Solar and Wind Power More Expensive Than Thought

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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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Read/Post Comments (51) | Recommend This Article (16)

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  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 12:40 PM, stevecolo wrote:

    Frank's comparison of capacity factors for nuclear and wind/solar is nonsensical. Of course a well maintained nuke runs more of the time than a windmill or solar panel, but the question is total cost per KWH including backup. Any number of utilities have found that wind+solar+gas backup is cheaper than their own fossil fuel mix, which is for sure cheaper than a new nuke, aside from not potentially making the area uninhabitable for decades or centuries if there is an accident.

    Besides Frank's capacity factors for wind are way low. Even here in Colorado we have wind farms running at 40% capacity factor, not the 25% that he quotes.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 12:42 PM, flyingjackolade wrote:

    With recent publications stating that soon solar panels that can produce electricity will take a sharp dip in productions costs makes me think that this story is biased to support those who rely on carbon based sales for their profits might have influenced this story. Also very recently a new report is bring new energy to the use of turbines using the sea's ebb and flows to produce electricity. Wind turbines although expensive to build is a long lasting source of power and even that is being made lighter and cheaper the early units. Carbon based fuels must be eliminated to save the planet from climate change linked to their use..

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 12:42 PM, Rayliu25 wrote:

    who would take seriously an article written by an oil website about alternative energy?

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 12:54 PM, laddproduction wrote:

    this guy is ignorant, the more power a house hold uses the better solar and wind are over any other current form of energy. If he understands tier 1,2,3,4 and so on then he would understand if you have Solar or wind it will pay for itself in 4 to 10 years depending on how much energy you use.

    The more energy you use the faster it pays for its self. Even at 10 years the warranty on the system is 20 to 25 years on most. Doesn't take a rocket scientist to do the math. Im living proof of this working I installed solar 4 years ago and the total purchase will be paid in full by end of this year. Free energy from then on. How is anything cheaper then free. He must be pro oil or just stupid. LADD

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 1:23 PM, rodgerolsen wrote:

    This confirms what we all know. Even adding in a fictitious value for carbon emissions doesn't make solar or wind economically feasible. Of course, Germans already know this as they are faced with electricity costs that have almost doubled since they went to solar power.

    Environmental hysteria can overcome economics temporarily, but as the countries become less competitive and the people poorer because they are ignoring the laws of economics, they are almost certain to go to fossil and atomic fuels.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 1:27 PM, renmandfx wrote:

    Where are the calculations on environmental impact?

    Those should be included too,

    Those would make nuclear a loser many times over: dirty now and for eons to come.

    Further, do the calculations cover the "real" cost to produce energy by any given means?

    Costs of a coal or gas fired plant must also include the cost to extract the fuel to be fully honest, not just the cost of the plant.

    Costs of wind and solar must also include the cost to make the equipment.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 1:42 PM, mvogell wrote:

    I know it's cheaper to have a bunch of solar panels and some batteries at my house than it is to have truckloads of coal delivered and burning 24/7 just in case I want to turn on a light bulb sometime during the night.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 1:47 PM, josedesouza wrote:

    Only fools like the editors of the Economist and Motley reverberate crap like that without prior checking of such flawed ‟statements from authority″:

    Would I trust Motley Fool or the Economist for financial advice after that? Only if I mysellf were another fool!

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 1:49 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    ^ You know huh? Trot out your 20 years of numbers to prove it vetted by independent sources...

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 1:52 PM, Raidermatt wrote:

    Does his analysis factor in the ongoing costs associated with incidents such as that at the Fukushima plant? That aside, this is a short-sighted analysis. Renewable efficiencies are improving at a rapid rate and costs are dropping. What's more, the relative portability of these options, especially solar, makes for almost limitless applications other than the traditional power plant/grid model.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 1:59 PM, josedesouza wrote:

    Only fools like Motley and the editors of the Economist reverberate crap like that without any prior checking of supposedly ‟arguments from authority″ :

    Would I trust The Motley Fool and The Economist for financial advice after that? Never. Only if I wanted to make a fool of myself!

