Solar Energy Vs. Nuclear: Which Carbon-Free Fix is Better?

Solar Energy vs Nuclear: Which Carbon-Free Fix is Better?

Many people wonder if solar energy or nuclear energy is a better carbon-free fix. However, the truth is, for the amount of energy most people need, using a bit of both is probably the best answer. Both solar energy and nuclear energy have their varying benefits, making them both seem like attractive options.

So, is solar energy better than nuclear power? Or is nuclear energy better than solar energy? In reality, because of the amount of energy needed by the population, a combination of both energy sources is the best fix. Since both energy resources have their advantages and disadvantages, combining the two helps people reap the benefits of both.

Since there isn’t a lot of information available on the Internet today about solar or nuclear power being better, we created this article to help you out. Below we’ll cover the advantages of solar energy, the benefits of nuclear power, and why using both of them is the best answer. 

Advantages of Solar Power

First, we’ll cover the advantages of solar power so that you understand the benefits you can get from using solar energy. After that, we’ll discuss the benefits of nuclear power, and we’ll then cover why a combination of both options is the best solution for both people.

The demand for solar power in the United States has become very popular in the past decade. More and more people are choosing to install solar panels in their homes and places of work, reaping the benefits on their electricity bills. While the demand for solar panels is skyrocketing, the popularity of nuclear power is in decline. Since the 1990s, only a single atomic plant has been added to the already existing list of power plants. 

Both solar power and nuclear power are carbon-free sources of energy. However, that’s the only similarity that they share. To give you a better understanding of the benefits of solar power and nuclear power, we’ll list the advantages of solar electricity below, and then discuss some of the advantages of nuclear power

Price and Time

When it comes to the price and the time it takes to build each type of facility, solar power is the clear winner and has the advantage. By comparison, nuclear power costs much more to generate, and it also takes much longer to build a nuclear facility. That fact is demonstrated when we take a quick look at nuclear power construction in the United States, or the lack thereof.

Since 1990, or over the past three decades or so, only one nuclear power plant has been built in the entire United States. That power plant is the two-unit Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, which is located in Tennessee. When that plant was built, it took twenty-three years for one reactor to function. For the second reactor, it took thirty-three years.

Nuclear Plants in Production

As another point of comparison for cost, we’ll give you another example of how much time is involved when it comes to starting up a nuclear plant. Two other nuclear projects are currently under construction in the United States, the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, and the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station. Both of these projects were approved in 2012 by the Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC) to start construction. Today, both of these projects are way over budget and nowhere near finishing their construction.

Recently, the Vogtle plant project published a revised cost forecast, estimating that the total project will cost $25 billion. That’s a massive increase over the projected $14.3 billion estimated that was initially set aside for the project.

Solar Energy in Production

By comparison, since the Vogtle plant was approved back in 2012, there have been an additional fifty-seven solar projects requiring at least 100 megawatts (M.W.) that have become active over the past seven years. Fourteen more 100-plus M.W. projects are being built currently. One of those under-construction projects, known as the 250 MW Phoebe Solar Project in Texas, will be active in less than a year and costs $397 million.

Furthermore, Lazard, a company that specializes in financial advisory, came out with its Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis. According to that research, the cost per kilowatt (K.W.) for solar is less than $1,000. By comparison, the price per K.W. for nuclear power runs between $6,500 and $12,250. That means nuclear power costs about ten times more to build when compared to solar power.

Lazard’s comparisons went a bit deeper than cost, and also covered the time it takes to make a solar facility versus a nuclear facility. According to Lazard, utility-scale solar projects take an average of about nine months to finish. On the other hand, nuclear power projects take at least sixty-nine months to create, which is a bit less than six years. However, if we consider the rate of the recent Vogtle project, we could even argue that nuclear power takes longer than six years.

So, the additional length of time a nuclear power plant takes to get active means nuclear power requires much more time to get underway. Also, nuclear power, by comparison, costs more than solar energy.  

Advantages of Nuclear Power

Now that we’ve covered the benefits of solar power, we’ll move over to the other spectrum and discuss the advantages of nuclear power below.

