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Earth Technology

Brookings Study Calls Solar, Wind Power the Most Expensive Fossil Alternatives 409

turkeydance (1266624) writes A new study [PDF] from the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, argues that using solar and wind energy may be the most expensive alternatives to carbon-based electricity generation, even though they require no expenditures for fuel.....Specifically, this means nuclear power offers a savings of more than $400,000 worth of carbon emissions per megawatt of capacity. Solar saves only $69,000 and wind saves $107,000. An anonymous reader points out that the Rocky Mountain Institute finds the Brookings study flawed in several ways, and offers a rebuttal.
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Brookings Study Calls Solar, Wind Power the Most Expensive Fossil Alternatives

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  • Funny money (Score:5, Insightful)

    by oldhack ( 1037484 ) on Saturday August 09, 2014 @12:46PM (#47637663)
    "$400,000 worth of carbon emissions", it says. What, monopoly money?
    • Re:Funny money (Score:5, Informative)

      by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Saturday August 09, 2014 @01:44PM (#47637975)

      "$400,000 worth of carbon emissions", it says. What, monopoly money?

      There are carbon emission markets that put a real price on CO2 emissions. These are currently priced under $10 / tonne. But this study used a value of $50 / tonne, without any justification, other than making their conclusions look more impressive.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Think about it this way. Nuclear supports the status quo - centralized production via corporations. Solar and wind kill the cash cow.

      • Re:Funny money (Score:4, Insightful)

        by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Saturday August 09, 2014 @02:46PM (#47638259)

        Solar and wind kill the cash cow.

        Solar, yes. Wind, no. Solar PV does not benefit much from scale, so roof-top units make sense. But efficient windmills are big, and getting bigger. The most efficient windmills have a hub height of over 100 meters, and multi-megawatt generators. These are not backyard units. The future of wind energy is in offshore installations, and stratospheric wind. Only big corporations have the capital for that.

      • I think if I was a corporation I would prefer solar and wind, actually.

        Nuclear is so burdened by regulation and NIMBY that investments into it are such a crapshoot. Just as you think you might finally get to break ground on a new power plant, some government entity you've never heard of puts an indefinite hold on it.

        Solar panels (at least for home use) allow you to stick the home owner and potentially future owners under a binding energy lease, and the government actually pays you (the manufacturer) money t

      • by Mashiki ( 184564 )

        Think about it this way. Nuclear supports the status quo - centralized production via corporations. Solar and wind kill the cash cow.

        Hardly, and they sure won't kill the "status quo" when FiT programs are paying $0.40-0.85/KwH for electricity from those sources. Welcome to Ontario [financialpost.com], which followed Greece and we are now screaming towards the most expensive electricity in North America thanks to "green power." Even though nearly 70% of our electricity is generated by nuclear, less than 2% is wind or solar.

        Oh and I'm sure someone will cry, but you don't have a nuclear generating station near you! Right, I've got one of the largest in the w [wikipedia.org]

    • Re:Funny money (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mlts ( 1038732 ) on Saturday August 09, 2014 @01:58PM (#47638051)

      That $400,000 number is suspect. What conditions are what I wonder about.

      Don't forget regulation. I can go get some wood pallets behind S-Mart [1], rip them up and make a frame that props a solar panel roughly south, have the wires go to a $10 charge controller, a cast-off battery, and an el cheapo inverter fresh off the Chinese slowboat... and I have a little bit of electric for an outbuilding, for the total cost for well under a C-note, especially if the panel is a cast off or factory second. This isn't a reliable setup, but for a redneck solution to keep a shed lit at night, it is workable.

      There is no way in Hell one could ever approach anything nuclear related without billions of dollars in assets. Even a small reactor in the low megawatts will take tens to hundreds of millions of red tape fees, dealing with the anti-nuke lobby and the NIMBY people, then finding a contractor who will actually make a reactor head out of the correct materials and not pot metal, not to mention all the other costs with each step of getting the reactor up and running.

      Nuclear power is great scaling up, because it provides the most energy generation for the least amount of real estate. However, it takes no regulation other than basic electrical codes to get solar operational.

      [1]: Not Wal-Mart, they want $10 per pallet.

  • A Think Tank chock full O' Think.

    I like it [slashdot.org].

  • by ReallyEvilCanine ( 991886 ) on Saturday August 09, 2014 @12:54PM (#47637691) Homepage
    Decommissioning costs (including storage, disposal, and demolition) never seem to figure into these numbers.
    • The cost *is* minimal, since they aren't actually doing anything about the byproducts these days. The folks in Nevada who wanted to store that stuff in Yucca Mountain are still working on that plan, while the nasty stuff itself sits on the power plant properties in temporary storage. Paralysis costs nothing (as long as there's no disaster on a power plant site).
    • Decommissioning costs (including storage, disposal, and demolition) never seem to figure into these numbers.

