Solar vs Nuclear – which is the energy of the future?
Solar energy versus Nuclear energy. Interesting indeed. In a race against global warming and various types of pollution, we humans have been continuously searching for a clean source of energy for the past three or four decades. To say that we have achieved significantly – given the time period- would be quite the understatement. “But hasn’t renewable energy been there for the past 30 or 40 years?” I hear you ask. It certainly has been, but the seriousness of global warming and pollution and the immediate need of clean fuel was realised much later. Solar and Nuclear energy are two of the most popular and efficient ways of obtaining clean fuel.
To say these two sources look like they’ve been taken out straight from a science fiction story would probably justify their existence. I mean, if you would’ve told someone a hundred years ago that you can produce enough energy to run simple everyday household appliances from just 3×3 metre panel kept at the roof or that you can blast a whole city off and kill more than a hundred thousand people with just 1.28 kgs of a substance, they would have probably resurrected the witch laws and executed you for black magic.
We’re gonna briefly address both of them before heading towards the head in comparison.
Solar energy, as we all might already know, is the conversion of energy of the sunlight into electricity by either photovoltech cells, or by concentrating sunlight on a particular point.
photovoltaics was first invented by Charles Fritz as early as in 1880. Although the first large and functional solar cell was developed by Bruno Lange using silver selenium. These were low efficiency cells but miracles nonetheless. There were several breakthroughs along the way and the energy conversion rate today stands at around 4% for domestic solar panels, to up to 9% for industrial purposes. A company called Sunpower achieved a mind-boggling 23% energy conversion a few years ago.
Solar Power is largely harnessed from these solar-cell based Solar Panels.
The global share of energy sources of solar power has also increased substantially- from 0.01% in 2004, to around 2.5 % in 2020. There are no major cons of solar power and it is one of the reasons it has succeeded in growing over the past decade and a half. Although not reliable, it is certainly a clean source of fuel, which will benefit our planet in the long run.
The initial supply was driven by Europe, but over time, other countries have significantly caught up, especially in Asia. Countries like China, Japan and India are readily adopting the clean source of power. In the top 10 biggest photovoltaic power stations, the first eight positions are held by Indian and Chinese plants.
If getting truly incredible amounts of energy from a negligible amount of matter in nothing but seconds doesn’t sound science-fiction then I don’t know what does.
The history of nuclear science is well documented as it is relatively new. Splitting the uranium-235 atom in a way which keeps the reaction going on is the principle of nuclear energy. The weak force in atoms – despite what its name might suggest – is sufficiently enough for supplying huge amounts of energy when it is messed around with. The genius of nuclear energy shines the most when talking about its carbon footprint. Almost zero carbon emissions, along with being a relatively much safer source in terms of casualties makes nuclear energy the apparent ‘Energy Source of the Future’.
The working of a Nuclear Power Plant, simplified.
Nuclear energy has been used for 6 to 7 decades now, providing constant and extremely reliable power to the world. It has roughly around 20% of USA energy production, and around 10% of the total world production. The world has over 450 nuclear reactors which produce around 2700 TWh of electricity every year.
It will be better if I break down every comparison into four distinct sections:
The time section is solely based on the time taken to build the actual reliable sources and the time taken between production and expending the energy.
As we all know and praise, the solar energy sources are essentially solar panels which turn energy of the sun into electricity by ingesting the energy from the sunlight, and using it to push electrons from one side to the other, which creates a potential difference between the electrodes. The photovoltaic cells on solar panels are usually self sustainable and do not require a containment zone for production of electricity. Portability is actually one of the biggest advantages that solar power in the form of solar panels has, over Nuclear Power. Portability is everything nowadays. Smartphones,laptops and smart watches flourish due to being extremely portable at their meta. You could easily carry the solar panels from one place to another. It isn’t completely hassle-free, but at least it’s possible. Also, to achieve maximum efficiency, engineers have also developed various technologies like transparent solar panels, which can be put up on any window to provide shade and electricity both at the same time, and agri voltaics, which are solar panels put up on growing crops in fields to cool down the solar panels, because solar panels lose some of their efficiency as their temperatures go above 25⁰C.
(Tengger Desert Solar Park is one of the world’s largest photovoltaic plants. It is located in Zhongwei, Ningxia, China. It covers an area of 43km².)
Solar panels take a considerably less time and effort to supply electricity, thus increasing the scope of the use immensely.
Nuclear power on the other hand, is notorious for the time it takes to build a proper power plant and to supply electricity from place of origin to other places. It’s also, quite obviously, isn’t portable at all. Contrary to the short time it takes to build solar power plants – which is almost a year or less – nuclear power plants take anywhere from 15 to 30 years to finish and come into effect.
The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Plant.
(It is the largest nuclear generating station in the world by net electrical power rating)
To elaborate furthermore, only a single Nuclear power plant has been finished in the last 30 years in each of the USA, India and Canada. The time it takes to build these reactors is too risky and heavy an investment for governments. This is a major reason why nuclear power share in the world has dipped from being 17.3% in 1996, to around 11% in 2020. The time to build the reactors is a major concern for any government when thinking about investing in Nuclear power.
Although Nuclear power plants have many advantages over every other power source, this sole reason is causing a massive dip in its use. Solar power is far ahead in this category.
Solar power plants prove to be dirt cheap when put against its rival. Kamuthi Solar power plant, the biggest in the world, required a monetary fund of just $680 millions, which is far less than its counterpart.
