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January 4, 2013

The Hidden Costs of Wind Power

January 4, 2013
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As part of its response to the so-called “fiscal cliff” Congress passed a one-year extension of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind power requested by President Obama and backed by Senator’s Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and John Thune (R-S.D.) and at a total cost of more than $12 billion[i] to U.S. taxpayers, necessitating more deficit spending over the next ten years. But that figure doesn’t begin to represent the full cost of wind power.

The American Tradition Institute recently took a look at just what such wind power is really costing the nation.[ii] They found the cost of wind power to be as much as double the cost that the Energy Information Administration (EIA) is using in its models due to hidden, but true-embedded costs of using wind power.  The authors find that ratepayers are paying an extra $8.5 billion to $10 billion per year for using wind energy, which generates 3.5 percent of our electricity, rather than other cost effective forms of generation.  This is in addition to the tax credits, which the Obama Administration insisted be extended as part of the tax agreement.

The American Tradition Institute added the hidden costs that include the cost of fossil fuel power as back-up when the wind is dormant, the additional cost of transmission that frequently occurs with wind farms due to the inaccessibility of the best wind resources, the cost of wind’s favorable tax benefits in ‘accelerated depreciation’, and a shorter estimated life of a wind turbine of 20 years to the per-kilowatt-hour cost of generating electricity from wind power that includes capital costs and operating costs, as determined by EIA and the Department of Energy. They found the cost of wind power to be 15.1 cents per kilowatt hour if natural gas is used to back-up the wind energy or 19.2 cents per kilowatt hour if coal is used as the back-up fuel. These costs are 1.5 to 2 times the 9.6 cents per kilowatt hour estimate the EIA is using for generating electricity from wind in its models.[iii]

The Wind Power Cost Calculation

American Tradition Institute started with an estimated levelized cost of wind power from government sources and added to it an estimate of the hidden costs of wind power. Levelized costs are the net present value of the total cost of new construction (including finance charges), maintenance, and operation of a generating plant over its lifetime, expressed in dollars per unit of output, i.e. dollars per kilowatt hour. They are used to compare various generating sources to see which sources are the most cost-effective when constructing new plants.

The starting levelized cost was 8.2 cents per kilowatt hour that reflects installation costs of $2,000 per kilowatt of capacity and is based on information from EIA and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy. Then, assuming a 20-year life of a turbine rather than the optimistic 30-year life assumed increases the levelized cost to 9.3 cents per kilowatt hour (a recent study using empirical information from the U.K. found that the useful life of wind turbines is actually lower—only 10 to 15 years). After backing out the effect of accelerated depreciation for wind investments that the study authors assumed were hidden costs, the levelized cost increases to 10.1 cents per kilowatt hour. To that is added the cost of keeping gas-fired or coal-fired plants available at reduced capacity to balance the variable performance of wind, adding an extra 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour for natural gas and 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour for coal. Extra fuel for natural-gas fired plants adds 0.6 cents, and for coal-fired plants adds 0.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. Lastly, transmission line investment costs to get new wind power to the electricity grid add 2.7 cents per kilowatt hour. Thus, the total cost for wind power, including the hidden costs, averages 15.1 cents per kilowatt hour for natural-gas fired back-up and 19.2 cents per kilowatt-hour for coal-fired back-up. (See table below.)

Screen Shot 2013-01-03 at 2.26.59 PM

Source: American Tradition Institute, The Hidden Costs of Wind Electricity, December 2012, http://www.atinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Hidden-Cost.pdf

The Production Tax Credit

Note that the effect of the PTC is not included in the above calculations. The PTC has been extended for one year by Congress and the President, but that one year extension means 10 years of subsidy going to wind operators that have begun construction of their turbines in calendar year 2013.[iv] The PTC provides wind operators with 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour for every kilowatt hour that the wind turbines generate over the next ten years, which is worth about 3.4 cents per kilowatt hour in pre-tax income since the PTC is applied after taxes. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that the one year extension will cost American taxpayers over $12 billion.