      The authors stated they were looking at the ability of a plant to displace CO2 emissions and using the net benefits to see which is the most cost effective. Wind and solar simply do not have the capacity factors to match hydro/nuke/gas plants and high capacity costs and thus are lees cost effective in reducing CO2. Nuclear decommissioning costs were included in their numbers. In short, solar and wind cost to much per KW to build and generate too little electricity to be cost effective in reducing CO2 emissi

      • Shh the eco freaks dislike fission get with the warm fuzzy of does not actually work tech.

        Fission works ok now, we have the tech to use more efficient cycles, hell we have the tech to reprocess the fuel rods for existing plants.

      • Or not appreciably so, even compared to coal. That they do so is a myth being promoted for short-term economic gain.

        A major problem with natural gas infrastructure is the leakage of methane (unburned) in the extraction and transport process. If that leakage rate reaches 3%, natural gas energy is about equivalent to coal on greenhouse gas effects on the atmosphere.

        So increased natural gas energy is not an effective solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing the global warming process.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      Decommissioning costs (including storage, disposal, and demolition) never seem to figure into these numbers.

      All of which are difficult and expensive due to protests and alarmist by the anti-nuclear crowd.
      We could have a very safe waste disposal facility: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Y... [wikipedia.org]

      If you care about the earth, climate change and CO2 emissions, you need to give up this hippie mother earth nonsense. Wind and Solar do not work yet. Given some time, sure, I'm sure we'll figure something out. But if you want to get off coal, Nuclear is the only option that's ready to go right now.

      We should end all production of n

    • Good point. Also, don't forget the environmental costs of uranium mining.
    • Decommissioning costs (including storage, disposal, and demolition) never seem to figure into these numbers.

      What's the decommissioning costs of a few billion tons of CO2, or of adapting to water level and weather changes?

      • Also mercury and other pollutants from burning fossil fuels, what's the decommissioning cost for those?

    • by Bengie ( 1121981 )
      Don't forget about the tens of billions of dollars in healthcare costs, not including lost productivity, coal power is causing. Start adding in pollution costs of coal mines and waste from coal, and the costs start to get much much higher. Coal is only cheap because of externalized costs. Otherwise it is he most expensive form of energy.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Can we factor in the cost of even 1 minor nuclear plant accident and see what the numbers look like then?

    • by Chas ( 5144 )

      How about we do the same thing with geothermal?

      And factor in the costs of even one destructive earthquake?

  • I mean, as far as I know, no one has properly, fully decommissioned a nuclear power plant and effectively long-term-stored its waste yet, have they? Why shouldn't the cost of doing that, completely and adequately, be built into the cost assumptions for nuclear?

    Why shouldn't there have to be an extremely large security bond put up when building one of these things that covers:
    a) Full cost of full decommissioning and million-year safe storage
    b) Fukushima/Chernobyl scale disaster insurance coverage, covering f

    • by King_TJ ( 85913 )

      There's probably also the question of how long before we can get reactors online which make use of the radioactive "waste" we're storing up now?

      Considering the material is considered so hazardous, it implies it still has a lot of energy we're not harnessing very well (but could).

    • by dex22 ( 239643 ) <plasticuser@@@gmail...com> on Saturday August 09, 2014 @01:25PM (#47637865) Homepage

      If you read the article and linked information, you'd know they included decommissioning costs, plus costs related to accidents and insurance costs. Also, many nuclear power stations have been fully decommissioned. A surprising number of them are now greenfield sites in the US.

      • by mspohr ( 589790 )

        Except for the nuclear waste which is sitting in pools on site or in casks waiting to be trucked to some future disposal site which in spite of lots of money being spent still don't function.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          Yes, they also factor in fuel disposal costs.

          It's on pg. 14 if you're interested.

        • Because reprocessing works, there is little reason to store high level waste it's valuable feed stock to our current commercial plants. New designs do not intentionally make a lot of weapons grade byproducts to feed cold war arms races.

      • Decommissioning a nuclear plant site (not counting proper long-term fuel-waste disposal) has estimated costs of $7 Billion per nuclear plant.

        My experience with engineering projects tells me that "double it and add 30 (%)" ;=) is a good heuristic for determining how much it will really cost, since everything is usually low-balled to win contracts. So we could guess $15 billion per plant.

        No one has really implemented a proper long-term high-grade nuclear waste storage facility yet, so capital and ongoing cost

      • by MrL0G1C ( 867445 )

        The Brookings Institute guy is completely wrong, garbage in/garbage out AKA his inputs were all wrong.

