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Published on September 19th, 2013 | by NRDC

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Solar Power & Wind Power Now Cheaper Than Coal Power In US

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September 19th, 2013 by
 

Originally published on the NRDC website (image added).

Image Credit: Solar panel, wind turbine & globe via Shutterstock

Image Credit: Solar panel, wind turbine & globe via Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — It’s less costly to get electricity from wind turbines and solar panels than coal-fired power plants when climate change costs and other health impacts are factored in, according to a new study published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

In fact—using the official U.S. government estimates of health and environmental costs from burning fossil fuels—the study shows it’s cheaper to replace a typical existing coal-fired power plant with a wind turbine than to keep the old plant running. And new electricity generation from wind could be more economically efficient than natural gas.

The findings show the nation can cut carbon pollution from power plants in a cost-effective way, by replacing coal-fired generation with cleaner options like wind, solar, and natural gas.

“Burning coal is a very costly way to make electricity. There are more efficient and sustainable ways to get power,” said Dr. Laurie Johnson, chief economist in the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We can reduce health and climate change costs while reducing the dangerous carbon pollution driving global warming.”

Johnson co-authored the study, “The Social Cost of Carbon: Implications for Modernizing our Electricity System,” with Chris Hope of the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge; and Starla Yeh in NRDC’s Center for Market Innovation. Power plants are the nation’s single largest source of such pollution, accounting for 40 percent of our national carbon footprint.

“And yet, there are no federal limits on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants may release,” said Johnson. “That’s wrong. It doesn’t make sense. It’s putting our future at risk. We limit the amount of mercury, arsenic, soot, and other harmful pollution from these plants. It’s time to cut this carbon pollution.”

President Obama has vowed to do that, using his authority under the Clean Air Act to set the first federal limits on the amount of carbon pollution power plants may release. Critics claim that could raise costs. But, in fact, it can reduce the total cost of electricity generation, the new study finds.

Carbon pollution imposes economic costs by damaging public health and driving destructive climate change. Working together, the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Treasury Department, the Department of Energy and eight other federal agencies put a dollar value on those damages, in an official figure called the “social cost of carbon” (SCC).

The SCC is used to calculate the benefits (i.e., avoided climate damages) of carbon pollution reduction. The administration puts the best estimate at $33 per ton of carbon pollution emitted in 2010.

The study also included government damage estimates from sulfur dioxide, a pollutant released simultaneously with carbon. Every year, sulfur dioxide causes thousands of premature deaths, respiratory ailments, heart disease and a host of ecosystem damages.

Already, climate change is contributing to record heat waves, floods, drought, wildfires and severe storms. Such extreme weather caused more than $140 billion in damages in 2012. American taxpayers picked up nearly $100 billion of those costs, according to an NRDC report released in May, 2013.

“These damages are only likely to increase if nothing is done to reduce carbon pollution,” Johnson said.

To read the full article, The Social Cost of Carbon: Implications for Modernizing our Electricity System, click here: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13412-013-0149-5

To read Laurie Johnson’s blog on this issue, click here: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/ljohnson/scc_electricity_costs.html

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  • rally2xs

    Anything we do with respect to reducing carbon dioxide will be a waste of money unless we can get the Chinese and Indians and others to also do something about their digging coal like there’s no tomorrow.

    Meanwhile, all the measures we might use to do this are harmful to the American people, causing widespread hunger and early deaths from poverty. 1/6th of the nation struggles with hunger, and it is in large part due to environmental regulations that kill jobs and income taxes that make it a good idea to close factories in the USA and open them in countries with lower corporate income taxes, which are ALL the other countries on the planet since we have the highest corporate income taxes on the planet.

    Want to fix it? Pass the Fair Tax. The Fair Tax will restore prosperity to the USA, creating the world’s best manufacturing tax haven. That’s because businesses do not pay the Fair Tax, and the Fair Tax abolishes the corporate income taxes. Manufacturing would flock to the USA from all over the world, and most significantly, it would cause factories in China and India to close and be replaced with factories in the USA.

