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Nuclear vs. IGCC

Next-gen technologies race to dominate the big build.

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2007

or IGCC+CCS plants today are speculative, and almost certainly will increase significantly over time.

“To nail down the cost you have to complete the design, do detailed construction planning and understand commodity rates and equipment prices better than you do today,” says Brew Barron, Duke Energy’s chief nuclear officer. “As you begin actually expensing these projects, you’ll have inflation on the dollars spent.”

The Finish Line

Notwithstanding uncertainties in estimating costs, the economics of new nuclear and IGCC+CCS plants appear comparable, with nuclear power gaining the edge in operating costs.

Discussions with sources for this story suggest new nuclear plants will cost somewhere between $1,800 and $2,800 a kilowatt to build. IGCC+CCS might cost between $1,860 and $2,500/kW—roughly on par with capital costs for new nuclear plants. But on the basis of operating costs, IGCC suffers compared to nuclear power. Estimates for new nuclear generation costs range widely, between $45 and $70/MWh 3 —or more, depending on the cost of financing—while generation from IGCC+CCS plants will cost about $67 to $78/MWh, 4,5 and significantly higher for some projects.

None of these prices can be considered economical compared with electricity generated by today’s installed base-load fleet, which produces power for less than $50/MWh in most places. But the costs for new nuclear and IGCC+CCS compare favorably with recent gas-fired generation proposals at more than $80/MWh, 6 and wind-power generation delivered to market at $70 to $100/MWh. 7 Of course, gas-fired and wind-power plants don’t pose the same development risks as next-generation coal and nuclear projects, and they can be built lightning-fast by comparison.

At the end of the day, climate-friendly coal and nuclear technologies both have a role to play in the future of America’s power-generation industry. How big their respective roles turn out to be, however, will depend on power companies’ ability to manage the uncertainties of building capital-intensive, cutting-edge projects—and lawmakers’ willingness to make it worth their while by providing public funding.

Neither factor seems likely to be a fait accompli for either nuclear or coal anytime soon, leaving the next-generation power fleet effectively up for grabs.

“It’s not really a question of nuclear versus IGCC,” Suciu says. “We need to invest in a broad portfolio of technologies, including efficiency, renewables and gas turbines, and both climate-friendly coal and nuclear have to be part of the U.S. power-generation mix in the long-term. In the near to medium term, most people expect it to be a gas and wind world.”

 

Endnotes

1. “ Cost and Performance Baseline for Fossil Energy Power Plants, Vol. 1: Bituminous Coal and Natural Gas to Electricity ,” National Energy Technology Laboratory, May 2007.

2. Ciferno, Jared P., “ CO2 Capture: Comparison of Cost & Performance of Gasification and Combustion-based Plants ,” National Energy Technology Laboratory, Workshop on Gasification Technologies, Denver, Colorado, March 14, 2007.

3. “The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, July 2003; http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/.

4. “Integrated Combined Cycle Gasification Draft Report,” Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, Docket 9300-GF-176

5. Ciferno, Jared