Solar energy is now a better buy than nuclear power

The widening problem with Japan’s nuclear reactors, and the crisis as the Fukushima Daiichi reactor No. 2 exploded, have put the entire nuclear energy marketplace under a veil of suspicion similar to that which occurred after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

Japan is facing one of the world’s biggest nuclear crises as a team of engineers struggles to regain control of the Fukushima plant following another explosion and a fire that caused radiation to rise to harmful levels.

Amid growing fears that the situation is heading for catastrophe, up to 70 technicians are still battling to cool reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi facility. Non-essential personnel have been ordered to leave and the Kyodo news agency reported that radiation levels have become too high for staff to remain in control rooms.

The government has already called in international help in tackling the spiralling crisis.

Officials are now concerned about all six reactors at the site, and are considering using helicopters to try to drop cold water on a boiling rooftop storage pond for spent uranium fuel rods. The rods are still radioactive and potentially as hot and dangerous as the fuel rods inside the reactors if not kept in water.

Early on Tuesday, the power plant in the country’s stricken north-east was rocked by an explosion at the No 2 reactor, the third blast at the site in four days. That was followed by a fire that broke out at the No 4 reactor unit, which appeared to be the cause of today’s radiation leaks. There are now concerns about the storage ponds at reactors 5 and 6.

Reactor No 4 was shut down for maintenance before the earthquake, but its spent fuel rods are stored in a pool at the site. The fire on Tuesday was extinguished, but Kyodo reported that the pool was subsequently boiling, with the water level falling. If the water boils off there is a risk that the fuel could catch fire, sending a plume of radiation directly into the atmosphere.

Radiation levels at one location at the site reached 400 millisieverts (mSv) an hour after the fire – four times the level that can lead to cancer – Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, said. But levels had lowered dramatically by the end of the day, according to the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA).

According to experts, engineers are now locked in a desperate fight to prevent all three reactors overheating. The risk appears highest at reactor No 2, where fuel rods were repeatedly exposed on Monday before Tuesday’s explosion damaged the pressure vessel around the reactor.

Yukiya Amano, director general of the IAEA, told a press conference there was a "possibility of core damage" at No 2 reactor, adding: "The damage is estimated to be less than 5%."

The government ordered any inhabitants remaining within the 12-mile (20km) exclusion zone to leave immediately, and told those between 12 and 19 miles away to stay indoors, while imposing a 19-mile no-fly zone. Experts backed their assessment that health risks beyond that area were minimal at present.

The news was a fresh blow for a region already reeling from the impact of Friday’s magnitude 8.9 earthquake and devastating tsunami.

At midday Tuesday, Japan’s national police agency said 2,475 people were confirmed dead and 3,611 were missing, while NHK television reported 3,000 dead with 15,000 unaccounted for. Emergency broadcasts on NHK underlined the danger that was unfolding at Fukushima.

"For those in the evacuation area, close your windows and doors. Switch off your air conditioners. If you are being evacuated, cover yourself as much as possible and wear a facemask. Stay calm."

The announcement came as another powerful aftershock of magnitude 6.2 was recorded near Shizuoka, south-west of Tokyo.

Survivors also face growing fears of widespread contamination. Water, food and fuel are in short supply in Ishinomaki, one of the cities worst hit. According to the deputy mayor, Etsuro Kitamura, 40,000 refugees in evacuation centres are having to live on just one rice ball a day.

For Hiroko Kodo, news of the explosion was a rude return to the world of mass communication. Since Friday she had been cut off from television, the internet, and mobile phone networks. But the Red Cross provided her with a radio in an emergency kit it distributed to all the refugees. "When I turned it on, I heard about the radiation. It is terrifying. I’m afraid now to drink the water from the mountains in case it is contaminated."

Workers at the Fukushima plant have been struggling since Friday to avert a disaster after cooling systems failed in the aftermath of the quake. Hundreds of thousands of people have already been evacuated from areas within 12 miles of the facility as a precaution.

Readings in parts of the facility hit levels indicating an immediate risk of damage to people without protective gear, Edano said.

The prime minister, Naoto Kan, asked people to remain calm in a televised address, but warned: "Radiation has spread from these reactors and the reading of the level seems high … There’s still a very high risk of further radioactive material coming out." He added that workers were "putting themselves in a very dangerous situation" to try to contain the problems.

With confidence diminishing in the ability of the plant owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), to handle the crisis, Kan had already said he would personally lead a new joint response headquarters.

Both underline the inherent, and very disconcerting, potential for “clean, nonpolluting” nuclear energy to quickly become very dirty and very dangerous. And those realizations are today sparking a solar energy rally that has U.S.-based First Solar adding 3 percent to its stock price, and Chinese solar firm Jinko Solar Holding adding 4 percent.

The Guggenheim Solar exchange-traded fund, which goes by the symbol TAN, also rose, by a full 6 percent, even while stock margins as a whole slipped; the Dow by 2.38 percent, the S&P by 2.72 percent, and the Tokyo Nikkei by 12.5 percent.

Events also have stock analysts suggesting that the Japanese tragedy will spark demand for more solar power—a demand likely to be short-lived, according to analyst Christine Hersey, who boldly says that solar energy is no substitute for “24-hour energy generation” at this point.