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 2:02 PM, Ahuman wrote:

    Renewable is just that - RENEWABLE. Fat cats are upset about major profit loss. With that comes loss of dominating those sectors of an economy. It's about time they lose their control. The game has changed folks. The old ways are dying and are fighting all the way to the grave. The world chaos right no is a good thing because is it making way for something different. Industry dominance is fazing out. It may not appear that way but be patient.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 2:06 PM, OneHundredxFifty wrote:

    Clearly there is a brain drain at Brookings. First any seasoned analyst looks at the Levelized Cost Of Energy (LCOE) not the capacity of a project. LCOE takes into account the fact that the resource is not always operating. For solar and wind this continues to drop, for nuclear it does not.

    Any major wind build out will happen in the great plains where the average capacity factor is 40% and with new transmission access could reach 50%. To use 25% CF for a forward looking study shows either extraordinary bias or ignorance. The only reason we don't use the 50% CF wind is due to lack of transmission line access. However Texas has been building transmission lines to their best wind resource areas which will give them access to wind resource at 40% to 50%.

    In the Southwest, where the most solar is being installed, they are using tracking arrays. This allows PV to routinely come in at 20 - 25% CF. The 15% capacity factor number is a rule of thumb that applies best to non-tracking arrays in the Northeast.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 2:12 PM, josedesouza wrote:
  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 2:38 PM, networldsystems wrote:

    With domestic natural gas being so abundant and so cheap, why would we generate power in another manner? Only because of some political bent. Clean, cheap, efficient, small footprint - what's not to like? The only downside is the combustible nature of natural gas, but that is easily managed.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 2:46 PM, SLTom992 wrote:

    Nickodell16 - with all of those absolutely true facts and with the study from a neutral Brookings Institute the "Environmentalists" will still deny every word.

    They are the sheep that need a goat to keep them from leaping off of the cliffs. And their goat is nothing more than a notion that somehow you can make the world different from reality. If you only just believe hard enough that somehow science will change it's mind.

    I've tried for years to get them to understand that building, using and disposing of solar cells cost more than the electricity they produce. I've tried to explain the Pacific Gas and Electricity was on the fore-front of the development of renewable energy and discovered very early that it was preposterous and only stayed in it for the tax benefits.

    But to "environmentalists" reality has no meaning. They will remain on the train to nowhere touting solar energy and wind energy and MAN-MADE climate change as if there was the slightest sense in it.

    And they will do this with ZERO knowledge of their own about these subjects.

    Building coal-fired power plants with smoke cleaners was a good idea. But they then assume one good idea makes all the rest of their stupid ideas equally good. And we end up with the absurd notion that somehow Obama closing down all of the coal mining and using in the USA was somehow good.

    Liberalism is a mental illness and they should all be locked up for their and our protection.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 3:05 PM, Joefacc2244 wrote:

    They don't call this a fool for nothing. What could be more economical then solar panels that sit there making power from sun light???

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 3:57 PM, wankap wrote:

    They completely ignore CPS technology which has evolved and now at home availability with efficiency in the 40% to 6o%. Also wind energy is much more efficient when done at a median size with different technology.

    See 22nd Century Products

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 4:28 PM, fpl1954 wrote:

    So, liability insurance is by far the largest cost of nuclear power - which of course makes sense because the sum total of damages caused by nuclear plant problems has averaged (so far) $22.8 BILLION DOLLARS PER PLANT. Given that each nuclear plant powers roughly 30,000 homes, this means each user of nuclear electricity should be sent a bill for $760,000 to cover liability insurance.

