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Will renewables become cost-competitive anytime soon?

The Siren Song of Wind and Solar Energy

Despite advocates’ claims to the contrary, wind and solar continue to be the most expensive sources of electricity. The New York Times recently reported that “wind power is currently more than 50 percent more expensive than power generated from a traditional coal plant.” [1] Energy Secretary Stephen Chu told the New York Times that solar technology would have to get five times better to be competitive in today’s energy market.[2] In spite of these reports and admissions, the public relations campaign for wind and solar powered electricity marches on.

For decades, representatives and advocates of wind and solar have claimed that their technology was near a competitive tipping point—but just needed a bit more subsidies, set-asides, and government aid to succeed. But even after 30 years of massive subsidies, wind and solar continue to be more expensive and contribute only a small amount of electricity. In 2008, wind produced 1.3% of the electrical generation in America and solar produced a meager 0.02%.[3]

The quotations below highlight the errant predictions of near-term viability (with the predictions bolded for emphasis). These are just some of the examples of over 30 years of claims that wind and solar will soon be cost competitive.

Overly Optimistic Wind/Solar Claims

In 1983, Booz, Allen & Hamilton did a study for the Solar Energy Industries Association, American Wind Energy Association, and Renewable Energy Institute. It stated: “The private sector can be expected to develop improved solar and wind technologies which will begin to become competitive and self-supporting on a national level by the end of the decade [i.e. by 1990] if assisted by tax credits and augmented by federally sponsored R&D.”[4]

In 1986, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute lamented the untimely scale-back of tax breaks for renewable energy, since the competitive viability of wind and solar technologies was “one to three years away.”[5]

In 1990, two energy analysts at the Worldwatch Institute predicted an almost complete displacement of fossil fuels in the electric generation market within a couple decades [i.e. 2010]:

Within a few decades, a geographically diverse country such as the United States might get 30 percent of its electricity from sunshine, 20 percent from hydropower, 20 percent from wind power, 10 percent from biomass, 10 percent from geothermal energy, and 10 percent from natural-gas-fired cogeneration.[6]

Overly Optimistic Wind Power Claims

In 1986, a representative of the American Wind Energy Association testified:

The U.S. wind industry has … demonstrated reliability and performance levels that make them very competitive. It has come to the point that the California Energy Commission has predicted windpower will be that State’s lowest cost source of energy in the 1990s, beating out even large-scale hydro.

We are not quite there. We have hopes.[7]

Christopher Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute has been predicting competitive viability since the 1980s. In 1984 he wrote:

Tax credits have been essential to the economic viability of wind farms so far, but will not be needed within a few years.[8]

In 1985, he wrote:

Although wind farms still depend on tax credits, they are likely to be economical without this support within a few years.[9]

In 1986, he wrote:

Early evidence indicates that wind power will soon take its place as a decentralized power source that is economical in many areas…. Utility-sponsored studies show that the better windfarms can produce power at a cost of about 7¢ per kilowatt-hour, which is competitive with conventional power sources in the United States.[10]

Overly Optimistic Solar Power Claims

In 1976, solar advocate Barry Commoner stated:

Mixed solar/conventional installations could become the most economical alternative in most parts of the United States within the next few years.[11]

In 1987 the head of the Solar Energy Industries Association stated:

I think frankly, the—the consensus as far as I can see is after the year 2000, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of our energy could come from solar technologies, quite easily.[12]

In 1988, Cynthia Shea of the Worldwatch Institute wrote:

In future decades, [photovoltaic technologies] may become standard equipment on new buildings, using the sunlight streaming through windows to generate electricity.[13]

Conclusion

Wind and solar should not be thought of as “infant industries” but as government-dependent industries that penalize consumers and/or taxpayers. “Buyer beware” should also apply to the purveyors of political energy. Self-interested consumer decisions in the energy marketplace should be respected—and false promises about inferior energies exposed—for good public policy outcomes.


[1] Matthew Wald, “Cost Works Against Alternative and Renewable Energy Sources in Time of Recession,” New York Times, March 29, 2009 (available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/business/energy-environment/29renew.html).

[2] John Broder and Matthew Wald, “Big Science Role Is Seen in Global Warming Cure,” New York Times, February 11, 2009 (available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/12/us/politics/12chu.html).

[3] Energy Information Administration, Net Generation by Energy Source: Total (All Sectors), Mar. 24, 2009, http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/table1_1.html; Energy Information Administration, Net Generation by Other Renewables: Total (All Sectors), Mar. 24, 2009, http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/table1_1_a.html.

[4] Renewable Energy Industry, Joint Hearing before the Subcommittees of the Committee on Energy and Commerce et al., House of Representatives, 98th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1983), p. 52.

[5] Lovins, in K. Wells, “As a National Goal, Renewable Energy Has An Uncertain Future.” Wall Street Journal, February 13, 1986, pp. 1, 19 at 19.

[6] Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen, Beyond the Petroleum Age: Designing a Solar Economy (Washington: Worldwatch Institute, 1990), p. 47.

[7] Statement of Michael L.S. Bergey, American Wind Energy Association in Renewable Energy Industries, Hearing before the Subcommittee on Energy Conservation and Power of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, 99th Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1986), p. 129.

[8] Christopher Flavin, “Electricity’s Future: The Shift to Efficiency and Small-Scale Power,” Worldwatch Paper 61, Worldwatch Institute, November 1984, p. 35.

[9] Christopher Flavin and Cynthia Pollock, “Harnessing Renewable Energy,” in Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 1985 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985), p. 197.

[10] Christopher Flavin, “Electricity for a Developing World: New Directions,” Worldwatch Paper 70, Worldwatch Institute, June 1986, p. 53.

[11] Barry Commoner, The Poverty of Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), p. 151.

[12] Scott Sklar, Solar Energy Industries Association. Quoted in Solar Power, Hearing before the Subcommittee on Energy and Power of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, 100th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1987), p. 12.

[13] Cynthia Shea, “Renewable Energy: Today’s Contribution, Tomorrow’s Promise,” Worldwatch Paper 81, Worldwatch Institute, January 1988, p. 44.

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