The cost of solar power has come down drastically from $76 per watt in the late seventies, to nearly $0.085 per watt in 2020. The supply of electricity can be as low as $100 MWHr in many areas. Power plants aside, solar panels can also be put up on individual house tops to power the basic appliances of each house such as lights, fans and regular smartphone or laptop chargers.
Although the cost seems pretty less, solar power still requires a large area to be effective. Houses and rooftops provide such areas but it isn’t uncommon that vast areas of land are dedicated to solar power stations and power plants.
Also, some third world countries still can’t afford these types of power plants. Even though these plants take up less than a year to complete their longevity is still debatable.
Stark differences are seen in the cost of nuclear power and solar power plants and this is the reason why nuclear energy is on the fall. The building time aside, cost is what is primarily stopping governments from building more nuclear power plants. Over 30 billion dollars are spent on an average nuclear power plant. The amount of money spent is over 40 times the amount of money spent on solar power but the efficiency of the used resources and the production sustainability and maintenance drop down considerably. Nuclear power uses much less resources to maintain over long periods of time against solar power. However, the amount of money and time required is simply too large for a single investment. Over 55 reactors are just sitting idle, waiting to get approved again as their construction was halted because they went over the cost. Even though countries like India and France plan to build over 40 reactors in the coming 30 years, there is just no guarantee that they really would come to reality. The humongous cost is a serious blow to the future of nuclear energy and is the sole reason why Nuclear power is failing in present days.
While both of these sources of energy are deemed as fairly sustainable, it wouldn’t be a ‘versus battle’ if we just called out draws. On that note, both of these heavenly resources have their fair share of drawbacks.
Solar energy, while being the absolute fantastic source it is, still produces a small amount of greenhouse gases, and to top it off, the solar panels themselves are made up of extremely hazardous materials such as lead, mercury and sometimes low concentrations of ammonia.
The Mortality chart of the Fukushima disaster showcasing the casualties and their reason.
The average lifespan of solar power plants using photovoltaics is around 20 to 25 years. That is a lot, but it is still pretty low when compared to the absolutely insane 80 to 90 years of Nuclear power plants. Although to their misfortune, most of the nuclear power plants are retired around 40 to 50 years of age due to security concerns.
The waste generated by both of these is in contrast to their lifespans. While solar power generates little to no pollution, nuclear power plants do generate some pollution in the form of radioactive nuclear waste. Although quite less in quantity, the waste is fatally radioactive and will remain so for the next tens of thousands of years. It might sound scary and horrible to hear that more than 400,000 tons of radioactive waste has been discharged till now, but it is actually the last thing to be worried about.
A person stands in an incomplete Nuclear Power Plant. Many of them have been shut down or halted due to their high cost and/or the long time taken to build.
The radioactive waste is well monitored and strategically stored to minimise the risk to almost zero. Monitoring the waste is much, much better than just letting it loose into the air, like all the fossil fuel power plants do. Adding to that, radioactive waste might become recyclable one day, if humanity figures out a way of using radioactive substances to generate power and electricity, while the CO2 generated by traditional power resources is just an ever increasing problem which has now become a hurdle to the progress of humanity.
Now comes the big question, what is the future of both of these technologies? While the future of solar energy looks bright (pun intended), nuclear energy is largely on the decline. Solar power, on its face,seems a very safe and unharming solution, and for the most part, it really is, but it does have cons of its own. Relatively high cost of manufacturing and transporting the produced electricity are some of its downsides, along with being an unreliable and a non-constant source of power. No sun means no electricity which in turn means that solar power simply cannot be used for direct supply to any industry or housing without a constant backup source, which often ends up being coal and natural gas.
Nuclear power suffers from a much different and much bigger problem that solar energy – the trust of people. After two major nuclear disasters – the Chernobyl disaster in Russia and the Fukushima disaster in Japan– more and more people are turning their backs on Nuclear power. Countries like Germany and Japan have shut down almost all of their reactors, with Germany even encouraging its neighbour countries to follow suit. Only a handful of reactors have been completed in recent times – in sharp contrast to the number of solar power plants. The sheer ignorance of a certain group of people is becoming a sort of speed barrier for the goal of reaching an energy utopia with zero harm to the already polluted planet.
Angela Merkel, former chancellor of Germany, was actively against Nuclear power, and was a reason for phasing out Nuclear power plants from Germany.
This ignorance is left highly unnoticed by the government, which only mostly only cares about the votes of people, and which is even more devastating for the future of a planet. People who can convince other ignorant people often just opt to use another resource to satisfy them. Germany and Japan are giving away to their fears of this power, not considering the alternatives such as coal and natural gas are killing a million times more people.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been an active advocate of solar energy
To scratch the problem even more, around 98% of the deaths in nuclear reactor disasters have been caused by the public immobility and panic-stricken escape attempts! That’s only a handful of people who died due to exposure to radiation in these disasters. Both Chernobyl and the Fukushima disasters were fairly well-handled and didn’t cause any more damage than the daily deaths caused by carbon monoxide poisoning or even Asthma. Still, the innate fear of immediate death resides in everyone who opposes the development of nuclear energy.
This rational fear needs to be eradicated, once and for all from peoples’ mines. Nuclear power is safer than almost all the power resources, and it can produce humongous amounts of power. Nuclear fission is the bridge between humans being a power hungry civilization and multi-planetary civilization.
Also, there can’t be a winner between these two, as both of them have the same goal, but it will be pretty wrong if we just called out draws.
Seeing the current situation, solar energy seems to be the winner as it is the one which is growing in popularity and in numbers, BUT if we had to look for the better energy source – which can provide sufficient and reliable power – the judgement inclines towards Nuclear power.