Aided by federal and state tax breaks, solar energy soon will be cheaper than new nuclear power, according to a North Carolina study released Thursday.
Dr. John Blackburn, an economist and former chancellor of Duke University, said the projected costs for new nuclear plants are rising while the price of electricity generated from solar photovoltaic systems continues to fall.
With federal and North Carolina tax breaks for solar production, solar-generated electricity in the state is already as cost effective as building new nuclear plants, and solar should cut its costs again in half within the next decade, Dr. Blackburn said.
"The message is that solar is here and now and not something exotic for the future," he said.
A study Dr. Blackburn conducted for an anti-nuclear environmental group in North Carolina - NC Warn - estimates that new solar or nuclear power each cost about 16 cents per kilowatt-hour in North Carolina in 2010.
Within a decade, if current trends continue, the study suggests that solar voltaic panels could produce electricity at under 5 cents per kilowatt-hour while new nuclear plants could cost the equivalent of more than 30 cents per kilowatt-hour.
But such costs assume that solar energy, which gets 30 percent tax breaks in North Carolina, will continue to be subsidized and that the next generation of nuclear plant won't realize the efficiency improvements achieved in the solar industry.
The North Carolina study relied upon recent industry and academic cost estimates, but they appear far higher for nuclear power - and lower for solar energy - than the government's Energy Department projections.
In its most recent energy outlook, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that advanced nuclear plants, such as what the Tennessee Valley Authority is considering for its Bellefonte plant in Alabama, will generate power at 11.9 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Solar photovoltaic production of electricity, without tax incentives, will cost 39.6 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to Energy Department estimates.
In an environmental impact statement about the proposed new nuclear reactors at Bellefonte, TVA officials noted that to get as much electricity as a single nuclear reactor, TVA would have to install 193 photovoltaic devices covering 89 square miles.
John Keeley, manager of media relations for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said most utilities are pursuing both solar and nuclear power but have found nuclear to be more reliable and cheaper than solar generation.
But for North Carolina, NC Warn attorney John Runkle said Dr. Blackburn's study suggests that plans for new nuclear plants should be scrapped in favor of conservation and renewable energy sources such as solar.
"The biggest barriers to solar electricity are the electric utilities, and if they begin construction on nuclear plants, our electricity rates will skyrocket and our solar industry will continue to be impeded," Mr. Runkle said.