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Published on September 19th, 2013 | by NRDC


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:

To read Laurie Johnson’s blog on this issue, click here:

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  • 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.


    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 -


            - 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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