Updating our nuclear plants is a good investment. Building more wind and solar isn’t

Yesterday, the Star Tribune ran a story about Xcel Energy’s plan to relicense both of its nuclear power plants in Minnesota (Monticello, and Prairie Island) to run for a total of 80 years. This is a smart move on Xcel’s part, which is why Mitch Rolling and I have been predicting they would extend the plants since 2019.

The article correctly notes that extending the lives of Minnesota’s nuclear plants will cost money. However, because nuclear power plants can last so long, they are a much better value than building wind and solar because they are much more reliable.

U.S. EIA data show wind turbines in Minnesota only produced electricity about 33 percent of the time in 2020, and solar panels produced just 17.6 percent of their potential output. Nuclear plants, in contrast, produced 97 percent of their potential, which you can see in the graph below.

This means Minnesota would need to build about three times as much wind capacity and five times as much solar capacity to generate the same amount of electricity as building one nuclear plant. Furthermore, nuclear plants can last for 80 years, whereas wind facilities last for 20 years, and solar panels last for 25 years.

Over the long run, it is far more expensive to use wind or solar to generate the same amount of electricity when these factors are accounted for, using EIA’s Annual Electricity Market Module for capital cost estimates.

Furthermore, the cost comparisons conducted so far are generous to wind and solar facilities because they do not account for the additional transmission costs or the cost of “backup” energy sources, whether it be natural gas or battery storage. If we look at battery storage costs, we quickly see that this proposed solution is incredibly expensive and will deliver less value than a new nuclear plant.

Maintaining our nuclear power plants, and building more nuclear power plants, is the best way to replace existing coal plants when they reach the end of their operational lifetimes. Instead, liberal lawmakers in Minnesota voted to keep new nuclear power plants illegal while mandating the state get 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free resources by 2040.

This is a recipe for higher prices and rolling blackouts. It’s only a matter of time before conservatives get to deliver the “I told you so’s.”