Why the nuclear lobby makes stuff up about the cost of wind and solar

Giles Parkinson ‒ editor of RenewEconomy.com.au ‒ exposes recent pro-nuclear spin regarding the costs of renewable energy sources.

There was no doubt that – given the opportunity – the ever-optimistic nuclear lobby in Australia would attempt to seize the moment and press the claims of their favoured technology to the parliamentary inquiry1 gifted to them by the federal government.

The nuclear lobby has largely given up on existing technology, recognising that the repeated cost blow-outs and delays means that it is too expensive, too slow and not suited for Australia's grid.

Instead, they have invested their hopes in a technology that doesn't actually exist yet, small nuclear reactors. But to promote it over the main competitors – wind and solar and storage – it has had to come up with forecasts for its pet technology that are, at best, fantasy, and assessments of wind and solar that are patently false and misleading.

It is generally accepted in the energy industry that the cost of new nuclear is several times that of wind and solar, even when the latter are backed up by storage. The GenCost 2018 report from the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) puts the cost of nuclear at two to three times the cost of "firmed renewables".2

The nuclear lobby, however, has been insisting to the parliamentary inquiry that wind and solar are four to seven times the cost of nuclear, and to try and prove the point the lobby has been making such extraordinary and outrageous claims that it makes you wonder if anything else they say about nuclear – its costs and safety – can be taken seriously.

RenewEconomy has been going through the 290-something submissions and reading the public hearing transcripts, and has been struck by one consistent theme from the pro-nuclear organisations and ginger groups: When it comes to wind, solar and batteries, they just make stuff up.

A typical example is the company SMR Nuclear Technology – backed by the coal baron Trevor St Baker3 – which borrows some highly questionable analysis to justify its claim that going 100 per cent renewables would cost "four times" that of replacing coal with nuclear.

It bases this on modelling by a consultancy called EPC4, based on the south coast of NSW, apparently a husband and wife team, Robert and Linda Barr, who are also co-authors of "The essential veterinarian's phone book", a guide to vets on how to set up telephone systems.

The EPC report admits to deliberately ignoring the anticipated cost reductions of wind and solar from AEMO's 2018 integrated system plan. Even worse, the report dials in a completely absurd current cost of wind at A$157/MWh (before transmission costs), which is about three times the current cost in Australia, and A$117/MWh for solar, which is more than double.5

The costs of wind and solar are not hard to verify. They are included in the GenCost report, in numerous pieces of analysis, and even in public announcements from companies involved, both buyers and sellers. St Baker could have helped out, as his company has signed two big solar contracts (for the Darlington and Vales Point solar farms) and we can bet he won't be paying A$117/MWh.

Apart from costs, the EPC scenarios for 100 per cent renewables are also, at best, imaginative. For some reason they think there will only be 10GW of solar in a 100% renewables grid and just 100MW of battery storage. Big hint: There is already 12GW of solar in the system and about 300MW of battery storage. But we discovered that assuming wind and solar do not or won't exist, and completely ignoring distributed energy, are common themes of the nuclear playbook.

The delivered cost of energy from wind and solar in the EPC modelling of a 100 per cent renewables grid? A hilariously outrageous sum of A$477/MWh (US$330/MWh).

Contrast this with SMR Nuclear Technology's claims about the cost of a modern small modular reactor – US$65/MWh – even though it admits the technology "has not been constructed", and which leading nuclear expert Ziggy Switkowski points out won't likely be seen for at least another decade. …

The EPC report also forms the basis of the analysis from the Nuclear Now Alliance, which describes itself as a not-for profit group of Australian scientists and engineers that are passionate about the benefits of nuclear "but have no connection to the industry."

Incredibly stupid and misleading

Moltex, which says it is "developing" some sort of fission technology (it says it has a design but hasn't actually built anything) uses the same trick as EPC to paint a daunting picture of renewable and storage costs, in this case by multiplying the cost of batteries by the total amount of electricity consumed in a single day. "Australia consumes 627 Gigawatt hours of electricity per day, and so the battery storage required to cover just one 24 hour period would cost A$138 billion," it proclaims. It is such an incredibly stupid and misleading claim that it simply takes the breath away. …

But that's what the nuclear industry feels it needs to do to make its yet-to-be invented technology sound feasible and competitive.

