Nuclear Power vs. Renewables in Australia

Cliff Notes: The Australian government’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) compared costs of various types of power generation with the costs of renewable generation, including storage and transmission costs. The result: Nuclear is by far the highest cost option.


Here is what the Energy Information Administration says about comparing baseload, dispatchable generators, such as nuclear, against the intermittent renewables like wind and solar.

From page 6 of the document…
The duty cycle for intermittent resources is not operator controlled, but rather, it depends on the weather, which does not necessarily correspond to operator-dispatched duty cycles. As a result, LCOE values for wind and solar technologies are not directly comparable with the LCOE values for other technologies that may have a similar average annual capacity factor, and we show them separately as resource-constrained technologies.

LCOE is Levelized Cost of Electricity, and is a way to measure the total costs per megawatt-hour of generation.

Also, from page 7:
We label them [intermittent renewables] as resource-constrained to discourage comparison with technologies that have more consistent seasonal and diurnal availability.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Australia has had a strong anti-nuclear movement for a long time. If they want to show the more politically acceptable renewables as a better choice, I’m sure they can manipulate the numbers to show exactly what they want.

In the mean time, Australia will continue to burn lots of coal to keep the grid up. As of 2022, the nation’s electricity fuel mix appears to be about 50% coal, 18% natural gas and maybe 2% oil, for a total fossil fuel share of ~70%.

As a result of this fuel mix, Australia’s carbon intensity is rather high, at 549 grams of CO2 per kwh. For comparison, the US is 369 grams/kwh. Increasing reliance on the intermittent renewables will keep Australia’s carbon emissions high well into the future. I believe the Aussies also export quite a bit of coal to China and other areas in Asia.

  • Pete
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Did you read the article or look at the report?

The CSIRO estimate included the additional transmission and storage costs required to maintain a stable grid with variable generation.

FWIW, the high estimate for nuclear was below the actual costs of Vogtle (converting AUD to USD, of course), and inline with EIA’s estimates. So while you’re convinced they sandbagged the numbers, I don’t see evidence of that. If anything, their costs for nuclear are optimistic, especially since they don’t have a nuclear industry at all and are starting from scratch.

As I wrote in my post, a comparison between dispatchable generation and intermittent renewables is inappropriate. That is not just my opinion, but comes from the EIA, which is part of the US Dept of Energy. If the Guardian article starts off with a flawed goal of making the usual nuclear versus renewables comparison, I am not going to take their conclusions seriously.

That is not a real thing that currently exists on the scale that would be needed to really make it work. Sure, there are some existing facilities that have ganged a bunch of Tesla batteries together to provide a few hundred megawatts of power for maybe 3 or 4 hours after the sun goes down in the early evening. But that is not the same as running a power grid 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in a reliable way on only solar or wind (plus batteries).

I’ll make the challenge again. Show me even one moderately sized modern city that gets its electricity only from solar, wind and batteries, and is completely shut off from the grid. The amount of over-capacity that would be needed drives up the costs. I think the costs would be excessively high. Higher than most people would want to tolerate.

I am willing to be convinced otherwise, but dispatchable back up generation will always be necessary in my world. That part of the equation needs to be included, especially with the intermittent renewables with capacity factors well below 50%. Therefore, the Aussies will be burning lots of coal for a long time in the future.

  • Pete
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In other words, you didn’t look at the report.

This problem can be addressed. After the big NY blackout (of 1977?) they learned to fire up the backup fossil fuel generators when storms were predicted from the west.

Sun going behind a cloud for solar can be tough to deal with but often weather reports provide lead time. And AI should help refine those projections. Which facilities will be most affected. And how much.

Yes, battery backup will come in handy for short term situations.

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Couldn’t grid scale solar plants just install a couple of cameras (with proper solar filters) and track approaching clouds? An intern could build a prototype in a few weeks. The cost would be trivial compared to the install costs for multi-MW solar farms.