by Craig Weatherby
Our support for the Greensburg Wind Farm in Kansas seems even smarter in light of a new analysis showing that wind turbines could supply all energy needs for the U.S. and the world.
(See “Blowin’ in the Wind: Why We're Aiding a Tornado-Torn Town’s Green Makeover.”)
Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, engineers from Harvard University and Finland’s VTT Technical Research Centre estimate that wind power can solve our energy demands now and in the future even if the turbines operate at just 20 percent of capacity (Lua X et al. 2009).
The authors used global estimates of local wind production to determine that a land-based network of 2.5 megawatt turbines installed in non-urban, non-forested, ice-free areas could supply more than 40 times current worldwide consumption of electricity, or more than 5 times the total global use of energy in all forms.
And the report’s authors concluded that wind turbines in the United States—especially ones sited in central plains states like Kansas—could accommodate as much as 16 times the country’s total current demand for electricity.
If these estimates are true, one wonders why policy makers keep supporting increasingly costly nuclear power and global-warming coal.
Waste-storage problems aside, new nuclear plants could take eight to 12 years to produce significantly more power. And the production of currently non-existent “clean” coal power would require carbon emission capture-and-sequestration technologies whose costs and feasibility remain unknown.
Last week, NPR's “Science Friday” program hosted the study's lead author and a scientist from the Electric Power Insitute.
While they differed on some things, both experts agreed that the costs of generating electric power from unsubsidized wind, coal, gas, or nuclear power are getting closer.
And both scientists agreed that if you force coal plants to become “carbon neutral”—which would require capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide emissions—the costs of wind-generated power would likely match or beat the price of coal-generated power.
Wind power is catching up to coal and gas
In the early 1990s, Pacific Gas & Electric and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) made long-term forecasts that wind would ultimately become the least expensive electricity generation source.
And estimates of the “levelized” costs of wind-, nuclear-, coal-, and gas-generated power bear out those predictions.
(Levelized costing calculates, in current dollars, all capital, fuel, and operational costs associated with a power plant over its lifetime, and divides that total cost by the estimated output in kWh over the lifetime of the plant.)
Independent analysts estimate the costs of unsubsidized wind-generated power at about 9 cents per kWh. Wind facilities that take advantage of current Federal subsidies can produce power at about 7 cents per kWh… which is about the same cost as power from current nuclear plants.
Coal-generated power now costs about 5 cents/kWh, but The Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2009 estimates that in 2012, the cost of constructing a new coal or gas-fired generating plant will drive that cost up to 7.86 cents per kWh, due in part to the risk inherent in greenhouse-gas-intensive projects.
Natural gas power costs about 4 cents/kWh, although gas shortages during the winter of 2001 drove prices as high as 20 cents per kWh.
However, recent large-scale wind farms have substantially lower lifetime costs than 9 cents per kWh, due to economies of scale… and those costs will drop even further if large wind turbine farms are constructed nationwide.
- American Wind Energy Association. “Comparative Costs of wind and Other Energy Sources”, Wind Energy. Fact Sheet. http://www.awea.org/pubs/factsheets.html
- Lua X, McElroy MB, Kiviluomac J. Global potential for wind-generated electricity. PNAS. Published online before print June 22, 2009, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0904101106. Accessed online at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/06/19/0904101106.abstract
- Wall Street Journal. “As Demands for Energy Multiply, Windmill Farms Stage a Comeback”, January 26, 2002, p. B1.