Long live the Sun - Why Solar Power will beat Nuclear

This week will see a steady stream of advocacy for nuclear power. Many advocates are well-informed. But nuclear has already lost to solar photovoltaic power.

Why are solar and nuclear on such different trajectories? Is it just a matter of regulatory inefficiency? Or is there a deeper reason? Solar power is competitive because it’s cheap, easy, safe with low-skilled labor, and not a proliferation risk. Nuclear plants today can be made to high standards of safety, but solar power is safe by default—and it’s cheap because it’s simple. It doesn’t require X-ray weld inspection of stainless-steel containment vessels or comprehensive background checks for operators. Just a generic foundation and an electrical plug.

But this neglects the most important reason why solar power is crushing nuclear power. After all, a much simpler and cheaper nuclear plant could be invented tomorrow. The reason solar power and batteries are winning is because the manufacturing technology can be iterated every six months, so the learning curve is much faster. Nuclear power plant technology iterates about every 25 years, or twice in the 50-year life of a nuclear power plant. Many first-generation plants are still operating, but few third-generation plants have been commissioned and fourth-generation plants are still in the planning stage. Even if every nuclear design iteration was ten times better than the last, solar power wins, because solar iterates 50 times faster. It wins with just a five percent improvement per iteration. Is each nuclear design ten times better than its predecessor? Obviously not. Meanwhile, solar PV panels have already been through hundreds of design generations, driving a 10 percent price decrease every year.

This is gibberish. The bottleneck for solar has always been the EROEI of the necessary battery systems. Advances in battery technology have been in density, not cost effectiveness. That’s why we still use lead acid batteries on boats.

Solar is winning for the same reason the rest of our infrastructure is slowly going to shit: people are gullible and long term planning is unsatisfying.

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I’d never heard of the author of the piece in the OP but the link came from Noah Smith who I’ve been reading for a while and is reliable. His background includes a degree in physics and a PhD in economics, he is now a columnist for Blomberg but has been writing about this stuff for a while.

Here’s from few months ago:

Why I'm so excited about solar and batteries - Noahpinion

Here’s a twitter thread:

Blomberg columns:

https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/authors/AR3OYuAmvcU/noah-smith

He’s doing the same thing people always do with solar, showing graphs with the falling costs of PV cells without mentioning that in order for solar to be viable in widespread applications the lifecycle costs of batteries need to fall off a cliff. When they do mention it, it’s ‘Soon!’ and as I’m sure you know Fusion has been 10 years away for the last 50 years. I’m all for it - I would be happy never to lug another 8D up 5 sets of stairs to squirrel away under the wheelhouse but physics intervenes so far.

There’s lots of smart people that advocate for things that will require as yet undiscovered advances in technology. Elon Musk is a good example. They can certainly drive innovation and improved technology (I have a preorder for a CyberTruck) but it’s best not to plan societal infrastructure around their hopes.

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Solar and wind power can also be used to produce hydrogen, which can be used to produce electricity, run cars and truck, or propel ships.

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I always thought solar power WAS nuclear power, just with the reactor at a much safer distance.

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Solar and wind power can do lots of things. What they cannot do is reliably produce stable 24/7 power to exactly meet the demands of all users on a grid all of the time. It’s never been done for any significant period of time. It can’t be done economically.

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Other than a few morons, no one ever said it would, could, or should. Do you have something to contribute or are you just throwing stones to get attention, again?

Implied in my previous comment, was, “Why bother with solar and wind, they don’t do the job.”

Might have gone right over your head.

Here’s is where the “too cheap to meter” comes from:

Solar panels have become so cheap that the true cost of electricity is shifting from solar arrays themselves to the steel and land needed to house them. Imagine if the most expensive part of a nuclear plant wasn’t the fuel or reactor, but just the land it sits on.

That shift means it’s now cheaper to overbuild, even if producers don’t always sell the power. With the price of panels set to continue falling over the next decade, the economics will only grow stronger.

Last year, the Perezes co-published an article in the peer-reviewed journal Solar Energy showing the US could operate a solar-dominated grid furnishing a constant source of electricity even cheaper than today’s conventional production, using limited wind power and energy storage. The low cost overcame renewables’ traditional weakness: the intermittency of supply if the sun or wind fails to appear. Oversizing a system by a factor of three, they found, was optimal.

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Here’s an essay saying the exact opposite. I think it makes more sense.

The quote about land in the future being the most expensive part of a nuclear plant which can produce endless, steady power from a very small area compared to the vastness of a solar array of equivalent output, is laughable. Might work if the nuclear plant wanted land in waterfront Miami or similar.

That’s the thing. Wind and solar could be free, and it still wouldn’t matter, because with the necessary storage systems the ERoEI is negative.

Consider the table in this article. Notice that they use rooftop solar panels in the chart instead of the massive solar farms proposed in your articles. That’s because they make sense. I have them myself. They don’t show solar farms apart from the hypothetical solar thermal that only works in very niche environments because it would make solar look bad. So bad that proponents of solar are trying to advocate for a ‘new’ method of measuring ERoEI to hide the fact that it doesn’t work.

If you have a negative ERoEI and you put infrastructure money into massive solar installations you’re essentially developing a massive pyramid scheme in the hopes that tech will catch up before everyone is left holding the bag and we have to admit this isn’t going to work and install nuclear/nat gas plants anyways.

Which explains why Florida Power and Light (FPL) is spending millions on Greta Thunberg look-a-like TV commercials touting their solar projects. FPL is the sole provider for more than half the state of Florida so it’s not like they have a need to market their product, the consumer has no choice where to buy electricity.

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One type of solar energy storage that often gets overlooked is pumped-storage hydroelectricity. Meaning, you pump water uphill and store it in a reservoir. When you need power you release it through a turbine. It’s just hydroelectricity, used to store excess electrical power not being used in off-peak times.

You need a place with verticality (mountains) for it to work. It will work in California and Washington, but it won’t work in Florida and Kansas. Of course, there is such a thing as an energy grid.

Pumped-storage hydroelectricity takes 15% to 30% more power to pump the water uphill than it produces. But the idea is to store excess power.

Not a panacea. Lots of issues associated with it, including environmental ones. In the American West, especially, water-use is a touchy subject. But a clever technology. Here’s a good article from the LA Times on the whole matter:

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Pumped storage in Austria is one of the reasons why Germany’s renewable energy grid is able to function, another important one of course being purchasing nuclear energy from France.

There’s a pumped storage hydro plant on the Deerfield River in Western Massachusetts. That 15% to 30% figure confirms what one of the operators told me, that if it costs them $3 to pump up the mountain, they can generate $4 in revenue dropping it back down. When kayaking the river, the demand/price of energy determined whether or not the last rapid on the “Monroe Bridge” section would be submerged. High demand means they are dropping from the reservoir and the rapid is submerged.

The utility that we get power from has had a pumped storage hydro plant in operation since 1963. Yes, they do work.

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One surprising thing I learned when I started researching the subject is topography that would appear to be ideal for pumped hydro storage often isn’t - the criteria is more strict than it looks at first glance.

Even if water has gone through a turbine it is still just water and can be used like any other water.

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Not when it has salmon in it

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