    Nuclear would not exist if the government didn't treat risk as a socialist cost, and profits as a capitalist reward. They need to make the owner pay the cost of insurance rather than force YOU AND ME to pay it.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 4:41 PM, kutasyk wrote:

    Nuclear energy is the cheapest in the US. However, thanks to EPA, in the US it is not allowed to recycle nuclear fuel. Nuclear fuel can be recycled up to 30 times to the point that there is virtually no waste while the power plant can run on it for up to 10 years without refueling and without losing output. This is what every country except the US does. In fact, after learning of EPA's ne regulation, other countries immediately rushed to buy US non recycled fuel, but, thanks to the Department of Energy this was forbidden too. So, now the perfectly fine nuclear fuel that can be recycled is being stored in Arizona desert in iron barrels (thousands of them) and the Department of Energy refuses to put them under cover or sell them or recycle them. And if it continues this way we are waiting for some serious ecological disaster to happen. So much about EPA's bs "care" for the environment. And if you ask what EPA is doing to prevent millions of tons of medication getting into drinking water--they will most likely send you to hell, since water/sewer is always governmental, which means you can't sue it or regulate it.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 5:07 PM, Z0N wrote:

    Well, duh. The Brookings institute gets a good portion of their income from carbon-based energy producers. I had no idea they would stoop to being merchants of doubt, though.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 5:09 PM, fpl1954 wrote:

    Let's look at REAL costs.

    Nuclear has a lifetime cost of $0.23 per MW-hr

    Coal has a lifetime cost of $5.02 per MW-hr

    Wind with storage to provide 24/7 power has a lifetime cost of $0.08 per MW-hr

    Photovoltaic with storage to provide 24/7 power has a lifetime cost of $0.05 per MW-hr

    Coal is the cheapest to build, and produces cheap enough electricity that it can compete. Solar and wind are by far the cheapest to operate long term. Nuclear has no place in power generation if the government didn't force taxpayers to pay most of the costs

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 6:11 PM, lunatik96 wrote:

    The numbers don't lie, but liars lie about the numbers. As an electrical engineer, I can hardly believe the logic used to arrive at the conclusions.

    Solar and wind with battery backup are far more economical. Solar panels have about 20 years of maximum output. After that they still produce albeit at diminished levels.

    To the person that commented on Germany Solar, investigate the WTO complaint Germany has against the Chinese for dumping solar panels. Chinese dumping has also destroyed the solar business in the US also.

    It only took me 2 sentences to realize this piece is a hack for the fossil fuel industry.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 6:50 PM, Fooloprunes wrote:

    Did anyone at MF read this article before they posted it? Either Charles Frank does not know what he's talking about, or the guy that wrote this had no idea.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 6:56 PM, ordinary3 wrote:

    The author forgot to include the cost of decommissioning the nuclear plants which effectively neutralizes any monetary savings during the usage of the nuclear plant. The generation that reaps the monetary benefits of nuclear power leaves the cost of the resulting cleanup to the following generations.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 7:11 PM, Fooloprunes wrote:

    Frank decides that capacity is the same as efficiency, then uses that to jump to the silly conclusion that nuclear avoids four times as much CO2 as wind. (Gimme a break!)

    Exactly who is paying Frank to write nonsense like this?

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 8:05 PM, mbee1 wrote:

    If you read the paper all the comments by readers are addressed in the paper. In the real world the costs of wind and solar have always been much higher than fossil or nuclear power and always will be as they cannot produced power in the case of solar 60 present of the time and in the case of wind around 50 percent of the time. Some other power source has to provide the power at those times. Without taxpayers forking up tens of billions of dollars not a single commerical wind farm or solar plant would exist on the planet.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 8:08 PM, mbee1 wrote:

    If this was a sne world the cost of decomissioning nuclear power plants would be a few million. Simply remove the fuel, and seal the door with concrete, wait about fifty years and the radiation would be less than current background. The fuel can be reprossed and reused in a sane world, only a wacko world trys to bury it in Nevada.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 8:43 PM, marilynfff wrote:

    Does anyone count the birds killed? Where is PETA and the Ducks Unlimited, etc.? When the insect population increases we'll see how 'economical' the windmill choppers and the solar bird fryers are.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 8:46 PM, EddieBlake wrote:

    Dr. Frank's entire thesis is mistaken, as disproven by the Rocky Mountain Institute. Dr. Frank's numbers are not only empirically incorrect, but they are FAR outdated data. Ergo, one could almost accuse him of INTENTIONALLY skewing the data to favor fossil fuels. Here's the research from RMI to prove it:

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 8:49 PM, sandyssanders wrote:

    What one would expect from the Brookings Institute, a long time right-wing think tank...

    from Sourcewatch...