Comparison to Other Technology Costs

According to the EIA, the levelized cost of an advanced natural gas-fired combined cycle plant is 6.3 cents per kilowatt hour and that of an advanced coal-fired plant and nuclear plant are each 11.1 cents per kilowatt hour. Thus, the full cost of wind power is 140 percent higher than an advanced natural gas-fired plant and over 70 percent higher than an advanced coal or nuclear plant. Thus, assertions made by the wind industry that wind power is becoming cost competitive with fossil fuel-generated power are not the case from these cost estimates.

According to Forbes, a power company in South Carolina is investing about $11 billion to construct two 1,100 megawatt nuclear reactors on roughly 1,000 acres. To get the same amount of electricity out of wind power that operates at a 30 to 40 percent capacity factor due to its intermittency, would require more than 1,700 turbines stretched across 200,000 acres, for an upfront investment of $8.8 billion, but providing less reliable power.[v]

According to the study authors at the American Tradition Institute,

“At the current price of natural gas and before counting any costs of transmission, wind’s cost is 6-7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) more than its benefit—the cost of the fossil fuel it can save and the conventional  generation facilities it can replace. For wind’s existing 3.5% share of all U.S. generation, that 6-7 cents/kWh translates into $8.5 to $10 billion extra that ratepayers have paid this year, and will continue paying every year for as long as existing wind facilities (or their replacements) remain in operation.”

Conclusion

According to the American Tradition Institute, there are numerous hidden costs to wind power, including the cost of back-up power, the cost of extra transmission, and the cost of favorable tax benefits. And, the assumption of a 30-year life used in government calculations for wind power is optimistic given reports from European countries that have invested early in wind power.[vi] Including these hidden costs in calculating the cost of wind power increases its cost by a factor of 1.5 or 2, depending on the power system that is used as back-up. The Institute calculates that ratepayers are paying an extra $8.5 to $10 billion a year for wind power compared to natural gas-fired generation, and this will only grow as more capacity is added. Add to this the more than $12 billion that the American taxpayer is paying for the ‘one-year’ extension for the PTC, and one can see that the wind industry is getting a real boondoggle at the expense of taxpayers and ratepayers.


[i] Wall Street Journal, Renewable-Energy Tax Breaks Pass Despite Headwind, January 1, 2013, http://professional.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323635504578215790054677734.html?mg=reno64-wsj

[ii][ii] American Tradition Institute, The Hidden Costs of Wind Electricity, December 2012, http://www.atinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Hidden-Cost.pdf

[iii] Energy Information Administration, Levelized Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2012, July 12, 2012, http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/electricity_generation.cfm

[iv] The Hill, Issa takes aim at revised wind credit, January 2, 2013, http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/e2-wire/275301-issa-wind-power-credit-of-serious-interest

[v] Forbes, Why It’s the End of the Line for Wind Power, December 21, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2012/12/21/why-its-the-end-of-the-line-for-wind-power/

[vi] Energy Tribune, Wind Turbines ‘Only Lasting For Half As Long As Previously Thought’, January 2, 2013, http://www.energytribune.com/69566/wind-turbines-lasting-for-half-as-long

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  • Pingback: Nation's Largest Wind Utility: Wind Energy Tax Credit Hurts Consumers()

  • This fossil fuel industry-funded attack piece has already been debunked here:
    http://www.awea.org/blog/index.cfm?customel_dataPageID_1699=20633

    Michael Goggin,
    American Wind Energy Association

    • Dig Deeper

      your link is broken. How much was the wind PTC funding for FY2012 and 2013?

  • Even if their figures are correct, most of the major costs, such as transmission lines, are start up costs and their cost goes down dramatically after installation. They also do not mention the fact that other forms of energy production also have to be repaired and replaced on a regular basis. Turbines and generators run by gas and coal wear out and have to be replaced as well, This looks like the work of a desperate fossil fuel industry that is trying to keep its place against cleaner and more efficient methods of production, regardless of the environmental and economical damage they cause.

  • Wind energy is a joke that is being perpetrated on the American public. Quit building bird cuisinarts and lets get going building coal, nuclear and gas powered plants.