    Why is that good for CO2? Because we would generate the heat and electricity needed in the manufacturing with natural gas. Natural gas is 80% of the vaunted hydrogen economy that we were supposed to achieve in 2010 but didn’t, since the main component of natural gas is methane, and methane is composed of 4 hydrogen atoms and 1 carbon atom. So, 1 carbon atom and 4 hydrogen atoms burn when methane does, and that is 80% hydrogen, and MUCH cleaner than burning coal.

    This is the _only_ hope we have for reducing CO2 by the Chinese and Indians and other world producers. They don’t give one hoot in hell about our CO2 / global warming / climate change “problem”, the simply expect it to bankrupt the USA and leave them as the only manufacturing on the planet. We can turn those tables with the right business climate, and the Fair Tax, along with relaxing some of the more irrational environmental regulations, will accomplish that.

    • Bob_Wallace

      We have much higher per capita CO2 emission levels that India and China. Let’s clean our own noses, OK?

      India and China both have agressive renewable energy programs and are working to reduce coal use. China expects to hit “peak coal” in 2017 and then see levels drop. Both countries are much more aware/willing to do something about climate change than our right wing officials. Both also want to reduce coal use because of significant pollution problems. Both countries need to drastically cut coal use in order to free up large amounts of fresh water used by mining, cleaning and burning coal.

      It’s hard to see how switching from coal to renewables is going to hurt Americans or our economy. Right now we spent hundreds of millions of dollars each and every day dealing with the side effects of burning coal. We could be using that money for infrastructure or education and give our economy a boost.

      The “Fair” Tax is simply one more way to move money from the pockets of working people into the pockets of the wealthy.

      “Manufacturing would flock to the USA from all over the world”

      That’s bullshit. All it would do is to create a race to the bottom. Other countries would cut their corporate taxes. Then some would go tax negative.

      “This is the _only_ hope we have for reducing CO2 by the Chinese and Indians and other world producers. They don’t give one hoot in hell about our CO2 / global warming / climate change “problem”

      You’re either ignorant or a shill for big money. Only you know for sure.

      • rally2xs

        “We have much higher per capita CO2 emission levels that India and China. Let’s clean our own noses, OK?”

        Hey, we can make statistics imply anything we want to, can’t we, when we use a “per capita” measure to compare a country with 312,000,000 people to a country with 1,392,000,000, eh?

        “India and China both have agressive renewable energy programs and are working to reduce coal use. China expects to hit “peak coal” in 2017 and then see levels drop. Both countries are much more aware/willing to do something about climate change than our right wing officials.”

        And so they’re still increasing their CO2, and when 2017 gets here, only the gullible believe that they will do anything to alleviate their upward CO2 mobility.

        And the “right wing officials” are, unlike their leftist counterparts, deeply concerned about what environmental regulations do to harm the prosperity of Americans. Again, we have 1/6th of the population struggling with hunger, 92+ million out of the work force, 47 million in poverty, are setting records for food stamp usage, etc. etc. Environmental regulations and income taxes do a whale of a lot to make this so. The environmental protection agency is synonymous with the employment prevention agency. THAT is why right-wing leaders want to go easy on further regulations, and indeed would repeal some existing regulations if they would improve the employment situation.

        “It’s hard to see how switching from coal to renewables is going to hurt Americans or our economy.”

        I don’t have any problem seeing it. I know what I will see on my electric bill if we start generating with wind and solar. It will go up dramatically. This extra expense will ripple through the economy, since absolutely everyone, and most significantly our industries, uses electricity, and a lot of it. I’ve seen the charts, with solar being the most expensive, then wind, then natural gas, then coal, then hydro. We can’t do any more hydro because we’ve dammed everything we can, and coal _is_ being ramped down, while vastly plentiful and much cleaner natural gas is being ramped up.

        “Right now we spent hundreds of millions of dollars each and every day dealing with the side effects of burning coal.”

        Hundreds of millions of dollars, eh? In a country with 320 million or so people, how much is that per person? Does it compare to doubling my $144 / month, presently during air conditioning season, electric bill?

        “The “Fair” Tax is simply one more way to move money from the pockets of working people into the pockets of the wealthy.”