Let's go to StarCore, a Canadian company that says it, too, wants to manufacture small modular reactors, and claims renewables are "seven times" the cost of nuclear, and which also has a fascination with the Nyngan solar farm. It uses the cost of Nyngan to make the bizarre claim that to build 405 of them would cost A$68 billion, and then compares this to what it claimed to be the "zero upfront capital costs" of one of StarCore's plants.

Say what? Does the nuclear plant appear just like that? Solar and wind farms also usually have long-term power purchase agreements, but they still have to be built and someone has to provide the capital to do so. Nuclear with a zero capital cost? Really, you couldn't make this stuff up.

Declining costs of battery storage

Down Under Nuclear Energy, headed by a former oil and gas guy and a former professor at the University of Western Australia who specialises in mathematical social science and economics, also bases its solar costs on the Nyngan solar farm and makes this bizarre claim about battery storage: "The precipitous decline in solar technology is highly unlikely to be replicated in batteries, a technology already approaching 150 yrs of maturity," it says.

Hey, here's some breaking news. Costs of battery storage have already mirrored solar's fall, down 80 per cent in last decade6 and utilities like Transgrid predict another 60 per cent fall over next 10-15 years.7

And most large-scale storage batteries use lithium, an abundant resource, and this is battery technology that was actually invented just over 40 years ago by the winners of this year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry. As the Nobel citation says: "(Co-winner Stanley) Wittingham developed the first fully functional lithium battery in the 1970s." Not 1870.

Women in Nuclear and the Australian Workers Union both quote the Industry Super report on nuclear, which we debunked a while back8, which puts the cost estimates of wind and solar plants at 10 times their actual cost.

The "capital cost" of the Dundonnel wind farm in Victoria, for instance, is put at A$4.2 billion (try A$400 million) according to their bizarre calculations, while the Darlington solar farm is put at $5.8 billion (try A$350 million). It's pure garbage and the fact that it is being quoted really does beggar belief. …

But all the nuclear submissions have one common trait. They assume that the deployment of renewables is stopped in its tracks, either now or sometime soon. It's more wish than analysis, but in that they will have found a willing fellow traveller in federal energy minister, Angus "there is already too much wind and solar on the grid" Taylor, who thought it a good idea to have the inquiry.

But the reality is that the rest of the energy industry wants to move on. They know that the grid can be largely decarbonised within the next two decades from a combination of renewables and storage.

That's a simple truth that the nuclear lobby cannot accept, and they've passed up the opportunity to have an open and honest debate by promoting utter garbage about renewables, to the point where it would be difficult to believe much of anything else they say.

Abridged from RenewEconomy, 23 Oct 2019, https://reneweconomy.com.au/why-the-nuclear-lobby-makes-stuff-up-about-cost-of-wind-and-solar-46538/


  1. https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House/Environment_and_Energy/Nuclearenergy
  2. https://www.csiro.au/~/media/News-releases/2018/renewables-cheapest-new-power/GenCost2018.pdf
  3. http://www.smrnuclear.com.au/about-smr-nt/management/
  4. https://epc.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Case-6.pdf
  5. https://epc.com.au/index.php/nem-model/
  6. https://about.bnef.com/blog/bullard-how-a-battery-can-lead-a-quiet-revolution/
  7. https://reneweconomy.com.au/battery-storage-nearly-there-as-smarter-cheaper-choice-for-grid-upgrades-16648/
  8. https://reneweconomy.com.au/taylor-presses-nuclear-button-as-energy-wars-enter-dangerous-new-phase-47854/

See also: http://onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=20399&page=0


Published in Chain Reaction #137, December 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/chain_reaction

Whilst you are here, please make a tax deductible donation. Friends of the Earth relies on donations from people like you to keep running campaigns for social and environmental justice.