Energy Produced Yearly

Another thing we need to discuss is the yearly energy produced when it comes to nuclear power and solar power. When covering the energy produced yearly by both power sources, we need to consider two critical features about power, capacity, and generation. Capacity means how much power a source puts out in megawatts. Generation means how much energy a power source creates an electric grid over a specific time, which is usually measured in megawatt-hours, or MWh. 

Another thing about the capacity we need to cover is the “capacity factor” of each power source. Capacity factor is a calculation that demonstrates how close to the maximum amount of yearly power generation a power source can create. Consider, for example, the fact that a nuclear power plant will usually run at full power, or maximum capacity, until new fuel is required (probably six to twelve months later). 

That means nuclear power usually has a capacity factor that is close to 100% since nuclear power creates as much generation as it can during every hour that passes. By comparison, solar energy can only produce electricity when the sun is out. So, a solar power plant will create its maximum amount of power generation, usually between 17 and 20 hours. 

So, the 2,430 MW Vogtle project should create 21 million MWh per year, which is enough to give electricity to 1.75 million residences. By comparison, the 3,500 MW of potential solar power from the 250 MW Phoebe Solar Project in Texas created per year would create 6 million MWh yearly, which could power about 500,000 homes.

Solar power cannot produce as much electricity as nuclear power 100% of the time because of the sun’s schedule. Solar power projects are also limited by size and cost. If one wanted to build a solar power project comparable to the Vogtle nuclear plant, it would cost about $12.4 billion to do so, which means solar power at a large capacity would still cost about 50% less than the $25 million Vogtle nuclear plant.

Still, solar power has its limitations and cannot produce energy all of the time, as nuclear power can. That’s one of the reasons why not everybody feels comfortable moving entirely over to solar power. Nuclear power does provide an excellent back-up plan option because it’s able to go full scale 24/7, where solar energy is limited by the sun’s schedule.

Nuclear Energy is Easy on Our Air

Although many people don’t think of nuclear energy as a “clean energy source,” and many people think of solar and wind power as the only types of “clean energy sources,” nuclear energy is a zero-emission clean energy source. So, just like solar power, nuclear energy still helps to protect our environment, as surprising as that fact might sound to some people.

Nuclear energy creates power through the fission process, which splits uranium atoms to generate the electricity we use in our homes and places of work every day. Fission releases a decent amount of heat, and that heat creates steam. The steam generated by the heat is utilized to push a turbine into action. Once the turbine starts spinning, electricity is made, and there is no harm to harmful byproducts emitted by fossil fuels. 

So, the process of creating nuclear energy is both safe and clean. By using nuclear power plants, the Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that America protected itself from over 14,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions during the past two decades. To put this figure into perspective, that’s equal to taking three billion cars off the road immediately today. 

While many people don’t think about nuclear energy being a clean source of energy like solar power, nuclear energy is “clean energy.” By using nuclear energy over the past several decades, we’ve managed to keep our air cleaner in the United States. While some may find that fact staggering, it is the truth, and it’s also one of the reasons why we should consider using both nuclear energy and solar energy together

By combining the benefits of both nuclear energy and solar energy, we are generating power that’s not harming our environment. Solar energy is cheaper to create, so it’s certainly worth taking advantage of its affordability. However, nuclear energy is the only clean form of energy that can run 24/7, so using both gives us the best of both worlds. However, we’ll get into that in a little more detail later. 

Nuclear Energy Produces More Electricity and Uses Less Land

Nuclear energy is not only able to create a substantial amount of carbon-free power all of the time, but it can also produce more electricity while using up less land than any other clean source of energy. We’ll break down some facts to show you how this works below.

In the United States, your average 1,000-megawatt nuclear facility usually takes up about one-square mile when in operation. Let’s compare that to a wind farm, which needs about 360 times more land according to the NEI to make the same amount of power. Also, solar photovoltaic plants need about seventy-five times more space than nuclear power plants. 