    "Initially centrist, the Institution took its first step rightwards during the depression, in response to the New Deal. In the 1960s, it was linked to the conservative wing of the Democratic party, backing Keynsian economics. From the mid-70s it cemented a close relationship with the Republican party. Since the 1990s it has taken steps further towards the right in parallel with the increasing influence of right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation."

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 8:58 PM, Liberalbonehead wrote:

    If it cost too much/there is no profit without the help of the Government, then it could be worthless of a way to save the environment.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 9:00 PM, Liberalbonehead wrote:

    Who's paying for government incentives?... because nothing is free.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 10:34 PM, DWW12 wrote:

    The only one that cost 10 times less than ten year ago is solar. The only one that will cost 10 times less in 10 years from now is solar. Conservatives can stop crying about subsidies in about 4 years when solar is 1/2 the price it is now and all other forms of electricity are 10% higher. Nuclear has one really big problem, every 20 years we find a safety feature we overlooked. My guess is those that are bashing solar don't have it and don't know what they are talking about. I have a 4kw system on my garage that makes about 500kwh a month. I might not have bought it without credits, but it is close. In 3-5 years it will be a no brainier for almost everyone.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 11:02 PM, RHO1953 wrote:

    And to make ANY of it work you have to grossly overvalue co2 and buy into the AGW crap. Take that nonsense away and you will find wind and solar are impossible. The only way to even get them into the discussion is by using legislation, regulation, and tax credits. Fifty years from now the world will be laughing at the stupidity of the AGW scheme.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 12:23 AM, TheAncient wrote:

    This study is brought to you by the Petroleum Industry, live better burn fossil fuels(we are living better).

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 12:57 AM, kmitchel2 wrote:

    Just like I always say, we need to go back to nuclear power. The newer plants like the IFR don't produce long-term waste, and breeders can even use waste as fuel. The Fukushima plant was over 40 years old, had known flaws, was constructed in a poor location. and handled improperly by a government attempting to save face. Much has changed in the last four decades, especially safety-wise. While we construct and operate new nuclear plants, we need to put more funding into NASA's cold fusion reactors as well as traditional fusion technology.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 2:38 AM, siquijorisland wrote:

    yes the so called free energy is so expensive!

    I have replaced most of the solar components after ten years of use not making my original ROI.

    never ending expense.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 2:44 AM, greenknight32 wrote:

    The false assumptions in this article are legion. Assuming a need for fossil-fuel backup is the foremost. In many places they are using natural gas plants for that because it's the cheapest short-term solution - in the long run, it won't be needed. As renewable power becomes more widespread, and the power grid is upgraded - which must be done anyway - there will be less need for backup, as power will simply be shifted from one area to another; the wind is always blowing somewhere.

    As battery tech improves, battery storage will become more economical than backup generators. The growing electric car market will contribute to this, as used traction batteries will get a second life as static electric storage

    In areas that have major hydro power generation, no other backup is needed. Pumped storage can easily be to such facilities if the need for storage increases.

    To say that renewables cost more than expected is deeply ingenuous. They used to be too expensive to compete, but the costs have dropped dramatically. The truth is that few expected them to get as cheap as they have this soon.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 2:48 AM, greenknight32 wrote:

    That should be "Pumped storage can easily be added to such facilities if the need for storage increases."

    Editing as I went along, and took out too much.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 4:15 AM, rocket7777 wrote:

    Solar is NOT 15% efficient, that's number for brand new installation in good afternoon. If you factor in season, weather, night, dawn/dusk, dust etc. I would say solar is 3-5%

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 8:31 AM, beyondo1 wrote:

    How can an article on alternative energy, presented by "" be taken seriously?

    And a nuke plant... a nuke plant of all things, is considered to be #1... Holy B.S. Batman!!

    Did you notice in this obviously bias article that there isn't even a hint of good mentioned about solar or wind, nothing... well done....

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 9:46 AM, JJ82 wrote:

    Ah yes the Brookings Institute...a think tank who has Exxon as one of its biggest contributors.

