Solar already too cheap, eating nuclear's lunch

One favorite Fossil Nuke talking point is that renewable energy, and especially solar, is just too expensive.

For those who might not be familiar with the term “Fossil Nuke”, that is my shorthand for the position that supports nuclear energy while opposing renewable. No offense meant by that. More here.

That is wishful thinking.

In the real world, solar energy delivers so much cheap electricity at the peak noon times that it makes new nuclear plants impossible for economic reasons alone. Solar energy is eating nuclear’s lunch. The profits nuclear power plants used to make in Germany from high priced peak noon electricity are gone, and they are not coming back, even if not one more solar panel were added in the country.

That doesn’t carry much weight coming from me. But the new CEO of RWE, one of the large German utilities, made exactly the same point in a recent interview with SPIEGEL:

Terium: The impact of current political decisions and market changes extends far beyond Germany. The large amounts of wind and solar energy that are being fed into the grid, together with the economic crisis, have led to a sharp decline in electricity prices.

SPIEGEL: But consumers in Germany now have to pay more for their electricity.

Terium: Yes, because government levies for new, renewable forms of energy, electricity grids and storage facilities drive up the price of electricity. The price we receive for generating power is currently so low that it’s simply irresponsible to build an expensive nuclear power plant in Europe. The nuclear power chapter has come to an end for us. (Emphasis mine).

So if you are a Fossil Nuke, your problem with renewable energy is not that it is too expensive. It is exactly the other way round. You can’t get your nuclear power plants built because solar and wind are too cheap for you to compete any more already.

I am always somewhat puzzled why people who understand the necessity to do something about climate change would oppose renewable energy, or solar energy. Even if you support nuclear energy as a solution to climate change, why oppose renewable? Nuclear plus renewable will always deliver more low carbon electricity than nuclear alone.

This would seem to be an explanation. Building nuclear requires getting rid of renewable energy first, since it can’t compete anymore with the low prices of sun and wind.

But getting rid of renewable energy is not going to happen. No solar panels are going to get shut down in Germany. The genie is out of the bottle. Deal with it.


  1. I hope that they will close all nuclear plants in the future. The solar energy industry is just starting to flourish and it’s a good thing. More people start understanding the benefits from installing solar panels and this really makes me happy.

  2. jmdesp

    Karl, apparently your computer has a defect that prevented you from reading the last part of RWE’s new CEO interview.

    You know the part where he explains *how* exactly he intends to supply cheaply the base load without using nuclear.
    As well as the part where he explains how greatly his off-shore projects are working, which explains that they won’t provide much energy for the next few years, which means more use of *his* solution for base load.

    Without subsidies in the form of FIT, there would be no deployment of solar energy because it’s too costly (and even if the price has lowered, it’s still more costly than the generation cost of other energies). The reason why solar get this FIT is that it enables to generate electricity without producing CO2.

    But using only solar it’s hard to reduce total CO2 generation, and as result the average CO2 content of German electricity last year was 510gCO2/KWh, a rise from 490gCO2 the previous year. Knowing that EDF claims an average content of 30gCO2/KWh for the same year shows how high this actually is, and helps explain RWE was the electric company in Europe that generated the most CO2 last year (as indicated in the interview). And AFAIK the second and the third are also German.

    This RWE guy is actually subtly *lying*. The lower price at noon make it economically more difficult to build a new plant. But the true reason the new plant won’t be a nuclear plant is that for him it’s cheaper to build a new brown coal plant than a new nuclear plant. If he didn’t have the option of building a new massively CO2 generating, massively environment destroying brown coal plant, then nuclear would be the next cheapest option, and that’s what he would be building. He is shelving his predecessor nuclear plan in favor of brown coal, that’s what the truth is.

    And your report of his interview is busy helping him hide that as much as possible, .
    Shame on you Karl, you are actually fighting against CO2 reduction when you do that.

  3. Karl-Friedrich Lenz

    There is always the possibility of my computer malfunctioning (I must remember that as a convenient excuse the next time I actually screw up and report something wrong). 🙂

    However, I am afraid that Terium said exactly what I reported he said.

    And, all things equal, more solar and wind indeed makes it more of a challenge to build a new nuclear plant. That is also true for new coal plants. I recall having posted with the title “No new coal capacity in Germany” making that point:

    You mentioned some numbers about carbon intensity. That is very interesting, since I am looking for exactly this kind of statistics right now. So is Mark Lynas. Could you please give a source for your numbers?

  4. jmdesp

    For Germany, I have noted that it comes from one of the German document here
    Found it, it’s on page 37 of the document “Milde Witterung drückt Primärenergieverbrauch im Jahr 2011 nach unten”

    This document also shows on page 26 than Germany last year has burnt more lignite than in 1995. It didn’t see yet if it says anywhere how much CO2 exactly is released for 1 KWh generated with lignite. It should be worse than hard cal, but I don’t know how much exactly.

    For France, you need to check the table on page 16 of this document , it says 542 TWh of production, and 27.4 millions tons CO2. A division gives the per MWh number. I expect it will be less good in 2012, cold winter at start of year, and some NPP were closed for maintenance work.

    One important caveat : in both case it does not count how much CO2 has been generated by constructing the plant, and extracting/producing the fuel. This makes nuclear look like it’s CO2 free which is not true.

    OTOH today more and more of the hard coal burnt in Germany is imported, which means some quite significant CO2 generation in transport not counted here either. Today (IEA 2009 number), three times more hard coal is imported by Germany than France. And you to need something like one thousand tons coal to generate the same power as one ton of uranium, which means both are *not* playing at at the same level here.

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