Costs of Electricity

I think it’s pretty obvious by now that I am definitely pro-renewable energy.  I recently read someone’s comment that “we should look at trees.  A truly giant structure powered by tens of thousands of tiny little powerplants getting energy from the sun.”

You know, that pretty much sums up my feelings about the whole thing.  Instead of spending an insane amount of money (see below) on a giant power plant, why don’t electric utilities just buy the solar cells and wind turbines to put on people’s roofs.  The homeowner would rent/lease them from the utility and any excess power gets sold back to the utility of use elsewhere.

This encourages consumers to reduce electrical use, because any savings there are translated directly into cash for their pockets.  We wouldn’t need a massive grid at all.  Instead a small series of partially interconnected grids would communicate needs to each other and find the places that have excess power.  No electricity would be lost to long electrical lines, as each area would feed only off those next to it.

Costs and such after the break:

Solar panels (Photovoltaics) are approaching parity with conventional utilities.  One report (Tat I can’t find again, stupid internet.  Finding something on the internet is like finding the pee in a pool.) said that solar panels were competitive with coal in peak electricity times in California.  Costs for solar are still dropping.  Investors currently think that by 2020, the cost will be about half the cost of coal.

The big one that I want to mention here though is nuclear power.  A recently talked with some people who think nuclear is the only way to get sufficient power.  I think they are wrong and it’s simply based on economics.  Nuclear is big and expensive.  Here are some recent examples of what I’m talking about.

In 2009 the city of San Antonio was in negotiations for an expansion to a nuclear plant.  The possibility of that happening are now zero.  What happened?  Well, the original cost of the expansion was listed on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission request for permit was $5.4 billion dollars (2007).  Between 2007 and 2009, the cost had already increased almost 300% to $13 billion dollars.  In 2009, the cost jumped again (apparently without anyone in the company telling the city council) by another $4 billion dollars.  The cost of the plant had quadrupled and no one had even started construction yet. 

Almost $17 billion dollars for 2.7 billion watts of electrical generation capacity.  In case, you’re curious, that works out to $6.29 per watt of power capacity.  Solar power is running from between $4 per watt to less than $2 per watt (depending on who you ask).  At least one company is manufacturing (not selling, manufacturing) solar panels at less than $1.50 per watt.

Ontario, Canada, in 2009, was reviewing bids for expansion of a nuclear plant.  The only compliant bid came from Atomic Energy of Canada and was $26 billion (unknown if this is US equivalent or Canadian dollars) for two 1.2 gigawatt reactors.  This tops the scale at $10.80 per watt of capacity.  This was over three times what the province was estimating (7 billion) and would have wiped out the province’s nuclear power expansion budget for the next 20 years.

Florida has a similar problem.  17 billion dollars for a pair of reactors.  It’s worse in Florida though, because consumers have been paying for these reactors already, even though construction hasn’t begun yet.

Since, two of the reactors we just talked about are costing $17 billion, let’s see what that can get us in terms of wind power.

The Roscoe Wind Farm in Texas has a name plate capacity of 781.5 Megawatts and cost “more than a billion dollars”.  This was in 2009, so it’s approximately the same timeline as the nuclear reactor stories I’ve listed above.  If we give the nuclear the benefit of the doubt and say it’s 1.5 billion dollars for 781.5 Megawatts, then 17 billion dollars will get 8,857 Megawatts of power (8.8 Gigawatts). 

Of course, wind power has a generally lower capacity factor than nuclear (meaning it doesn’t always produce that much power).  So in reality, we have to multiple that 8.8 Gigawatts by anything from 20% (if you listen to the anti-wind crowd) or up to 40% (if you listen to manufacturers).  That’s part of the problem, it’s extremely difficult to actually find this information.  Here, I’ll give the nay-sayers a bonus and say 25%, with the note that the average for the UK in 2006 (best data I could find) was 24.6% capacity factor and note that the UK probably isn’t as good for wind as the central US is. 

This gives us 2.2 Gigawatts of power from wind, which is about the same as nuclear.  So, what’s the difference in the two?   (Of course, a 33% capacity factor will net the wind turbines almost 3 Gigawatts, more than all of the nuclear options.)

Well, since they produce about the same amount of power (from capital costs), then we have to delve a little further. 

Assuming a standard fuel replacement model, the nuclear plant spends $40 million dollars every 19 months on fuel.  Over 20 years, that equals 533 million dollars and 1.5 billion over 60 years.  That’s not figured into the prices above.  Those are just capital costs for facilities.  So, nuclear has an extra major cost that wind doesn’t have. 

There’s another major cost for nuclear plants, decommissioning.  You can’t just sell a nuclear plant that’s at the end of it’s life to someone.  The reactor body and a fair bit of the internals have been made radioactive by the constant bombardment of high energy radiation.  Costs range from $300-$500 million after it’s done producing electricity.  (The bids above may include decommissioning costs, they may not, the bids are unavailable.)

To keep the costs the same, one could spend that billion to 2 billion dollars on an energy storage solution for the wind-farm.  This would help regulate the power flow and capture the energy generated when it would otherwise be wasted.

We will not consider transmission lines because both wind and nuclear will need those.

Other things to consider would be insurance (what is the rate on a 17 billion dollar facility?).  Problems with the facility (if the nuke plant goes down, you lose all the electricity, if a wind turbine goes down, you only lose 1 to 3 megawatts of power (probably less with capacity factor included)).  Personnel costs (consider the staff sizes for a nuclear plant vs. a wind farm). 

A big one is construction time.  The US is currently on track to put in 12 Megawatts of wind power in 2011.  A nuclear plant takes 5-6 years to build after all regulatory hurdles have been cleared… and no nuke plants are currently under construction in the US.

Finally, we have to consider the results of an accident.  While the risks of either source having one, the consequences are much higher for the nuclear facility.

Coal and Natural gas plants are cheaper than both, but I don’t want additional capacity built from these sources.  They are pollutants whether you agree with global warming or not.  I would accept replacing coal plants with clean natural gas plants as the old (very old) coal plants are decommissioned.  I would prefer that they be decommissioned and replaced with wind and solar. 

Nuclear and Wind beat fossil fuels for safety, pollution, global warming, and energy independence reasons.  Wind beats nuclear for economic reasons.  Solar is estimated to beat all of them for all the above reasons in a few years time.

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