So, that means you need about three million solar panels to make the same amount of power as your standard nuclear power plant, or over four hundred wind turbines

Nuclear Power Doesn’t Make Much Waste

Another benefit of nuclear power offers its denseness. Because nuclear power is so dense, you wind up producing far less waste when you make it. While you might imagine the amount of nuclear fuel being used must be huge, but it’s not. Although nuclear power is about one million times greater than our other traditional energy sources, the amount we use doesn’t take up that much space. According to NEI, the nuclear fuel we’ve produced over the last sixty years could take up a football feel that had a depth of fewer than ten yards

Another benefit of nuclear power is that it doesn’t create much waste. Also, the waste that is created by nuclear power can be reprocessed and recycled if allowed. By law, the United States doesn’t do this, but there is a potential to reuse nuclear waste in the future. Currently, there are some advanced reactors being designed that may operate on used fuel or nuclear waste. Although we don’t have anything created or in place yet, with the boom in technology, we will very soon.

Now that we’ve covered the advantages of solar power and the advantages of nuclear power, we’ll discuss why we should use a combination of solar energy and nuclear power in detail, instead of just one or the other. 

The Solution: Combining Our Clean Power Sources

When examining both solar power and nuclear power as we did above, it becomes clear that both of these clean sources of energy have advantages and disadvantages. Because of that, it’s challenging to make a clear distinction about which type of power is better than the other. While both solar and nuclear energy sources offer clean energy, that’s the only apparent similarity between the two.

Because the advantages and disadvantages of solar and nuclear power are balanced out by each other, we feel the best solution is to use both types of energy to reap the advantages of both. Since solar power cannot provide power 100% of the time, it would be difficult for us to be able to rely on solar power for our constant energy needs. That’s where nuclear power can come in and help.

However, on the other hand, solar energy is much cheaper to produce and helps meet our ever-increasing demand for electricity in the United States. So, to keep costs down, we feel solar energy should still be used as much as possible, but we need a reserve of nuclear power to balance out the disadvantages of solar power’s limitations.

Nuclear Power is Consistent but Also Limited

While nuclear power is much more consistent than solar energy, which is one of the reasons why we cannot merely rely on solar energy alone, that consistency also limits nuclear power’s effectiveness. In this area, the advantages and disadvantages offered by both nuclear power and solar power can be combined to assist each other with limitations.

First, let’s explain how nuclear power’s consistent supply of energy also limits it. Since solar power only provides electricity when the sun is out, it’s difficult for people to rely on that type of energy 100% of the time. However, nuclear power is always operating near 100% all of the time. That means nuclear energy gives you a consistent, steady stream of energy. It’s why your refrigerator stays cold 24 hours a day.

Nuclear Power and Maximum Capacity

Nuclear reactors in the United States are running at maximum capacity at all times. However, they don’t necessarily have to be run this way. It is possible to turn down the power being put out, but because Americans need so much daily power, we don’t in the United States. Anyway, it costs a lot of money to build and run a nuclear power plant, so it makes sense to use them at maximum capacity all of the time to balance out the costs.

While nuclear power’s ability to stay consistent is its major strength over solar energy, which cannot provide power all of the time, consistency can also be a weakness. Sometimes, there are interruptions in the wind or solar power that you might want a nuclear power plant to make up for that issue. However, if you’re already running the plant at full potential all of the time, it’s not possible to do that, and you’re going to have power outages every so often.

Since nuclear power plants cost billions of dollars to build and require a lot of skilled employees on salaries to operate, most of them always operate at full capacity. While the power plant could be ramped down, revenue then decreases, and the cost of running the plant stays the same. So, price is the reason why nuclear power plants run all of the time.

We feel a combination of solar and nuclear power offers the best benefit when it comes to solving this problem. Solar power can be used to balance out nuclear power when nuclear power cannot cover for other lapses of energy. That way, the world gets to experience the best of both worlds.