        Thoroughly debunked here:
        http://www.forbes.com/sites/am... [forbes.com]

        And Here
        http://www.nature.com/climate/... [nature.com]

        According to Sovacool's analysis, nuclear power, at 66 gCO2e/kWh emissions is well below scrubbed coal-fired plants, which emit 960 gCO2e/kWh, and natural gas-fired plants, at 443 gCO2e/kWh. However, nuclear emits twice as much carbon as solar photovoltaic, at 32 gCO2e/kWh, and six times as much as onshore wi

    • by Bengie ( 1121981 )
      1GW of coal contains enough radioactive material to operate a 1.1GW nuclear power plant. I think you underestimate amount of nuclear waste a coal power plant produces.
  • Ain't it odd? How generally there are two thing always omitted when people try to sell the clean, cheap nuke plants. I also think it's kinda odd that every time something gets discussed terrorism is a big issue (usually as a tool to get privacy concerns out of the way, citing safety and security as the pinnacle of importance), except when we're talking about the one thing that any terrorist with a hint of a brain would aim for: A soft target that not only is invaluable to the power infrastructure but also h

  • i wonder what kind of solar technology they are talking about. There are multiple solar technologies so talking about it as a single technology is misleading. Absolutely, non concentrated photovoltaics is the worst technology, the most ineffecient, and the fact the public has been conditioned to think of this as the only solar technology is partly to blame for solar not being more widely used. I wonder how technologies such as mirror or lens concentrated PV, or a thermal concentrated solar technology, or th

    • It's important also to consider development area required for solar deployments. A key advantage of rooftop solar (which I think means flat panels and water heating) is that the area is already developed.

      You see those maps of the world [landartgenerator.org] with filled in areas representing the solar deployments necessary to power everything, but not often are those areas compared to that of (already developed) rooftops

    • Speaking of solar thermal, I'm currently looking at building a solar thermal system to partially reduce my winter heating bills. I'm at the stage of testing its viability and cost effectiveness.
  • I notice that only gas is listed as adding new emissions. But hydro has methane emissions from the vegetation that's flooded when the dam is constructed. Not to mention the concrete that makes the dam. Solar, wind, and nuclear also have some building emissions costs, unless you replace all construction vehicles with electric and find a way to make concrete and steel without carbon emissions. (Wood might be an alternative [popsci.com] for certain parts of wind turbines and maybe even solar frameworks.) Gas should pr

  • Nuclear costs mostly depend on the amount of (not necessarily useful) regulation, and the amount of opposition to building new power plants. If we replaced all the NIMBY Americans with Frenchmen, the costs for nuclear would be much lower than they are now in the US. Wind, solar, and nuclear all have their plusses and minuses, and currently solar and wind are growing while nuclear is stagnating, so you also have to consider what the costs will be in the future.

    • > so you also have to consider what the costs will be in the future.

      The 9000 kilo gorilla in the corner with nuclear is waste disposal. The assumptions you make there largely drive nuclear economics.

      • Waste disposal problems are just a special case of the NIMBY tax. We could just toss it all into a big, dry hole in the ground. As I understand it, we'd come out ahead over coal in terms of health even if we ground up all the waste and tossed it into the atmosphere, or the ocean. The problem really is that people don't understand the cancer risks of living near a coal plant, whereas nuclear energy is OMG NUCLEAR!!!!, so they're trying to compare to perfection instead of as an improvement over what we alread

    • "The Olkiluoto project in Finland is three times over budget and 9 years late, while the Flamanville project in France is 4 years late." http://www.vox.com/2014/8/1/59... [vox.com]
  • The per-kilowatt cost of solar has been on a steady decline for years, and so far the trend shows no signs of slowing. Large scale solar deployments in the future will have the benefit of further lowered costs.

    See chart [nytimes.com].

  • by ljw1004 ( 764174 ) on Saturday August 09, 2014 @01:51PM (#47638013)

    This paper: assumes $0.2 - $0.3 billion to decommission a nuclear power plant (based on a 2013 report by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

    UK: $9 billion decommissioning costs per plant, based on an estimate by the UK's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

    Japan: $1 billion per plant so far, but estimated $1.8 billion per plant for the remainder

    I suspect this paper gets its results by downplaying by an order of magnitude the decommissioning costs of nuclear power.

  • by mdsolar ( 1045926 ) on Saturday August 09, 2014 @01:54PM (#47638023) Homepage Journal
    There were nine number in the analysis which were badly outdated. Doing it right reverses the order. http://www.forbes.com/sites/am... [forbes.com]
  • by royeb ( 3780133 ) on Saturday August 09, 2014 @02:00PM (#47638065)
    The Rocky Mountain Institute had already debunked this story at http://www.corvalliscommunityp... [corvallisc...ypages.com]
  • by jeff13 ( 255285 ) on Saturday August 09, 2014 @02:08PM (#47638115) Homepage

    The Brookings Institution??? Why would anyone give a damn what some think tank, er, thinks?