        How do you know? Have you studied it? Do you know how it works? Are you aware that no poor person pays a penny of it? The Fair Tax broadens the tax base, nailing the “shadow” or “under the table” economy, the illegal aliens that come here and take American jobs (don’t even BOTHER telling me the myth that they are jobs that Americans won’t do, as there is no labor sector in the country that does not have Americans outnumbering aliens) and then send the money out of the country to their relatives back home without ever intending to become citizens, the criminals, and even foreign tourists. The average taxpayer gets help from many new classes of taxpayers that are not currently paying a dime of income tax, or if they are, they are paying waaaay less than what they actually owe. The Fair Tax puts the kibosh on that. Everybody pays, especially the rich, who pay more than they do under the income taxes. The Fair Tax has NO loopholes, while the rich currently use the income tax loopholes to pay little or nothing. For example, I looked up John and Teresa Kerry’s income taxes (‘cuz he’s a politician, she’s rich, and due to his being a politician his tax info was available) and found that between them, they make $5M a year and pay about $1.8M a year. But, they have famously bought a $70M yacht. The Fair Tax on a $70M yacht would be $21M to the US treasury. It would take them 12 years of paying their regular income taxes to accumulate $21M of payments to the treasury, but the Fair Tax would get it in one purchase. Where’d a couple making $5M get $70M to buy a boat? I dunno, but suspect “old money.” That’s something the income taxes can never do, tax wealth. There’s just no category on the 1040 for taxing wealth, but the rich occasionally spend it, and that’s when they contribute to the Fair Tax.

        And the rich spend it. Michael Jackson spent it all, and died in debt. Nick Cage was making 7 movies a year when his accountant told him he would have to start making 8 if he wanted to keep up his extravagant lifestyle. Evel Knievel spent it all, and ended up living in motels. Doyt “The Refrigerator” Perry is reported to be working a construction job as a hod carrier just to live, since he spent all his NFL riches. And on and on. Yeah, the rich will get NAILED by the Fair Tax, and _we_ the average will _all_ pay less tax. The Fair Tax is the working man’s gift from the gov’t, if we can just get it passed.

        ” “Manufacturing would flock to the USA from all over the world”

        That’s bullshit. All it would do is to create a race to the bottom. Other countries would cut their corporate taxes. Then some would go tax negative.” ”

        Go to the Fair Tax page in Wikipedia, and look at footnote 63. It describes the survey commissioned by Bill Archer that asked 500 foreign CEO’s what they would do if America passed the Fair Tax. 400 said that they would build their next factory here, while the other 100 said that they would move their company headquarters here.

        Other countries eliminate their income taxes too? How are they going to do that? We can get all we need from taxing things for sale and services, but those other countries are all welfare states, and need much more $$$ than we do. They _can’t_ eliminate their income taxes. Ireland has managed to get their corporate tax rate down to 12.5% but we can undercut them with 0%. And its a huge political battle to lower and / or eliminate taxes at all, and we may never achieve it. If we do, it’ll take them decades to catch up.

        “You’re either ignorant or a shill for big money. Only you know for sure.”

        I am interested in restoring prosperity to the American people, and the Fair Tax, and NOT going overboard on environmental concerns is the way to do it.

        • Bob_Wallace

          So Americans who create 17.6 metric tons of CO2 per person should insist that the folks in China who produce 6.2 metric tons and the people in India who produce 1.7 metric tons clean up their act before we work on ours?
          Why should I pickup the six bags of garbage I dumped into the street? I saw someone else drop a paper clip once.

          Come on, man up and clean up your carbon footprint. We Americans wear a size 18 DDD while other countries were a 6 A.

          The nice thing is, we can clean up our carbon footprint, make our electricity cheaper, strengthen our economy, and cut down on future spending that will otherwise be needed to adapt (best we can) to a warming planet.

          When people are presented with facts they find inconvenient it’s not uncommon to hear the old canards about numbers and statistics.

          “Hundreds of millions of dollars, eh? In a country with 320 million or so people, how much is that per person? Does it compare to doubling my $144 / month, presently during air conditioning season, electric bill?”

          The estimates for coal external costs run between $140 billion to $242 billion a year. That’s $35 to $61 per month per person. You’re paying that on top of your $144/month AC bill. You pay it with your tax dollars and health insurance premiums.

