Friday, May 10, 2013

The Cost of Wind Part I

I have said on numerous occasions that the inspiration for "Nuclear Green" came from David Roberts on Grist. Roberts maintained that the cost of nuclear energy was significantly higher than the cost of renewable energy. I decided to test Roberts' claim by investigating the cost of wind energy. I wanted to find a means of estimating the cost of a one million mega watt (Mgw) wind generator and compare that to the cost of one million Mgw of nuclear generation capacity. In fact, units of one billion watts are probably easier to calculate and determine than the one million unit, but the one million watt unit can be determined by dividing the one billion watt unit by one thousand.

I found it difficult to locate sources that would give me any idea of the future cost of wind generating facilities, but I did find press releases that dealt with newly announced projects; thus I could base my cost estimates on wind projects that were launched in 2008. I found press releases about new wind projects included information on the nameplate electrical output of the project and the cost of constructing the wind generators and the auxiliary facility equipment. These costs ran from $2,250.00 to $2,500.00 per one million Mgw nameplate capacity. Nameplate capacity refers to the maximum possible electrical output that could come from a single wind generator.

As I was discover, nameplate capacity was a somewhat deceptive measure of a wind units electrical output.  No wind generator produced one hundred percent of its' nameplate rated capacity over a one year period of time. A nuclear power plant produces about ninety percent of its' nameplate rated capacity over a year's period of time. Wind generators more typically produce thirty percent or less of their nameplate capacity.

Wind generation output varies according to the time of the day and the seasons of the year. Thus, for example, wind generation during August in Tennessee will typically produce less than ten percent of rated capacity. Coastal breezes may be stronger during the day time, thus wind will generate more electricity during the day in coastal areas. Inland breezes may be stronger at night and thus more wind generated electricity is produced at night.  Summer breezes generate less electricity while at the same time summer demand for electricity increases. This makes inland wind a poor match to summer electrical demands. Winds may drop during cold snaps when heating related demands for electricity increase. Thus installing wind generators that include the same nameplate generating capacity as nuclear power plants does not mean that the equivalent amount of electricity will be available from the wind generators when customers want it.

Wind generated electricity is in many instances poorly matched to consumer demands for electricity and these consumer demands may be inflexible. For example, the summer demand for air conditioning in Texas and in many other parts of the United States is inflexible. The demand for air conditioning is not simply a luxury, but a matter of public health. The same is true of winter heating. Thus, the electrical industry must deliver electrical energy to consumers when they need it. To fail to do so, would in many cases lead to problems in public health.

My studies of the cost of new wind power led me to conclude that the cost would be subject to considerable inflation. I noted that the cost of new wind generating capacity in 2008 was over twice its cost a decade ago. In 2009 there were further rises in the estimated cost of new wind construction. The most significant source of this dramatic inflation appeared to have been wind subsidies. The cost of new wind generating facilities was the lowest when there were no wind subsidies from the government. When subsidies kicked in, inflation of the cost for new wind generation facilities also kicked in. This appeared to contradict the argument for subsidies which stated the price of new wind generation facilities will drop as more facilities are built. Subsidies encourage the building of more new facilities. Advocates argue that increasing the number of facilities decreases the cost of further new facilities. Thus the subsidies of new facilities are justified as a means of decreasing the cost of new wind generation facilities. Powerful arguments emerged during the last decade that subsidies did not lead to lower wind facility cost. Quite the contrary, subsidies lead to increased costs.

When I reviewed plans for post carbon renewable energy without nuclear resources, I found that the estimated price of wind generation facilities ten and twenty years into the future were not much higher or even lower than current wind generation costs. At the very least the evidence for inflation was such that planners needed to take it into account in offering possible future scenarios. Yet future renewable energy plans consistently ignored the possibility of inflation in the price of new wind generators. Furthermore, this problem seems to have escaped the entire pro-renewable community. David Roberts, for example, expressed concern for inflation in the cost of nuclear power plants without recognizing that inflation could also take place in the cost of wind generators, but the evidence was not hard to come by. We have to wonder if people like Roberts simply don't think the questions through or whether they are aware of the problems, but for unknown reasons, avoid mentioning them.

Were this the whole story and wind generators produced equivalent amounts of energy to those produced by nuclear power plants, wind would still hold a significant advantage. This is not the case, however. In my next post, I will consider the crippling disadvantages of wind and how wind can never successfully compete with nuclear power.


Jack C-J said...

I do hope you will factor in as well the cost of Chernobyl and Fukushima cleanup into nuclear costs. They may be external to you, but not to those footing the bill. Those have yet to be known in full, however, which would make your calculations incomplete and essentially meaningless.

Charles Barton said...

Jack, This is a silly argument. First, the Chernobyl accident was unique because Chernobyl was a different sort of reactor which caught fire releasing many radioisotopes. Current reactor designs are not going to catch on fire. Chernobyl was also extremely poorly managed and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission would yank the certification of any reactor which would be as poorly managed as the Chernobyl reactor. You are quite incorrect about the cleanup costs of the Chernobyl reactor. While there are areas that are still off limits because of the fallout from the Chernobyl fire. These areas have become in effect wildlife parks and thus serve a useful purpose. As for the Fukushima reactors, while the cleanup may may not be complete, it is part of a much larger issue mainly the recovery from the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The ongoing cleanup from those events is far more expensive than the cleanup from the Fukushima reactor events which were a consequence of the tsunami. Furthermore, neither the recovery of Chernobyl or Fukushima has anything to do with the cost of new nuclear construction. The cost of new future accidents might well, but this is precisely why I have looked carefully at the problem of nuclear safety on Nuclear Green. Before you make any pronouncements on the cost of nuclear safety read my ongoing discussion on nuclear safety in Nuclear Green. Your comments should reflect a knowledge of what I have already had to say on the subject.

BilloTheWisp said...

The problem here Charles is that however rational, however evidence based your analysis is, this is not a rational scientifically based debate.

The pro wind turbine community is more akin to a religious cult than ever they are to an evidence based pressure group. They will simply blot out anything they do not want to hear while remaining fully tuned in to any pro wind fantasy regarding their beloved totems. Then we have that other huge "belief" system that paints everything nuclear as the spawn of Satan. (sigh)

But anyway, good luck. I admire your resolve. Just do not expect any challenges based on any form of science from the wind turbine worshippers. Or the paranoid nuclear deniers for that matter.


p.s. One small criticsm - A Wind turbine generator (WTG) Capacity Factor (CF) of 30% is far too high. Worldwide it is about 25%. In the UK only 7% of the fleet ever reach 30%. 30% CF overstates the annual energy production by of a WTG by 20%. BUT the CF is the least of it. As energy production is dependent on a cube law the "usual" output of a WTG is significantly below it's capacity factor.

Catprog said...

I think 30% is about right based on my research has (As of June 2012) 1202.85MWh of installed capacity(10,537GWh at 100%) has 3,349GWh actually generated.

10,537GWh/3,349GWh is a bit over 30%


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