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Solar And Wind Power More Expensive Than Thought

A new study from the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, argues that using solar and wind energy may be the most expensive alternatives to carbon-based electricity generation, even though they require no expenditures for fuel.

The paper, by economist Charles Frank, compares the benefits and costs of renewable energy. The benefits range from the lack of emissions to the savings in expenditures for fuels. The costs include the construction and maintenance of these plants, and the drop in power generated when winds are calm or the Sun doesn’t shine.

Frank’s conclusion: Wind and solar power cost far more than anyone expected.

The paper examined four kinds of carbon-free energy – solar, wind, hydroelectric and nuclear – as well as low-carbon gas generation, and compared them with generators that burn fossil fuels. It also posited a value of $50 per metric ton of reduced carbon emissions and $16 per million BTUs of gas.

Frank calculated that electricity generated by a combination of nuclear, hydro and natural gas have much greater benefits than either wind or solar energy because wind and solar generators cost more to operate even though they require no fuel.

For example, nuclear plants run at about 90 percent of capacity compared with wind turbines, which are only about 25 percent efficient, and solar plants with only 15 percent efficiency. As a result, Frank wrote, nuclear plants avoid almost four times as much CO2 per unit of capacity as wind turbines, and six times as much as solar generators.

Specifically, this means nuclear power offers a savings of more than $400,000 worth of carbon emissions per megawatt of capacity. Solar saves only $69,000 and wind saves $107,000.

Still, Frank conceded, nuclear power plants are costly to build. As an example, he cited a new plant at Hinkley Point in southwestern England, which is expected to cost $27 billion by the time it’s finished. Its operating costs rise because, like all nuclear plants, it can’t be covered by commercial insurance.

But like all nuclear plants, it will run 24 hours a day and so, Frank calculates, it will be only 75 percent more expensive per megawatt of energy to build and operate than a solar generator.

Into this equation, Frank included the generators powered by fossil fuels that will be needed to take up the slack for the inevitable idle periods for wind farms and solar generators. He calls them “avoided capacity costs” that wouldn’t exist if the alternative energy plants hadn’t been built in the first place.


Therefore, Frank wrote, it would take four wind farms or seven solar generators to replace one coal-fired plant generating similar output. Solar generation costs $189,000 to match 1 megawatt per year generated by coal, and wind power is nearly as expensive. Hydropower, he said, provides a net savings, but only a small one.

Frank’s paper concluded that the winner in this comparison of zero-emission power generation is nuclear power because, despite initial costs, it is greatly efficient and operates non-stop.

By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com

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  • David M Bryant PhD on January 26 2016 said:
    The author quoted energy efficiency of wind and solar power correctly however, did not offer a figure for fossil fuel efficiency. The definition of efficiency is simply energy input /energy output. Fossil fuels, originate from decaying plants that lived millions of years ago. Photosynthesis is one of the least efficient means of transferring energy. Less than 1% of the suns energy is converted to chemical energy within a leaf. Most of this energy is used to keep the plant alive and reproduce. After the plant dies more than 99% the biomass decays before it can be converted to fossil fuels. Therefore less that 0.1% of the energy used to produce coal, gas or oil ever makes it to the generating plant. When is does the thermal transfer of petroleum products to electricity is only about 35% at most, making the total efficiency less than 0.035%. Compare that to a solar panel which can convert light energy, from the sun, into electricity at 15% and one can see that solar is more than 4000X more efficient than fossil fuels.

    In addition studies have shown that if solar panels were to cover the entire surface area now used for the extraction, processing and burning of coal, the energy output would exceed the power generated by coal.

    Figures don't lie, but liars can figure.
  • A modest proposal on August 09 2014 said:
    ireAmerica, The old chestnut that wind and solar are energy negative was disproved a long time ago.

    Even in the dark and cloudy north of Europe, a PV system recovers the energy used in its production within 3 years; in southern Europe, it's 6 months:


    And, the lifecycle energy payback for a wind power plant is about 50X:

  • A modest proposal on August 09 2014 said:
    Surprise: In the Brookings article, solar and wind costs are greatly exaggerated; nuclear and gas costs are greatly underestimated:


    Frank really doesn't get power power systems. For example, nuclear is inflexible, so in the system Frank advocates, the vast majority of load following would have to be done by turning gas plants on and off -- yet his calculations assume a 92% natural gas plant capacity factor. Even in power systems today, which are less burdened by inflexible nuclear, CC NG capacity factor is < 50%.
  • Richard R. Rodriguez CPA on August 09 2014 said:
    We know it NOW as renewable energy? But at what cost. Environmentalist tell us no carbons at any cost. A ridiculous cheer at best. Lets see the renewable energy together with sustainable 24-7? There you are wind doesn't blow nor sun shine 24-7. I tell myself EPA types are idiots actually I don't but I think it! Clear the air now and say carbons are not good for you or me and big oil knows it. Big oil even knows biomass energy and biofuels are the holy grail and don't under estimate them they are ahead of you and me. Biomass anaerobic or direct combustion offers jobs and is renewable that is without government intervention. Corn ethanol is a joke and you and I will pay for the regulation now or later. Me I biomass grass and in particular Giant King Grass a perennial of what is call the poaceae family (grass).
    Yes other grass and competition exist like Micanthus (it works as well no doubt) Bottom line is renewable has to be sustainable and it appears wind and solar are not sustainable. Listen to Obama and he wants big government to run energy. Check out obamacare and ask yourself if that's a good idea. Giant King Grass Viaspace Inc.
  • tj on August 09 2014 said:
    For some details on how this economist has all the facts wrong, read: http://www.forbes.com/sites/amorylovins/2014/08/05/sowing-confusion-about-renewable-energy/
  • David Hrivnak on August 08 2014 said:
    It frustrating to see all the mis-information being bantered about. I installed solar last year, a 7.1KW system that has covered 95% of our energy and this INCLUDES over 700 miles/month in our electric car. We installed in less than sunny NE Tennessee for a lifetime cost of $.072/KWh. This is 18% LESS than current prices.

