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.

Aug 9, 2014 at 10:05AM

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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.

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4 in 5 Americans Are Ignoring Buffett's Warning

Don't be one of them.

Jun 12, 2015 at 5:01PM

Admitting fear is difficult.

So you can imagine how shocked I was to find out Warren Buffett recently told a select number of investors about the cutting-edge technology that's keeping him awake at night.

This past May, The Motley Fool sent 8 of its best stock analysts to Omaha, Nebraska to attend the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting. CEO Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger fielded questions for nearly 6 hours.
The catch was: Attendees weren't allowed to record any of it. No audio. No video. 

Our team of analysts wrote down every single word Buffett and Munger uttered. Over 16,000 words. But only two words stood out to me as I read the detailed transcript of the event: "Real threat."

That's how Buffett responded when asked about this emerging market that is already expected to be worth more than $2 trillion in the U.S. alone. Google has already put some of its best engineers behind the technology powering this trend. 

The amazing thing is, while Buffett may be nervous, the rest of us can invest in this new industry BEFORE the old money realizes what hit them.

KPMG advises we're "on the cusp of revolutionary change" coming much "sooner than you think."

Even one legendary MIT professor had to recant his position that the technology was "beyond the capability of computer science." (He recently confessed to The Wall Street Journal that he's now a believer and amazed "how quickly this technology caught on.")

Yet according to one J.D. Power and Associates survey, only 1 in 5 Americans are even interested in this technology, much less ready to invest in it. Needless to say, you haven't missed your window of opportunity. 

Think about how many amazing technologies you've watched soar to new heights while you kick yourself thinking, "I knew about that technology before everyone was talking about it, but I just sat on my hands." 

Don't let that happen again. This time, it should be your family telling you, "I can't believe you knew about and invested in that technology so early on."

That's why I hope you take just a few minutes to access the exclusive research our team of analysts has put together on this industry and the one stock positioned to capitalize on this major shift.

Click here to learn about this incredible technology before Buffett stops being scared and starts buying!

David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Google, and Coca-Cola.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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