Let’s compare and contrast solar energy and nuclear energy in Arizona. There is only one nuclear power plant in the state, the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Tonopah. There are several solar energy sites, so we will pick the Aqua Caliente Solar Project because it won the Renewable Energy World Solar Project of the Year category in their 2012 Excellence in Renewable Energy Awards.
This nuclear plant consists of three reactors with with a total nameplate capacity of 3,937 MW. If these reactors ran for 24 hours day for 365 days a year they would yield 34,500 GWh (gigawatt hours) per year. The actual output is about 31,300 GWh per year (2010). This means they have a capacity factor of about 90%. Averaged over time Palo Verde yields 3,543 MW.
Palo Verde became operational in 1988 and is currently approved to operate until 2047, giving a lifetime of nearly 60 years.
Palo Verde’s construction cost was $5.9 billion in 1988 ($11.86 billion in 2015 dollars). Its operating costs for fuel and maintenance were about 1.33 cents per kWh in 2004 (1.67 cents in 2015 dollars.)
Based on an average power yield of 3,543 W and a cost of $11.86 billion (in 2015 dollars), the construction cost per watt for Palo Verde was $3.34 per Watt (in 2015 dollars).
Agua Caliente Solar Project
This 9.7 square kilometer solar energy farm has a nameplate capacity of 290 MW peak. Its first year of full operation was 2014. If it were able to produce its nameplate capacity of 290 MW continuously for one year the energy output would be 2540 GWh. The energy output was 741 GWh in 2014, which means a capacity factor of 29%, an excellent result for solar energy. Averaged over time, this solar farm yields 84.6 MW.
Construction cost for Aqua Caliente was $1.8 billion.
Based on an average yield of 84 MW and a construction cost of $1.8 billion, the construction cost per watt for Aqua Caliente was $21.43 per Watt.
The cost per kilowatt hour of energy for either of these sources is combination of the construction cost and the operation, fuel and maintenance cost. The longer the facilities are in operation the lower the fraction of construction cost per kilowatt hour.
The operation, fuel and maintenance cost for the Palo Verde Nuclear plant were about 1.33 cents per kWh in 2004 (1.67 cents in 2015 dollars.) The great advantage of the Agua Caliente solar farm is that its fuel cost is zero, and we will assume for the sake of argument that its other operation and maintenance costs are also zero.
The following chart shows various costs per kilowatt hour for each of the facilities for various lifetimes.
1. $0.0133 per kilowatt hour in 2004. Converted to 2015 dollars.
2. 2013 energy output.
3. $5.9 million construction cost in 1988 dollars. Converted to 2015 dollars.
4. 2014 energy output
5. $1.8 billion construction cost in 2014.
6. (GWh/year) x (number of years) x (1,000,000)
7. (Construction cost) / (kilowatt hours produced over lifetime)
8. (Construction cost per kWh) + (operating cost per kWh)
Two blocks of data are highlighted in yellow. These are the most likely lifetime scenarios for each of the power generating plants. The Palo Verde nuclear plant has had its license extended to 60 years. Aqua Caliente solar farm is made from First Solar CdTe modules that have a 10 year material and workmanship warranty and a warranty of 80% of the nominal output power rating during twenty-five (25) years. It is reasonable to hope that it will last 40 years
There is one more thing to be considered. We have assumed so far that the yearly output of each of these power generating stations it the same year after year. That is not entirely correct. Historically, the Palo Verde nuclear plant has increased its capacity factor through time as operations have become more efficient. Whether that trend will continue is unknown.
Solar modules tend to slowly degrade with time. The First Solar CdTe modules that are used at Aqua Caliente will likely decay at about 0.5% per year. The chart above gives a best case estimate for Agua Caliente and does not compensate for this degradation.
Based on the highlighted sections of the above chart, Aqua Caliente Solar Farm will likely cost about 2.5 times more per kilowatt hour than the Palo Verde Nuclear Plant over the course of their lifetimes.
One more point. Aqua Caliente requires 9.7 square kilometers to generate an average of 84.6 MW. Palo Verde Nuclear Plant generates and average of 3,543 MW. So it would take 41 Agua Calientes to equal the power of Palo Verde. That would require about 400 square kilometers.
Energy is the lifeblood of civilization. The pursuit of energy abundance is the pursuit of healthier and more fulfilling lifestyle for greater numbers of people. I present this data to help inform the choices that need to be made in that pursuit.