    By definition, a think tank's job is to simply rationalize their clients opinion.

  • by gman003 ( 1693318 ) on Saturday August 09, 2014 @02:11PM (#47638127)

    Quite odd how, out of the first eighteen comments (not counting replies), five are about decommissioning costs, and five are about meltdowns? They seem to repeat the same talking points, almost as if on a script.

    I'm not saying they're shills, but at the very least a lot of people seem to be getting their information from the same place, which leaves them missing several crucial facts:

    1) Nuclear power works at scale. It's proven, and it scales perfectly. The biggest solar plants on the planet are 500MW (Topaz Solar Farm, PV) or 400MW (Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, thermal). A single nuclear reactor is well above that - scroll down this list [wikipedia.org] and you'll see very few sub-500MW, and quite a few 1GW+ reactors. And remember, most plants have more than one reactor. 66 nuclear plants are enough to give us 20% of our energy. 947 wind plants are only enough to give us 3%, and 553 solar plants (PV and thermal) don't even break half a percent.

    2) Nuclear power would be a hell of a lot safer if new designs were actually approved. The regulations are pretty much ridiculous - they don't approve new reactor types that are designed to solve all the problems we've found with the old designs, but they still allow old designs with known weaknesses to be extended long past their designed lifespan. Add to that the ridiculous costs of dealing with the bureaucracy and the weak requirements for cleanup/decommissioning, and it almost seems like the regulations are designed both to make nuclear power unprofitable, and to keep public opinion against it. Hmm...

    3) Nobody is arguing for pure nuclear power, because that doesn't work for all the reasons people say it doesn't work. Nuclear (and geothermal, where possible) makes for an excellent base load. Nuclear meshes well with hydro - excess capacity can be used to run the dam in reverse, pumping water up to store that energy for later use. And if positioned right, it provides both cooling water for the reactor, and a single point to close off flow or install filters if something does go wrong. Wind, tidal and solar can supplement this as locations allow, with solar in particular taking the edge off the peak load.

    4) Every power plant can go wrong. What happens when a hydro dam fails? Thousands of people die [wikipedia.org]. What happens when a solar plant fails? We don't know yet, but it probably won't be that good considering how much damage they can do even when working properly. Same for wind, and tidal, and geothermal. They do some minor damage even when working perfectly - frying or chopping up migratory birds or fish, or altering the geology in the case of geothermal. Nuclear has the benefit, at least, of being perfectly clean when working perfectly. Yes, if things go wrong it can be absolutely horrible, but that's why regulations need to focus on redundant containment and fail-safe designs, not on constant inspections.

  • by MrL0G1C ( 867445 ) on Saturday August 09, 2014 @08:18PM (#47639681) Journal

    They obviously left several stages out of their calculations.

    From Nature.com [nature.com]

    According to Sovacool's analysis, nuclear power, at 66 gCO2e/kWh emissions is well below scrubbed coal-fired plants, which emit 960 gCO2e/kWh, and natural gas-fired plants, at 443 gCO2e/kWh. However, nuclear emits twice as much carbon as solar photovoltaic, at 32 gCO2e/kWh, and six times as much as onshore wind farms, at 10 gCO2e/kWh. "

  • Externalization (Score:4, Informative)

    by Dasher42 ( 514179 ) on Sunday August 10, 2014 @01:14AM (#47640493)

    Talk about a skewed, worthless study from Brookings. Garbage in, garbage out.

    As Amory Lovins ably pointed out, its data is old. It also does not consider the entire cost of production, usage and cleanup. Cleanup costs count too! Are West Virginia, Ohio, British Columbia, Alberta, the Niger River basin, or Ecuador's rainforests, or the Gulf of Mexico just not in Charles Frank's back yard? I guess not. Screw people for living there, then. Do not the geopolitical considerations of an aggressive military foreign policy required to keep the oil flowing not count too? Screw those GIs and the people who live where they're sent in oil wars, too. Exxon's got to make a buck.

    That's what externalization is. It means omitting key and pertinent parts of the picture and just sticking it to whomever is dealing with the consequences.

    Solar panels are rapidly getting more efficient and cheaper to make, and you can put them directly on site where they're needed so you don't have to lose electricity to resistance across a far-flung grid with its necessary redundancies and overproduction, which are required in the event that a powerstation needs a maintenance cycle.

    Someone's just keen to keep a bloody monopoly.

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