    So no, I am not shocked by this report that is a blatant lie...from OILPRICE.COM, a place that would obviously not be the least bit biased.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 11:12 AM, JamesDrouin wrote:

    "Therefore, Frank wrote, it would take four wind farms or seven solar generators to replace one coal-fired plant generating similar output."

    FACT: Zero, ZERO, conventional power plants in the US, have been replaced by solar, wind, or any other type of 'green' energy source.

    FACT: Every, EVERY, 'green' power plant produces far, FAR, more pollutants than if they'd never even made it pass the concept stage.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 11:19 AM, lonerange wrote:

    One thing that must be remembered with nuclear energy generation is the hidden costs. There are the costs of decommissioning these plants after they have passed there life expectancy. There is also the cost of securely transporting radioactive waste for storage and building facilities to store the waste, etc. The U.S. Government spent billions of dollars building a storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada that was never put to use because of objections from the state of Nevada. There are tons of radioactive waste now being stored in unsecured facilitates around the country, much of it leaking into the environment. These are sure to become Super Fund Sites that will require many more billions of dollars to clean up, ultimately paid for by the taxpayer. One more thing to consider. Not only are nuclear power plants threatened by terrorists, tsunamis, earthquakes etc. But there were recent news reports of their vulnerability from solar eruptions from the sun. As we have learned from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukoshima, nuclear power is neither cheap. nor risk free.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 2:40 PM, Fooloprunes wrote:

    Some of us are confusing "availability" with "efficiency".

    The efficiency of a photovoltaic cell is simply how efficient it is at converting solar power into electric power. By that measurement they are not very efficient, but because the solar power is essentially free, it doesn't matter very much.

    The only way to properly compare the various methods is to quantify their total life-cycle costs. Frank does not do that for the simple reason that he is pushing a political agenda that has nothing to do with real economics or science.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 8:13 PM, Waldo wrote:

    After I read BROOKINGS INSTITUTE, this article lost all credibility. Brought to you by EXXON, BP and KOCH INDUSTRIES. Pure BS.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 10:06 PM, ClearlyBeware wrote:

    Lets be clear

    The San Onofre nuclear plant is to be dismantled at a cost of $4.4 BILLION.

    Its capacity is 2200 megawatts.

    That is $2,000,000 of decommissioning costs per megawatt! This does not include permanent storage of fuel rods.

    The Nuclear Energy Institute list of current plant shows 99,125 megawatts of rated power currently licensed. At 2,000,00 per megawatt this is $198 billion.

    They estimated the decommissioning costs at $3,000,000 to $500,000,000 per plant. Probably one quarter to one fifth of the San Onofre cost per megawatt.

    Nobody has an approvable plan for permanently dealing with the fuel rods.

    Nuclear is the least cost effective option if full decommissioning is included.

    Plus there is so much concrete in a new nuclear plant, it takes 3 to 5 years to become carbon neutral.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 10:45 PM, rwthomas1 wrote:

    Lots of eco-weenie BS responses here. So let me suggest this: If you really and truly believe that alternative/green energy is the way to go, please, by all means convert to it! Cut the cord, get off the grid. The technology is available, panels, inverters, turbines, battery banks, etc. Give it a try. You will quickly find out that a backup generated is virtually a requirement. You will make sacrifices like not having or using AC, etc. So give it a go and get back to us.....

  • Report this Comment On August 11, 2014, at 7:45 AM, kitdes wrote:

    For several years we have watched a wind farm in the central part of Michigan. Not one time has the thing been running 100%. We pass this twice a week, it was fascinating to watch it grow. Now I wonder, just how much are we paying to repair each windmill a year? As we are paying a fee for these windmills, what are the rewards?

  • Report this Comment On August 11, 2014, at 2:02 PM, Fooloprunes wrote:

    What's all the fuss about? California is already producing more than 20% from renewable sources, and the PUCs to go a lot further. Even Texas is set to become the wind power capital of the US.

    Is this so called "study" another feeble attempt by the Koch brothers to jack-up and sell their declining investments?

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