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Renewable Cost Parity: Is Wind Competitive With Gas?

By Dave Levitan

 
Wind turbines spin in Washington state. Proponents of wind power say it is now largely cost competitive with natural gas. Credit: Preconscious Eye/flickr

The wind power industry in the United States had an off year in 2010 in terms of new installations, but the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) greeted the new year with an optimistic statement: that wind power is now largely cost competitive with natural gas. “If you’re going to build a new wind farm, it is going to be competitive with any other new form of generation,” says Elizabeth Salerno, AWEA’s director of industry data and analysis.

But what does “competitive” really mean? Are renewable forms of generation, such as wind, actually on their way to catching up with fossil fuels in economic terms?

Experts have suggested that natural gas, with its apparently smaller climate impact and widespread availability within the United States, could temporarily replace coal on our way to a cleaner energy future. But recent reports have called some of gas’s benefits into question; could the economics and the science suggest a coming turn against the so-called “bridge fuel?”

Salerno points to several recent power purchase agreements where wind power has been sold in the surprisingly low range of five to six cents per kilowatt-hour, as well as independent industry data, to suggest wind’s growing competitiveness with natural gas. The government, though, doesn’t quite agree on the claim of cost parity: the most recent Energy Information Administration estimates place the cost of a new onshore wind installation at 9.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, and a new advanced cycle natural gas plant at 6.3 cents per kilowatt-hour.

“Cost parity is the holy grail of renewable energy,” says Michael Livermore, executive director of New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity. “But there is cost parity with subsidies, and there is cost parity without subsidies. If this is happening without subsidies, then that means that wind power is going to explode, regardless of what the government does. I doubt that’s what really is going on.”

AWEA’s statement of competitiveness with natural gas does include the federal incentives for wind power, primarily the renewable energy production tax credit. The credit can lower the price of wind power by 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, and is currently set to expire at the end of 2012. Including this straightforward subsidy, and excluding various other factors from the wind power economics equation can lead one to make the claim of cost parity, some experts say.

Jay Apt, a professor of technology and executive director of Carnegie Mellon’s Electricity Industry Center, notes that wind in certain areas requires massive transmission line projects, as well as backup generators — often powered by natural gas 

— to smooth out wind’s variability (the wind doesn’t blow all the time, and gas and other sources can kick in and provide power on those occasions). The claim of cost parity does not include these costs (though at least one utility, the Bonneville Power Authority, charges wind developers for the variability of the energy source).

“Wind is certainly the most competitive of all the low-carbon sources of power,” says Apt. “But to say that it is the same price as natural gas… is probably dependent very heavily on specially picking the subsidies to include and the other costs to exclude.”

  Leaks of methane - a potent greenhouse gas - are a by-product of natural gas production. In addition, other emissions are generated when extracting the fuel from the ground, putting natural gas' reputation of being a cleaner fuel in question. Credit: iStock

Salerno points out, though, that fossil fuels also benefit from enormous federal incentives, though not in such a handy cents-per-kilowatt-hour form. Instead, subsidies are applied at the point of drilling or mining, and many are permanent rather than temporary features of the tax code.

Of course, it is not just policy that has changed the economics of wind power development in recent years. Technological innovation and economies of scale also help, and if natural gas turns out to be less attractive from a carbon perspective than previously thought, there is a chance that could play a role in boosting wind energy as well.

A ProPublica report recently discussed indications that natural gas’s reputation as a cleaner fossil fuel could be misleading. The frequently cited claim that a natural gas plant has about half of the climate impacts of a coal plant might be based on false assumptions, because it fails to take into account leaks of methane — a potent greenhouse gas 

— from gas infrastructure, as well as other emissions generated when extracting natural gas from the ground, ProPublica reported. These findings cast doubt on the idea of spending billions to move from coal to gas as a bridge toward a renewable energy future.

However, the possibility that natural gas may have a greater environmental impact than previously thought might not change relative costs on short time scales.

“If we had something that looked like a rational system, then yes, it would matter how good or bad natural gas is for the environment,” NYU’s Livermore says.

“If it was worse than otherwise expected, then more permits would be required for natural gas under a cap and trade system. But since we don’t have any way of pricing carbon in the system, then merely learning that natural gas is worse for the environment doesn’t actually lead to any consequences for natural gas production and use at all.”

Still, market pressures make it wise for utilities to consider what sort of environmental regulations might eventually enter into force, and the new information could play a role in improving wind and other renewable sources’ position.

As Salerno says, wind is “a great hedge. If you’re a utility, you don’t know what environmental regulations are going to look like, you don’t know what fuel prices are going to look like, there is no guarantee on any of those.”

AWEA foresees utilities following such logic this year: more than 5,600 megawatts (MW) of wind were under construction at the start of 2011 (the total currently online around the country is about 42,000 MW, enough to power more than nine million homes), and the group thinks there will be an increase in total installations versus last year.

Comments

By Rolf Westgard (St Paul)
on February 9th, 2011

If you are in one of those 9 million homes that wind power is allegedly supplying, make sure to have a spare diesel powered generator handy.

Reply to this comment

By Steven Scott
on February 15th, 2011

Never fear, Mr. Westgard, electric utilities don’t supply power to someone’s home by using any one exclusive energy source. It’s a mix of sources that provides juice to your sockets. The ratio of these sources can vary by time of day, season, and indeed, when the wind blows. At the sites of wind turbines, be assured, the wind does blow quite sufficiently, most of the time.

And when it’s not sufficiently windy in one location, quell your fear again: The wind is blowing substantially at another wind turbine installation, and another wind turbine installation, and another. When all gridded together, ”” many hundreds of giant wind turbine installations spread throughout the land ”” wind is already providing a reliable flow of electricy to power utilities’ source mix.

48 gigawatts of wind power (total) in America by the end of this year. That’s the equivalent of about how many giant coal-burning or gas-burning power plants? Amazing. At this pace, America’s energy future looks very bright.

Reply to this comment

By Dan Thorne
on October 18th, 2011

Steven, that’s not quite the truth, perhaps in North Dakota, but the real truth is when the wind is blowing hard, its only helping displace fossil fuel emissions during times of lower energy consumption, so the spike in power generation and the use of the higher polluting generators is still as frequent.  Perhaps one day solar will displace this in the SW.  What you actually mean to say is, when the wind is not blowing, the smart grid will signal EEC users and gas generators to supply the grid to meet demand, after renewable output like wind, falls below reliabilty standards.  Meanwhile nuclear and coal still will maintain our baseline energy portfolio for many years to come.  However, this is only the begining.  The problem I see, is the environmentalists are very hasty and feel the industry must rush the switch 100% right now.  This is impossible and I believe does a disservice to the effort.

Reply to this comment

By Jessica Adams (texas)
on February 18th, 2012

Your article is full of information about wind energy. Thanks for the information. Over the next five years, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) expects that wind energy will be competitive with natural gas.  Research showed that the cost of wind-generated electricity has fallen 14% for every doubling of installation capacity. 

Used Wind Turbines

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