JONATHAN CHAIT JULY 27, 2010
A new report shows that solar energy has become cheaper than nuclear:
In a “historic crossover,” the costs of solar photovoltaic systems have declined to the point where they are lower than the rising projected costs of new nuclear plants, according to a paper published this month.
“Solar photovoltaics have joined the ranks of lower-cost alternatives to new nuclear plants,” John O. Blackburn, a professor of economics at Duke University, in North Carolina, and Sam Cunningham, a graduate student, wrote in the paper, “Solar and Nuclear Costs — The Historic Crossover.”
Sounds great! Except the problem is that the political influence of various energy sources is proportionate to their current size. Traditional dirty energy sources like coal and oil are very large, and thus wield enormous clout in Congress. Nuclear energy is the one clean energy source with a large enough foothold to command and political clout. Indeed, the right-of-center members of Congress with any sympathy to climate legislation tend to insist the measure be packed with nuclear subsidies. Conservative supporters of climate change, like the old John McCain, harp on nuclear power because it's a good way to allay the suspicions of the conservative base -- climate legislation will build more nuclear plants, and hippies hate nuclear plants, therefore conservatives should support it.
But the problem here is that this requires the government to pick winners and losers. The more free market approach would be to set a price on carbon and let the market decide which clean energy source can do the job more cheaply. That, however, is the ultraliberal position in the debate.