed.... Electricity from new solar installations is now cheaper than electricity from proposed new nuclear plants." A detailed graph shows solar costs dropping from 14-15 cents per kilowatt-hour today to less than 5 cents per kilowatt-hour by 2020. New nuclear keeps on climbing to more than 30 cents per kilowatt-hour by 2020.
According to Blackburn, these trend lines are documented by numerous studies and reports, many from the nuclear industry itself. Importantly, he adds, "everyone should understand that both new solar and new nuclear power will cost more than present sources. That is, electricity cost will rise in any case. But power bills will rise much less with solar than with an increased reliance on new nuclear generation."
What about maintaining system reliability? Whatever it's total cost, nuclear is 100 percent "baseload" meaning it runs 24/7 in almost all weather conditions (short of a Category 5 hurricane). But solar, even if cheaper, is an intermittent power source. Keeping the lights on, AC humming, and computers running requires a constant source of juice that solar just can't guarantee. Right?
Not quite. Enter Lyle Rawlings, president of Advanced Solar Products, one of New Jersey's most successful solar developers. (Disclosure: this law firm represented his company in years past.) Rawlings believes it's time for what he calls "The New Paradigm" for power development. And investing billions of dollars in the building of more nuclear plants has no legitimate role in the "portfolio mix" he argues.
Rawlings estimates that in New Jersey the cost of what Blackburn calls the "traditional utility path" of building a new nuclear plant -- a 1,000-megawatt unit like Hope Creek -- plus adding 700 megawatts of high-efficiency natural gas-fired units will be approximately $11.1 billion. This is consistent with Blackburn's "$10 billion range per new reactor." This will keep the electricity flowing but the price tag may prove unaffordable.
Now compare that sum to what Rawlings projects for the new paradigm mix: 600 megawatts or more of solar and 300 megawatts of wind power, partnered with 350 megawatts of fast-response gas-fired units designed, as the name implies, to start up instantly when computers signal that clouds are covering the solar units or that the winds have fallen. Estimated price tag: $4.7 billion, or less than half that of the nuclear scenario.
The new paradigm mix also includes 350 megawatts of standard gas-fired units; 75 megawatts of demand response (remotely controlled thermostats and appliances); 150 megawatts or more of energy efficiency; and 25 megawatts of energy storage.
Blackburn's alternative mix adds in a hefty share of combined heat & power (CHP), also known as cogeneration, which captures the tw0-thirds of heat otherwise wasted by a standard power source to heat or cool buildings or run machinery. For example, since the early 1980's the state capitol complex and many Trenton offices have been served by one small CHP plant.
And there's still more reason to choose solar. As Rawlings points out, smaller distributed sources -- be they solar or CHP or both -- are quickly built in small batches or "increments." This reduces the risk inherent in relying on a few huge power plants that take several years to build and, when they go offline, can cause power supply disruptions.
To be sure, the Blackburn study should not be taken as gospel, and it must be noted that Rawlings has an obvious conflict of interest due to his solar business. But they cannot be easily dismissed either.
Nevertheless, in New Jersey's deregulated power market -- which replaces the cost-plus monopolistic utility system in place for nearly a century with a price-based "bidding system"-- it seems unlikely that any new nuclear plant will be built unless it can compete with alternatives. Thus, even though PSEG has started planning a new nuclear plant, the state's largest power developer has said it won't build it unless the facility can compete on its own.
As Rawlings notes, even planning a new nuclear project can cost in the tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, the future will be here before we know it. And something more precious and priceless may be wasted on the "nuclear renaissance:" time to plan for tomorrow while we can.
At a minimum, the Blackburn study and Rawlings "new paradigm" should be studied by state and national policy makers, and that includes Obama and Christie and their energy advisors, while there's still time to make rational, cost-saving choices.