A friend of mine called and was very agitated because she had heard a commentator/professor from MIT say on a national news cast "solar is too expensive." The newscast had been centered on the nuclear plant meltdown in Fukushima, Japan and had apparently asked if there was a better way to power the region.
"Too expensive?" I was at a loss for words. With more than three decades of experience in the solar energy industry, I hear this all too often from the folks who are more familiar with traditional energy sources. For some reason, people in the US have a hard time understanding that solar energy is cost effective; this is especially true if you are talking about solar heating. Indeed, solar energy is not really understood by the general public, much less a professor from a respected institution.
I then decided to compare the costs of solar heating to nuclear power by measuring the energy produced for initial cost of construction or installation -- apples for apples, real numbers.
The solar heating numbers come from a nationally certified BTU (KWH) energy meter. The meter is installed on the solar heating system that heats Valverde Energy's headquarters. It is about 321 square feet of solar hot water collector area. This square footage would be a little more than we install on an average home. The electrical equivalent production of this solar system was about 18.9 Megawatt hours, or enough electrical equivalents to run 4 homes in the Taos, New Mexico area for this test period (note: I am measuring the heat output of a solar hot water system, not a solar electric system).
Solar hot water systems produce heat only. Solar heat systems like this are 4-8 times more efficient at half the cost of solar electric systems for the same amount of roof space. Now, the take away here is that I am producing energy that heats water the same as electricity would, and right where it's needed. The neat thing about solar heating is that storage of the energy is easy. No batteries! The water tank or the home is the storage system (this makes a well insulated house much more important!). I call this "point of use" storage.
Fukushima Daiichi reactor #3 output is 760 Megawatts. If I measure the output of the reactor (when it was running) for the same time frame as my solar system measurement, the reactor produces 6,876,480 Megawatt hours of energy. This is taking into account that "nuclear does it all night" and my solar system takes a break when there is no sun.
If we were to rebuild the Fukushima reactor #3 today it would cost about $3.5 billion dollars. To decommission it would cost about the same as it does to build - the total cost: $7 billion. This does not include fuel for the reactor or any issues such as core meltdown or property damage resulting from a catastrophic plant failure.
To produce the same amount of energy with solar hot water systems that Fukushima Daiichi reactor #3 produces, we would need about 363,653 solar systems similar to the one I have at Valverde Energy headquarters. At this quantity of solar systems I am figuring the cost to be about $8 billion. This does not include maintenance costs, which are the only recurring costs with solar systems.
The lifespan of solar systems is similar to that of a nuclear power plant.
Some other points to note: solar heating systems will provide long term local jobs; a nuclear power plant has to be refueled about every 2-3 years; a solar heating system needs to be maintained about every 3-5 years.
Locally installed solar systems do not need a huge infrastructure to deliver energy (the grid); the energy is essentially free after the solar system is installed. I also don't have a bunch of fuel rods to store or worry about as I would with a nuclear power plant, if all of the worst-imaginable catastrophic events were to happen to the solar system, my neighbor does not have to evacuate his or her home.
All of the information here is real measured numbers. The information in this article is to create food for thought and not meant to endorse one energy source over another, as most energy sources have good and bad points. I did not account for any subsidies or loan guarantees that both the solar and nuclear industries presently receive. I also did not take into account the environmental impacts of mining the raw materials and manufacturing processes for either the nuclear or solar industries.
Perhaps the MIT professor would consider this information in his overall analysis.