Joe Biden wants the electric grid of the United States to be powered solely by energy sources that do not emit carbon dioxide by 2035. In the Unity Task Force plan that the former vice-president released with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the commitment is made that:
Within five years, we will install 500 million solar panels, including eight million solar roofs and community solar energy systems, and 60,000 made-in-America wind turbines.
Overhauling the entire electric grid, which some call the world’s largest machine, and converting much of it to wind and solar power, is not just a momentous task. It is both dangerous and unbelievably expensive. The only reason Biden has been able to get away with such a preposterous plan is that many people actually believe that wind and solar power are cheaper than fossil fuel-powered generation. They conclude that a transition to a system supplied by wind and solar power will reduce consumer costs. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead of blindly accepting the Biden/Sanders energy fantasy, the public should ask the obvious question: “If wind and solar are so cheap, then why do they still need direct and indirect subsidies?”
The fact is that they are not cheap at all once all the costs that they impose on the power system are taken into account. Let’s examine this more closely.
Wind and solar power are intermittent and unpredictable and must be backed up by existing or new power stations or storage facilities that can rapidly change output to compensate for the fluctuating supplies from wind and solar power. That usually means natural gas back-up stations. Even environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told the 2010 annual conference of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association:
For all of these big utility scale power plants, whether it’s wind or solar, everybody is looking at gas as the supplementary fuel. The plants that we’re building, the wind plants and the solar plants are [supported by] gas plants.
Other problems are the need for inertia (flywheel effect) that is required to stabilize the system frequency and for voltage support to stop the lights going dim. Both of these are provided by conventional generators but not by wind and solar power.
For various reasons, 1,000 kilowatts (kW) of wind or solar power seldom produces more than 800 kW. On average, wind produces about one-third of its theoretical energy output (measured in kilowatt-hours – kWh) and solar power less than one-sixth. As a result, much more installed capacity plus energy storage facilities are needed to match the output of a conventional 1,000 kW station. It is the cost of this extra capacity and energy storage that kills the economics of wind and solar power.
One way of establishing the real cost of wind and solar power is to compare the cost of supplying all the electricity needed by a system with no connections to other power systems. Let’s consider the cost of supplying all the electricity needed by a power system with a peak demand of 4,000 megawatts (MW) and an energy demand of 19,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh), which is typical of most power systems.
We start by assuming that five days of storage would be needed to cover a series of cloudy days in winter or five days of little wind. So, we need to calculate the costs associated with storage by batteries or by hydro-pumped storage (in which excess power is used to pump water into a reservoir which then drains through hydraulic turbines producing electricity when the primary system lacks sufficient power to supply the grid). One then discovers that the solar power option would need 16,000 MW of solar capacity + 9,000 MW of battery capacity and the all-in cost would be 38 US¢/kWh. The wind power option would need 7,000 MW of wind and 2,250 MW of storage capacity to give a final cost of 34¢/kWh.
For comparison, the typical North American cost for combined-cycle natural gas generation is 5¢/kWh.
The solar option would occupy about 650 square miles of land and the wind option would occupy over 1,600 square miles. The environmental effects cannot be ignored. In many countries, the pumped storage option is likely to be opposed by environmentalists and it may not be feasible anyway because of the lack of sites that can accommodate two large storage lakes a short distance apart with one several hundred meters above the other.
The reality is that Biden’s ambitions for large-scale, low-cost solar or wind power cannot possibly be achieved by 2035, or even 2050, because of the huge numbers of wind turbines and solar farms and new transmission capacity that would be needed, and the very high cost and the associated technical and environmental problems. At the moment, and after the expenditure of billions of dollars in subsidies, solar and wind power provide only 8% of U.S. electricity.
If governments persist, the inevitable result will be skyrocketing prices and regular blackouts. Hospitals, industry, and commerce would need to install hundreds of diesel generators to maintain operations.
The assumptions made to derive the real cost of supplying 4,000 MW of demand from wind or solar power are as follows:
- A 1,000 watt (W) solar cell has an average output of about 150 W, so 16,000 MW of solar power is needed to supply all the energy required by the 4,000 MW load and to compensate for the 25% losses in the energy storage system.
- As a 1,000 W solar cell seldom produces more than 800 W, the effective maximum output of 16,000 MW of solar is 13,000 MW.
- As the load on the power system can only absorb 4,000 MW, the storage system must be able to absorb the remaining 9,000 MW.
The storage capacity has to be able to provide 264 GWh needed in wintertime when there are likely to be five days of cloudy weather and the solar output is negligible. At the current $US200/kWh this amounts to over $US 50 billion. By way of comparison, the largest battery in the world at Hornsdale in Australia can store 130 MWh. Two thousand of them would be needed to store the 264,000 MWh needed for a reliable supply to the 4,000 MW load. This battery capacity is equivalent to all the batteries in all the electric cars in the world.
The conclusion is that about 25,000 MW of solar plus storage capacity is needed to supply the 4,000 MW demand! If batteries are used to provide five days of storage, the total cost is in the region of $70 billion, which explains the very high cost of providing a reliable supply from solar power.
Wind power that has an average output of 35% of its installed capacity is better but does not lead to a large reduction in price because the battery cost dominates.
Solar power with hydro-pumped storage is less expensive—an overall cost of 23¢/kWh, but still almost five-times the cost in the U.S. for combined-cycle natural gas generation. But hydro-pumped storage is impractical in most areas for the reason cited above.
From a greenhouse gas point of view, wind and solar power are horribly expensive. Carbon dioxide emissions are currently valued at about $30/tonne while calculations show that the carbon dioxide avoided by policy focused on wind and solar power would cost more than $1,400 per tonne.
When all the options are examined, the conclusion is that the best way to eliminate emissions of carbon dioxide from power generation is safe and reliable nuclear power supplemented by a relatively small amount of pumped storage. So, at least Biden’s support for nuclear and hydropower makes sense. But don’t expect ant-nuclear activists in the extreme left of the Democratic Party to allow this to happen.
The power disaster unfolding in California gives a good preview of what is in store for America as a whole if Biden succeeds in his goal of sweeping away fossil fuel-generated power and replacing it with wind and solar. Power outages are now commonplace in the Golden State, which suffered its first rolling blackouts in nearly 20 years last summer. Indeed, with 4,297 power outages between 2008 and 2017, California led the nation in this category (Texas was a distant second with 1,603).
Governor Newsom admitted that there was not enough wind power to compensate for the drop in solar power due to cloud cover and nightfall. The Los Angeles Times reported:
… gas-burning power plants that can fire up when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing have been shutting down in recent years, and California has largely failed to replace them …
The result is that California has fallen thousands of megawatts behind its needs.
Joe Biden said in his climate change plan:
Getting to a 100% clean energy economy is not only an obligation, it’s an opportunity. We should fully adopt a clean energy future, not just for all of us today, but for our children and grandchildren, so their tomorrow is healthier, safer, and more just.
If Biden actually does what he tells us he plans to do, life will be dismal indeed for our children and grandchildren. It will be a highly unjust future in which all those except the wealthy will lack the energy to be healthy and safe and will simply be left freezing in the dark.
The technical report and data to support our computations are available on the website of the senior author of this article at http://www.bryanleyland.co.nz/cost-of-wind-and-solar-power.html
Bryan Leyland MSc, DistFEngNZ, FIMechE, FIEE (rtd), MRSNZ, is a Power Systems engineer with more than 60 years’ experience in New Zealand and overseas. Tom Harris, M. Eng, is executive director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition.