Transitioning to an energy system that is carbon neutral will take a variety of solutions to accomplish since no single solution exists that satisfies all issues. The issue of land footprint required for generating facilities is an important topic that shows nuclear power has a much lower footprint than solar and wind which are estimated as requiring 75 and 365 times more land area respectively (Office of Nuclear Energy 2021). However, in certain regions of the United States like the West, there is large amounts of land available that can have multiple uses in conjunction with the energy generation and has nearby transmission lines available (Lutey 2021). In areas of the country where land footprints for energy are constrained, nuclear energy can be a great option but in regions where land and transmission lines are less of an issue there are other factors that should be considered in the tradeoff between nuclear and wind or solar.
While land and transmission lines are less of an issue in parts of the West, one major issue impacting the area is drought conditions that are only expected to persist with climate change. Nuclear energy uses large amounts of water for cooling at an estimated rate of 1,101 gallons of water per megawatt hour of electricity produced. Concentrated solar uses slightly less water at 906 gallons per megawatt hour, but photovoltaic and wind energy utilize no water for cooling (Rathi 2018). In water constrained areas, nuclear power plants may not be worth the land use efficiency tradeoff for the larger volume of water they utilize, or the heat added to the water once it is returned to the natural system.
Sourced from (Rathi 2018).
Another major issue to contend with is the ever-present issue regarding cost. When looking at the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE), a measurement of the average revenue per unit of electricity generated to recover the costs of building and operating a generating plant over its lifecycle, nuclear power plants cost much more than solar or wind. The LCOE for nuclear is more than double that of standalone solar and nearly double that of on-shore wind (U.S. Energy Information Administration 2021). These increased costs make it difficult to fund nuclear generation power plants when cheaper clean alternatives like wind and solar are present.
Sourced from (EIA 2021).
There are many ways to look at the tradeoffs of one energy resource versus another. Land use can often be a very high priority for some regions, and nuclear would be a great option in those cases. However, other considerations like water use and total costs are pressures that apply to many regions as well, so solar and wind may be easier to develop. A healthy and resilient energy system would include all three of these resources in different balances based on the constraints faced in specific regions.
Author: Logan Callen
Lutey, Tom. 2021. “Montana’s Largest Wind Farm Will Be Built Near Colstrip Beginning in 2021.” Billings Gazette. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://billingsgazette.com/news/montanas-largest-wind-farm-will-be-built-near-colstrip-beginning-in-2021/article_abcdfff8-21dc-5abe-b6d7-f5db319ca44a.htm.
Office of Nuclear Energy. 2021. “3 Reasons Why Nuclear is Clean and Sustainable.” Energy.gov. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/3-reasons-why-nuclear-clean-and-sustainable.
Rathi, Akshat. 2018. “You Probably Have No Idea Just How Much Water is Needed to Produce Electricity.” Quartz. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://qz.com/1351279/the-hidden-water-footprint-of-fossil-fuel-and-nuclear-power-plants/.
U.S. Energy Information Administration. 2021. “Levelized Costs of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2021.” EIA. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/pdf/electricity_generation.pdf.