In a opinion piece posted in the Pottstown Mercury, a letter to the editor states: "Close Limerick nuclear plant, switch to solar energy." Sounds simple, right? As one who takes a lot of interest in energy and technical topics, I read the piece to understand the intentions of the author, whose name is missing from the piece.
The article begins with mention of Chernobly, TMI, and Fukushima. It was quickly evident that the opinion piece was written by an anti-nuclear activist; I could take a guess it was another anti-nuclear post by the ACE campaign. But let's drill down and look deeper into the piece, correct the claims, and look at what it would take to switch Limerick from nuclear to solar.
Where activists go wrong, as I've said before, is not being factual. For example, the statement "demand for nuclear is down" is factually incorrect. Demand for nuclear power is not down. In fact, because demand for electric power is forecast to double by 2030, the demand for nuclear power has increased and will continue to do so.
Let's examine the headline which is to close Limerick nuclear and switch to solar power.
I always find it amusing how people can sit on a laptop, pen a report simply saying to switch to wind or solar, ignore the basic math – and yet it gets picked up in the local paper by newsroom editors.
Limerick generates 2.2 MW of power – enough for 2 million homes. The power is very reliable. How often has anyone in the area lose power because the sun was not shining or the wind was not blowing?
In the power industry, there is a term known as 'energy sprawl' – the amount of land required for each energy source. For example, Limerick nuclear plant is built on a 600-acre site. Simple math can determine the energy sprawl of Limerick: 2.2MW of power / 600 acres = 3.66kW per acre. This means for each acre of land, Limerick generates 3,666 watts of power.
Now let's replace Limerick with photo-voltaic (PV) solar panels. NREL estimates that 6.4 acres of land is required to generate 1 megawatt of electricity. This means to replace the reactors in Limerick with solar panels would be 6.4 acres * 2.2MW = 14 million acres or 21,000 square miles! That equates to 621 Manhattans – or nearly the entire size of West Virginia.
It is not only the amount of acreage to replace the two reactors in Limerick, but also the cost. Using the LEC (Levelized Energy Cost) calculations, nuclear power is very economical. $112 per MWh (MegaWatt hour). Solar PV is $156.9 per MWh – a 40 percent increase.
Can we replace the Limerick nuclear plant with green solar energy? Of course. It would only require leveling millions of homes for a 21,000 square mile 'green' solar farm. And don't forget the increase in your energy bill, the additional new coal plants required during peak demand, and the reduced reliability.
Alternative energy has its place, but it should not be aggressively oversold.