And, while that is true in the short term, long-term viewing suggests that solar could—with sufficient uptake sparked by lowered costs (made possible by technological advances in manufacturing and operational efficiencies)—replace nuclear, and go on to become what analyst Burt Chao has called “hugely enticing”.

In fact, a 2010 report by John O. Blackburn, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University, shows that solar is now a better buy than nuclear. That is, solar photovoltaic (PV) now sells at 14 cents (or less, on the wholesale market) per kilowatt-hour (kWh), while nuclear plants still on the drawing board project costs closer to 18 cents per kWh. The cost to consumers, or retail cost, is slightly higher.

This is because costs for solar PV have been steadily falling since 1998, while the cost to build a nuclear reactor has been rising, from a projected $2 billion at the beginning of the millenium to more than $10 billion today.

In the end though, all arguments of cost aside, comparing nuclear to solar power is like comparing apples to oranges. It does not compute. We are never likely to have a solar meltdown, or to have to drive people off their land and out of their homes because deployed solar suddenly turned dangerous. And just how much is that worth?

Solar Photovoltaic Cost Analysis

There are several different factors that go into figuring the cost of a solar PV system. There are also up front costs, rebates and rate of payback to be considered.

Up Front Costs

Up front costs are what a homeowner pays to purchase and install the system. Typically, solar PV systems cost around $10 per watt installed. That translates to about $10,000 per kilowatt (kW) of system size. An average system will be about 3kW in size and subsequently have roughly $30,000 in up front costs. However, some state rebates are paid based on expected performance and passed on to the solar installer, who then passes it on as a discount to the homeowner, thus lowering up front costs.

Rebates and Tax Incentives

Many U.S. states have aggressive solar PV rebate programs which can reduce up front costs by as much as 30 to 40 percent. Some of these are paid through the contractor up front (see above), while others are paid directly to the homeowner after installation. The federal government also has a solar rebate program, with a current cap at $2,000.

Tax incentives are another important factor in solar PV cost analysis. In many states solar systems are exempt from sales tax on the purchase of equipment, which lowers up front costs. Even more vital to long-terms cost analyses are property tax exemptions. Such tax laws typically exempt the homeowner from any property taxes that would be incurred from the addition of a solar system to the residence. It is generally accepted that the increased assessed value of a home is 20 times the first year energy savings. This can lead to big savings and the system can sometimes effectually pay for itself just in the first year of operation. This assumes the owner will sell the house and does not put any money directly into the homeowner’s pocket. Although it does keep a significant amount of money from exiting said pocket.

Energy Savings

Solar PV systems are considered by many to be long-term investment in both personal economy and the environment. Often a system’s rate of payback is a measure of how long it takes for money saved in free energy to equal the up front costs of the system. This payback period is typically around 20 to 25 years at this point. It will likely decrease as incentives, rebates and demand increase at the same time that systems are dropping in price.

As we wade through our present energy crisis, I am hearing a lot more about nuclear energy as a viable option for a green future. And why shouldn’t I? It turns out that nuclear power already provides about 20% of my electricity–a large percentage when stood against solar power’s current numbers. It also turns out that nuclear power is a big part of John McCain’s energy plan.

So is nuclear power clean? Is it sustainable? How does solar power compare? These are just a few questions that immediately popped into my head. So now, I’ll try to answer them:

Is Nuclear Power Sustainable?

Nuclear Power, which is derived from the fission of uranium, plutonium, or thorium, is sustainable in that we have hundreds to thousands of years of usable uranium available. Although, I imagine that number might diminish over the years as demand increased (especially if we were to adopt nuclear as our primary power source). I should note that nuclear energy is not a renewable energy source…it’s just that there’s a lot of it.

Is Nuclear Power Clean?

Nuclear power, in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, is quite clean. It does not directly emit any greenhouse gases. However, the nuclear fuel cycle produces them indirectly, but at a drastically slower rate than fossil fuel sources.

Much of the debate over nuclear power has surrounded waste disposal. In the U.S. the solution has been to box it up and store it beneath the state of Nevada. This waste ranges from high-level to low-level waste, high-level being the stuff we all hear about, and low-level being clothes, gloves, materials used in the power plants, and other items exposed to radiation. Uranium can be reprocessed (for the plutonium) and used as a fuel in the plant itself. However, it is this reprocessing that facilitates the making of nuclear bombs.

How does Solar Compare to Nuclear Power?

Solar and Nuclear power each have their advantages. Although, at this time nuclear power would probably run away with the trophy if not for the environmental and political holdups. Here are their respective advantages, as I see them:

* Nuclear
o would have an easier transition to a centralized grid system.already provides a good portion of our electricity
o does not emit greenhouse gases
o plenty of resource available
o presently cheaper than solar power

* Solar
o is a renewable energy source
o available to anyone with a home (ignoring cost inhibitions)
o has no volatile waste (other than panels which could likely be recycled)
o several emerging technologies that can improve efficiency and central station generation abilities.

These are the advantages, put simply, that I can see right now. There are proponents of one, the other, or both. I see a brighter future for solar for three reasons:

1. It is completely, even daily, renewable.

2. Solar is fast advancing. We are likely on the cusp of a technological windfall for solar power.

3. The risks for nuclear power are high and unlikely to get resolved soon. So far it seems that, in an attempt to stop polluting the sky, we would throw our toxins into the ground.