          As for your electric bill, get some solar on your roof and be a producer, not a consumer.

          Now, all that tax stuff? It doesn’t belong on this site. This is a site that concentrates on renewable energy and ways to limit climate change. Personally, I don’t think you have a clue about economics, taxes and wealth. But we’re not going to get into that here.

  • 4TimesAYear

    Leave out the climate change issue – that’s what got people bamboozled on these things to start with – you cannot make these things practical and they won’t be built w/o taxpayer dollars. They are a total rip-off. Climate has always changed – trying to stop it is like trying to stop the seasons from changing.

  • http://solar-power-now.com/ Solar-Power-Now.com

    We need more articles, like this one, that shows the “big picture” costs of each energy source. The environmental costs of fossil fuels are too high to be tolerated any longer. Solar is a cost effective solution now and will only get cheaper in the coming years.

  • Calvin Dodge

    It’s less costly when imaginary costs are attributed to coal power generation.

    • Bob_Wallace

      It is a damn shame that all those children imagine that they have asthma and waste health care dollars.

      They should just suck it up and enjoy that coal pollution, eh, Calvin? Put on their big boy pants and soldier on.

      Black lung disease? Poo. Lazy ass people looking for a free ride on Calvin’s tax dollars.

    • disqus_YbB9tbvvLq

      It’s imaginary to think republicans care about facts or the environment.

      • Calvin Dodge

        Because Republicans have a parallel world we commute from, right? So we’re not affected by pollution?

        It’s imaginary to think Democrats care about math – like the fact that there simply isn’t enough land available to generate all our energy needs from wind and solar.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Calvin, let me suggest that Republicans are less affected by pollution than other groups of Americans.

          Republicans tend to be rural, at least live in lower populated states/areas. Republicans who live “in the cities” tend to live not in crowded cites but in suburbs. Pollution impact is simply less when people are spread further apart.

          But that aside, you are incredibly wrong about the land needed to generate all our energy from wind and solar.

          In 2010, the US used 4,143 TWh (terawatt hours) of electricity. (11,300,000 MWh per day.)

          Since we’re just guessing what our future grid would look like, let’s assume we get 40% of our electricity from wind, 40% from solar, and 20% from hydro, geothermal, tidal, wave, etc.

          4,143 TWh x 40% / 365 days = 4,520,000 MWh needed per day from wind.

          The average wind turbine is around 3 MW in size and median capacity is now 43%.

          So, 3 MW x 24 hours x 43% capacity = 30.1 MWh per day from each 3 MW turbine.

          4,520,000 MWh / 30.1 MWh per turbine = 150,166 3MW turbines.

          The footprint of a wind turbine is typically around 0.25 acres. This includes the tower foundation, roads, and support structures.

          150,166 wind turbines x 0.25 acres = 36,040 acres required for our wind turbines.

          The land needed to install all those 150,166 turbines would take the space of about 2.4 Manhattan Islands, 1.4 Disney Worlds, or 0.0015% of the US.

          Of course we’d spread them out so they don’t bump into each other….

          Now, that’s the 40% wind. How about the 40% solar? I’ll stick a world map on the bottom of the comment. On it you’ll see a small green rectangle on North America that shows how much area we would need to furnish 100% of our electricity with solar.

          Cut that rectangle down to 40% of what is shown (it’s 100% area). The cut it down even smaller because our solar panels are now more efficient than what was used to make the map.

          What you should realize is that we could find that much area on existing rooftops, over parking lots, over brownfields and landfills, even over highways and railroad tracks, if needed.

          I’ll stick another map on while I’m at it. It shows how much of our coastal area we would need to use were we to power ourselves 100% with offshore wind. (Remember, some of this and some of that – not all of one.)

          • Bob_Wallace

            In case your eyes glazed over with all that, let me boil it down.

            We could generate 100% of our electricity with wind and the turbines, access roads, ancillary buildings and transmission towers would take 0.004% of US land.

          • 4TimesAYear

            They take 3-5 acres each – how much corn, beans, and wheat are you willing to sacrifice to the wind turbine gods?