Combining Power Sources for Zero Carbon

Many experts feel that a combination of our available clean energy sources will be the best way we can create power and keep a healthy environment in the long run. While solar and wind power helps people out because we get to use a free resource into zero-carbon energy, known as “fuel-saving” energy, both of these types of power depend on nature, and nature is unreliable and unpredictable.

Another possibly useful zero-carbon power source, known as “fast burst” that can create power whenever you need it but that costs quite a bit is batteries and peaker plants, which operate on natural gas only when there is a need for more power.

Then we have the nuclear and fossil fuel plants, known as “flexible base,” that help give us a constant source of electricity. While these types of plants can create a steady stream of energy, they can’t fill up for a gap in power as quickly as a battery can. Most experts feel that the key to understanding the future of our power sources lies in this flexible-based category, which helps tell us why we should use nuclear power, and if we can ever live without it.

The Best and Most Affordable Path

When studying how we can achieve a zero-carbon electric system, one expert, Jesse Jenkins, concluded that the best and most affordable path to power is mixing all three of the above categories. Now, Jenkins did find that we can achieve zero-carbon energy output if we use only the fuel-saving and fast-burst sources (wind, solar, and batteries).

So, it is possible to get to a point where we wouldn’t need nuclear power plants. However, there is one major problem in achieving this plan. If we are going to get rid of nuclear power plants, we’d have to build enough renewable sources of energy from the wind and sun and store enough power in batteries to satisfy peak needs even when there is little wind or sun.

So, it would require a massive rebuilding project and a lot of property and space to create enough power to get rid of nuclear energy sources. As you can imagine, that’s a very steep path to take and would require a lot of money. Currently, traditional nuclear power plants create most of our carbon-free energy, so creating an alternate power system that would get rid of this would effectively cost more than what it would be worth.

In the end, the cheapest and most effective method for creating carbon-free power is to combine all three sources and use what we already have in terms of nuclear power.

The Expenses of Power

To build on the above assertion a bit, we need to factor in the costs of going solar and why ramping down the use of nuclear power would be so costly in the end. While most of us think of the sun and wind as the cheapest forms of energy around, what’s pricey about these forms of power is creating the technology to gather them, and the amount of space that’s necessary to do so.

Since so much space is needed to gather up renewable sources of energy that you can’t even maximize 100% of the time, it would be a costly plan to take the entire country into renewable sources of energy.

Nuclear power is costly to make, as we’ve already covered above. However, scaling down nuclear power is even more expensive to do. Combine the costs of ramping down nuclear power with what it costs to up renewable sources of energy, and you can see why it’s almost better to keep our nuclear sources of power since they are still providing clean energy.

Since nuclear power is clean and constant, it offers the advantages that solar energy cannot cover. Nuclear power is available 100% of the time and always running, meaning that’s what gives most Americans their power daily. Removing nuclear power at such a large scale seems backward and costly, considering the fact that nuclear power is a clean source of energy.

Final Thoughts

When trying to assess if solar energy is better than nuclear energy, or vice versa, we’ve concluded that the best use of our power is a combination of all of our power sources. That’s because renewable forms of energy and nuclear power are both clean sources of energy, but they offer very different advantages and disadvantages.

When comparing those advantages and disadvantages between nuclear power and renewable energy, we feel that the power options balance each other out when combined. While nuclear power provides a steady stream of power that solar power could never offer, nuclear power is always operating at full capacity. So, that means when there is some lack of power form a different source, nuclear power cannot fill in the gap.

So, we feel nuclear power should be combined with solar power because solar power could give you that extra boost of energy when you need it. With the addition of solar panels, you’d be able to get access to power anytime the sun is out, which helps to balance out power outages. That’s because power outages usually happen during the day, while the sun is out and everybody is awake. So, if you want to do what’s best for everybody, it’s a great idea to use both nuclear and solar power at your home.


Title Image Philipee Leroyer and Solar Trade Association

spgenie

Hi I'm Harris the spgenie! As an engineer, I found myself doing tons of research about solar power, the types of panels, how to store the energy and the best way to finance the project. I thought I'd start this blog to share my findings. I hope you find this useful.

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