As the global climate crisis continues to rise unabated, the world slowly realizes that our use of non-renewable energy sources, such as natural gas and coal, plays a significant role in the worsening problem. Countries are now scrambling to build infrastructure for alternative renewable energy sources as they try to become part of the solution.
The solar vs. nuclear energy debate is one of the hotly contested topics for proponents of renewable energy. Both energy sources are considered clean and carbon-free; their infrastructure can also be built at scale to power a large area.
Many first-world countries use nuclear energy to power cities, and solar is not far behind. But, which one is the better energy source? The infographic below will give you a comparative analysis of the two.
Before discussing the difference between solar and nuclear power, we must first lay some groundwork to understand this argument better.
What is solar energy?
Solar energy is derived from the conversion of sunlight into electricity via photovoltaics (PV). When exposed to sunlight, these PV cells absorb photons that activate the cells’ electrons, turning light into an electric current.
PV cells are linked together in a solar panel to produce energy en masse, and several solar panels are arranged to make a solar array. Solar panels can be used at a utility level for industrial, commercial, and residential consumption.
Another way to make energy from solar power at a utility scale is by using Concentrating Solar-Thermal Power (CSP) technology. Instead of PV cells, CSP power plants use mirrors to reflect sunlight into a receiver that contains a heat-transfer liquid. When this liquid is heated, the steam produced is used to turn a turbine to generate electricity.
What is nuclear energy?
Nuclear energy is produced by harnessing the heat produced from a nuclear reaction to boil water to create steam. This, in turn, powers a turbine that produces electricity. The most common radioactive material used by nuclear fission plants is Uranium (U-235), but Plutonium and Thorium can also be used.
While nuclear fission (the splitting of atoms) remains the most popular method that reactors use to make energy, the research and development of nuclear fusion (bonding of atoms) reactors are currently ongoing.
Tale of the Tape
These two different methods of energy generation have distinct advantages and disadvantages. Here’s how they compare:
Solar energy costs are significantly less than nuclear energy. According to a 2020 report, the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) to generate 1 megawatt-hour (MWh) of power from a solar farm is US$ 40 (around Php 2,000) on average. In contrast, nuclear power plants have an LCOE of US$ 155 (around Php 7,700) on average to generate the same amount.
The upfront costs and operating costs for nuclear are staggering, too, compared to solar.
It does not end there—the cost of producing solar energy continues to dip while the cost of nuclear is rising through the years. In the same report, the cost of solar energy in 2009 was US$ 359/MWh (around Php 18,000) but has fallen steeply to US$ 40/MWh in 2019. In contrast, the cost of nuclear energy increased from US$ 123/MWh (around Php 6,100) to US$ 155/MWh in the same period.
Apart from that, the cost of solar panel installation has fallen sharply in 10 years. According to one study, the cost of installing a rooftop solar energy system has fallen from an average of US$ 4,731 (around Php 237,800) in 2010 to US$ 883 (around Php 44,300) in 2020.
Time to build
Another significant factor that affects the practicality of nuclear power is the time it takes to build a power plant. According to a study, it takes around 69 months for a nuclear plant to become operational, while solar plants take only about nine months.
Key factors that drag out the process of building a nuclear plant are the heavy regulations imposed on the nuclear industry and the lobbying of different stakeholders, such as residents concerned with the public safety risk imposed by the nuclear plant.
Since the climate emergency is urgent, the world would be better off investing and building solar energy infrastructure every nine months than waiting for a one-off nuclear power plant every five years.
A power plant’s generation capacity is the amount of electricity it can produce while in operation. According to a study, the capacity factor of nuclear plants is 93.5%, which means that they can operate in full power for 341 out of 365 days. In contrast, solar farms have a capacity factor of 24.5% (89 out of 365 days).
The reason for this difference is that solar arrays can only produce electricity when the sun is out. Also, there is currently a lot of ongoing research and development to make solar panels more efficient at collecting energy. Apart from that, battery technology has also come a long way to store energy from solar more effectively.
The most important reason why there are so few nuclear reactors worldwide is because of its inherently dangerous nature. Meltdowns, whether caused by human error like the Chernobyl disaster or by a natural disaster such as the Fukushima incident, are a constant threat to those living near the nuclear facilities. These disasters can also spread radioactive debris far from their epicenter.
Apart from one-off catastrophes, the wastes generated from nuclear facilities during their normal operations remain radioactive for thousands of years. Moreover, leaks from the nuclear facility can happen, which may cause adverse health effects to those exposed.
In contrast, solar energy is safe as they do not emit any negative externalities. Aside from not producing radioactive waste, solar energy does not emit toxic fumes, so it does not pose a health risk to those around installations.
Solar energy is one of the most sustainable sources of power as it can be generated indefinitely or as long as the sun is out there. The panels are generally long-lasting, with an average lifespan of 25–30 years. They don’t release harmful substances into the environment, and best of all, the source from which they derive energy is free.
Also, if solar energy at the utility scale is not available in your area, you can invest in a rooftop solar panel installation to reduce your household’s dependence on fossil fuels and sustain your energy needs even if the grid is down.
Nuclear power, while being carbon-free, is non-renewable. Uranium, the material used to power nuclear reactors, needs to be replaced every three years and then disposed of in a secure location. In addition, uranium has to be mined from the Earth, making this resource finite.
Solar Energy Has a Sunny Future
With the increasing problems brought about by global warming, it is imperative to reduce fossil fuel use and switch to carbon-free, renewable energy. Both solar and nuclear power offer a substantial amount of energy without producing carbon dioxide. However, solar energy is the safer, more sustainable, and less expensive option.
Apart from the dangers and public risks it poses, you can’t install a small nuclear reactor in your home, but you can install a solar energy system for residential use. If you’re interested in switching to solar energy, you can reach out to us at SolarNRG to get a quote and find out what makes our solar company different from the rest.