Did SolarCity Just Sink Nuclear Power?

As companies and individuals race to implement green energy solutions at both private residences and corporate facilities, there's one form of clean energy that's taking a back seat in the discussion: nuclear power. New developments in solar energy by SolarCity and Tesla Motors, both run by Elon Musk, may spell the beginning of the end for nuclear power in the United States.

Nuclear power has always had the advantage of being accessible 24/7 in contradistinction to solar and wind power, which are at the mercy of weather conditions. This situation is changing with the release of the Powerwall battery by Tesla. Costing only a few thousand dollars, this battery allows ordinary homeowners to store up solar electricity generated when the sun is shining and then use it throughout the day.

The new battery complements the solar offerings already available from Solar City. The company neutralizes the high costs of solar equipment by offering solar leases to its customers. Under the terms of these arrangements, customers can outfit their homes for solar electrical production without having to pay upfront installation charges. While SolarCity owns the actual panels, the energy produced is sold back to the homeowner at below-market rates.

This combination of solar leases and an affordable battery does a lot to bring solar up to par with nuclear in terms of availability throughout the day. Cost-wise, some people estimate that solar is only half as expensive as nuclear power per kilowatt-hour, which is another factor driving the increasing departure from traditional energy providers. Making costs even lower for most end users are the plethora of government-subsidized schemes offering tax breaks, rebates and other incentives to those who install solar equipment at their properties.

The fact that nuclear usually doesn't qualify as a “renewable” energy source for these incentives is another black mark against its expansion. Utah and Arizona have passed bills declaring nuclear to fall under the umbrella of renewable energy sources, but most other jurisdictions disagree.

Nuclear currently accounts for 19 percent of total electrical output in the United States as compared with only 0.4 percent for solar. Yet it's becoming increasingly cheap and easy for people to increase solar production whereas nuclear plants require substantial financing and take many years for regulatory approval and construction.

Another factor to consider is how nuclear power is portrayed in the media. Extensive coverage of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 led the public at large to consider nuclear energy unsafe. This is ironic considering that the NRC concluded that the health consequences to residents in the area of the incident were minimal, so it could be argued that Three Mile Island actually demonstrated the effectiveness of the regulatory and safety regime in the United States. Nevertheless, many nuclear projects were canceled or put on hold in the aftermath of this accident even as foreign countries, like Russia and China, ramped up their use of this form of energy.

It's too early to say exactly how nuclear will be affected by the upsurge in solar power development. Nuclear still has a sizable lead in terms of total power produced, but solar is expanding rapidly, a fact recognized by none other than President Obama. Unless the nuclear energy field comes up with some cool advancements of its own or a way to improve its image, it may face a long, slow decline.