  • archaios pteryx

    There is a further hidden cost related to backup: Most backup has to be on “hot idle”;that results in conventional fuel being used regardless of wind churning. While the wind lobby makes pronouncements about the zillions of homes it can power when the wind blows, it meticulously avoids the issue of actual fuel substitution. Studies is Ireland have shown that emissions reductions are anywhere from 0 to 50% of those theoretically expected with an extensive wind
    power supply and gas as the main power source. That corresponds to fuel being consumed while the wind blows. The cost of that hot idle fuel roughly doubles the cost of wind electricity. A similar result was measured in the Falklands I strongly suspect that the claim that wind provides 3.5% of the electricity is bogus. It gets paid for 3.5% of the electricity, while saving more like 1.5% of the corresponding fuel, but that would need to be documented. Interconnecting
    hides this defect, without solving the hot idle issue (at a further cost). Wind power is a hoax comparable to Anthropogenic Global Warming (with common perpetrators, if you think about it — isn’t saving the planet a major objective of the AEWA?)

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  • Joseph Ellsworth

    The LADWP (Los Angeles Water and Power) consumes coal fired electricity from Utah, Arizona and Nevada both of which are more remote than wind farms in California so increased transmission costs for wind need more study with some real details. Your assertion of increased distribution costs seems simplistic.

  • Joseph Ellsworth

    11 billion to build a nuclear plant versus 8 billion to build the wind seems like wind wins. The additional acreage for wind is multi-purpose quite often used for agriculture or grazing plus the land is not damaged and can be re-purposed. The 1000 acres for the nuclear plant are essentially sequestered forever. I know I wouldn’t want to build my home on a abandoned nuclear plant. The real issue with the comparison is that storage of spent fuel is still a multi-thousand year problem and I don’t think they have is properly capitalized I certainty don’t know of any 1,000 year old companies who will still be around to pay the ongoing costs so you have incredible liability deferred to future tax payers. You didn’t factor in the risk factors if you have a nuclear plan fail catastrophically it causes a lot of damage and nearly unlimited costs. Just look at the what recently happened in Japan Fukushima Daiich where 4,500 square miles exceed government limits for radiation exposure and economic impact over 250 billion. Wind turbines no matter how they failed would be hard pressed to duplicate this damage, The Fukushima issue could have been many times worse we kind of got lucky that the emergency containment worked as well and as fast as it did. If you force the nuclear plant to fully fund 10,000 years of fuel storage along with the insurance to clean up a 200 billion dollar mess then I suspect the levelized costs would be much different.

  • Joseph Ellsworth

    The 30% to 40% capacity factor for wind is really lack of imagination. LADWP already operates the Castaic Power Plant using pumped reservoirs that generates 1600MW or 22% of their total power. Wind power is ideally suited to being used to fill pumped reservoirs during peak generation so that energy is available latter. This means power from the wind would be available 100% of the time as long as you do not exhaust your pumped storage. New micro-hydro-turbine technlogy coupled with smart grid sensing technology allows power generation to be incrementally scaled up and down to meet peak demand. At AirSolarWater.com we go a step further by extracting water from air using the excess wind generation capacity so we obtain the water at altitude without having to pump it up-hill. A single 10 million gallon per day AirSolarWater facility in the Mohave desert delivering power to Los Angels with a 10 day reserve reservoir represents 56,000mWh of reserve capacity and a daily supply of 5.6gWh that can be drawn without reducing the reserve capacity. Either combination can completely eliminate the 30% to 40% capacity complaint. Since the micro-hydro-turbines respond really fast they can actually ramp production up and down faster than coal and faster than some natural gas facilities. Take it to the extreme and you can skip hooking the wind turbines to the grid at all. Just use all their available power for AirSolarWater.com to produce water and increase your water storage so you run all the power generation delivered to the grid via the micro-hydro turbines. That way you can deliver exactly the amount of power the grid needs exactly when it needs it. You can do that without emitting a single pound of carbon.

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