          • Calvin Dodge

            You missed a little something with your calculations. This is from NREL, which advocates just what you’re proposing:

            “The “footprint,” which is typically around 0.25 acres per turbine, does
            not include the 5-10 turbine diameters of spacing required between wind turbines.”

            So, let’s see. I’m not sure what 3 MW windmill you’re referring to, but I see (for example) that a Vestas V90-3MW has a diameter of 300 feet. Let’s take the smallest space NREL mentions – 5 times the diameter. That’s 1500 feet apart. So each windmill occupies 50 acres, not .25. You’re off by a factor of 200. Admittedly, if you stagger the spacing (so each windmill occupies a hexagon, rather than a square), then you’re off by a factor of only 134.

            Like I said – people who say renewables will save us can’t do the math.

            That doesn’t even include the 43% value you give for average output (when I searched I found values from 13% to 27%), or the fact that AVERAGE output does you no good for uses which require constant power (which is pretty much every manufacturing use, and realistically just about every other use, too). It’s even worse than that, given the way wind tends to decrease in hot afternoons, which is when air-conditioning use is at its peak. If you say “just add energy storage to balance things out”, you’ve just increased the cost massively, as well as decreased the efficiency.

            The real value you want to use is the average minimum, since power generated at 8 am does you no good when the wind is calmer at 3 pm. What’s that value? I suspect it’s a lot less than the “average”.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Calvin, why would we include the space between turbines? That land is still available for original use. We can graze cattle on it, raise crops or use it for whatever it was being used for before.

            I’ll stick a picture on the bottom so that you can see now land between wind turbines gets used.

            Now, let’s look at your claim that “there simply isn’t enough land available to generate all our energy needs from wind and solar” and your claim that we should include the land between turbines and up our land use from .25 to 50 acres per turbine.

            A 200x increase of “0.004% of US land” would be 0.8% of all US land. I’m afraid you suffered a math failure in your thinking.

            Finally, I don’t know where you found those outdated capacity numbers. You can get up to speed at -

            http://en.openei.org/apps/TCDB/

            - where you’ll find median onshore wind capacity to be 38%. Q3 is 43.86% and max is 50.4%. The upper end of the capacity range comes from newer tech turbines.

            Now, are we going to have to school you on how one uses wind and solar on the grid as well?

          • Kaleiokalani J. Barela

            I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in a community, like Tehachapi, where there really are a LOT of turbines, but you won’t be hanging out near the turbines and you’ll notice that cows don’t like to hang around them. Maybe it’s the flashing, maybe it’s the low vibration, but they’re not comfortable. Mind you, it’s been years since we snuck up there. Oh, and the land is closed to public access, so you’re still not doing anything with it.

          • Bob_Wallace

            = 3,000 words….

  • Steeple

    Very convenient to leave out the assumptions of using carbon cost of $62/ton, $122/ton and $266/ton in arriving at this talking point headline. I guess the author is presuming that enough people would be dumb enough to believe the headline without actually reading the paper.

    Environmental groups like NRDC do a tremendous disservice to creating a “scientific debate” when they pull stunts like this.

    • Matt

      Yes the headline sucks. You can’t tell for sure without a link but it looks like they assumed a lower cost. “The administration puts the best estimate at $33 per ton of carbon pollution emitted in 2010.” But a better headline would have been “With externals accounted for coal/gas cost many time wind/PV” I believe that if you just add in the externalized health costs, ignoring climate, that Wind/PV are still cheaper than coal. But many people still believe it is the right of corp America to external as much of their costs as possible, and only pay those externals if you can beat them in court.

  • JamesWimberley

    Money quote: ¨For existing coal generation, all discount rates except the highest government value make replacing the average coal plant with new natural gas, natural gas with CCS, or wind more efficient than continuing to operate it.¨

    Note that this is the average coal plant, not the worst. However, coal generation is a mature technology and there won´t be much difference by date of construction. It´s not likely that many coal plants would make the cut and survive in a rational world.

    The intended audience for the research is the EPA, gearing up to issue regulations on coal CO2 emissions based on virtual carbon prices not current market costs. By the time a regulation lands on Obama´s desk for signature, the research will be outdated on both carbon damage (too low) and renewables costs (too high; the EIA has a miserable track record in predicting these.)

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