    We qualified for no state, local or utility tax breaks. While our ROI of 5.3% is not great it is far better than I can get on CD's or bonds and the savings is much more stable than stocks.

    Our system has a production guarantee for 25 years.

    When you look at capital costs look at all the costs for conventional plants and the need to mine and transport coal. It is not cheap and it does impact the environment.

    A cleaner future has arrived and if you compare my energy costs from just 3 years ago we are down $3,500 a year as both the electric car and solar has allowed us to slash our "fuel" costs.
  • Bob Wallace on August 08 2014 said:
    "For example, nuclear plants run at about 90 percent of capacity compared with wind turbines, which are only about 25 percent efficient, and solar plants with only 15 percent efficiency. "

    Someone has confused capacity factor with hours of production for wind. The wind, in a place where one would install wind turbines, blows a lot more than 25% of the time.

    BTW, the median CF for US wind is 36.75% and for solar the median CF is 20.3%, so Frank put a heavy thumb on the scale with his 25% and 15%. When someone does something like that it's best to question everything else they write.

    Now let's look at cost.

    Citigroup has calculated that the electricity from the two new Vogtle reactors will cost $0.11/kWh. And subsidies are needed to get the price that low.

    Wind, non-subsidized, in 2013 sold for $0.036/kWh.

    Solar, non-subsidized, in 2013 sold for $0.065/kWh in the US Southwest.

    The price of wind and solar will continue to fall, solar should soon be below 5c/kWh.

    We can store electricity for $0.08/kWh or less.

    Nuclear is priced off the table.
  • John on August 07 2014 said:
    For years, energy companies (utilities) knew the price of solar and wind technologies would not match the cost of energy from fossil fuels or nuclear. This article is not a new revelation.

    If solar and wind were really viable sources of energy, it makes sense that utilities would have invested in them long ago without tax and other incentives from the federal government.

    In most parts of the nation, the wind blows about 20-27% of the time. This means wind turbines are sitting idle 73%-80% of the time doing nothing. And wind can not be relied upon for base loads on the grid because wind does not blow all the time.

    Solar, is still pretty expensive. It's still about 2-3 times more expensive than conventional generation without incentives from the federal government paying for part of the projects. And, the sun shines about half the day while the other half they do nothing.

    Sure wind and solar power gives us a warm fuzzy feeling until the true economics come out. That warm fuzzy feeling is tantamount to peeing in your pants. The warm feeling lasts a short while then begins to stink.

    Years ago the environmentalists urged utilities to develop wind projects. California is a prime example of this. And after a few Condors and other endangered birds were killed by wind turbines, the environmentalists started to complain and wanted the utilities to do something about it.

    And recently, it's come to the public attention that solar farms that reflect light to a tower to generate electricity are causing birds to be killed though the intense heat of the light beams. The temperature of the light beams approaches 1000 degree and instantaneously kill birds when they pass through them.

    So, wind and solar aren't as green as some would like to think. They do impact the environments, just in other ways other than a carbon footprint.
  • Zach on August 07 2014 said:
    All you need is a calculator to add up what a solar/wind/water power setup will cost vs buying power from a [traditional] utility, and you will see that never will you recover your investment. Of course if solar cells can be run off as fast as tin cans, and as cheap, that's a game changer. But for now, off grid just means you want to be independent--I'd say that's a good thing thoough.
  • ireAmerica on August 07 2014 said:
    Alternative energy sources like wind and solar are not "carbon free". Solar-cell fab consumes huge energy and the cells have finite lifetime. Wind generators ditto. The large banks of batteries required take more raw materials and energy, and "generate" a huge waste stream too. Also consider the mining infrastructure for raw and sometimes exotic materials.

    Nuclear has separate waste issues, still not adequately addressed for such dangerous effluents. Coal is never going to be perfectly clean, but great strides have been made. Coal and natural gare by far the least expensive (and cleanest) power schemes we've got.

    Tabulate the true cost per kilowatt hour for these alternative so called "clean" technologies. Wow!
  • MJBinAL on August 07 2014 said:
    Nuclear power does not go lacking so long as a significant portion of generating capacity is still natural gas. This allows base loading of nuclear power and swing loading of natural gas. Combination is the lowest cost way to generate power.

    An alternative for nuclear facilities next to reservoirs is to use off peak power to pump water UP into the reservoir, then using hydro to generate the additional peak power. Unfortunately, there is a lack of suitable sites for this type of installation.
  • spawn44 on August 07 2014 said:
    The whole AGW CO2 is a total political Scam.
  • Also Anon on August 07 2014 said:
    Unhappily for the environmentalists, one of the great lies told is that if the wind is not blowing in one place, then it will blow in another to compensate. Recent data shows that when it stops blowing, it usually stops blowing everywhere, and this includes places as large as the East coast of Australia and for long periods of time. Just a rotten but trendy investment. When are we going to listen to real engineers and scientists, and not politicians and hopeful dreamers?
  • Anon on August 06 2014 said:
    Wind and solar are too variable, but nuclear is not variable enough. It loses money every night for lack of a market. Postulating supply without considering demand is foolish.

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