One of the latest entries in the “conventional wisdom” series of articles on today's energy policy options comes from Gerard Wynn and Alister Doyle of Reuters and is carried in the New York Times. According to Wynn and Doyle, political support for oil and nuclear power appears to be holding steady despite the obvious challenges of climate change and nuclear safety.
Why not renewable energy? Well, it's lumped in with unconventional oil and gas and nuclear, all of which are deemed more expensive than fossil fuels, according to Richard Heinberg, author of “Peak Everything,” a 2007 book that forms much of the framework for the article: “The real upshot is — the strong likelihood is–we’ll have less energy in the future, and it will be more expensive energy. We’re really looking at a different kind of society.”
How expensive IS wind? Are future generations doomed to poverty because of the skyrocketing costs and limited supplies of wind power? Hardly.
First, with respect to supply, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates total U.S. wind resources at 14 MILLION MW–enough to generate roughly 10 times all of the electricity our nation uses.
During the Bush Administration, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) found that wind power could supply 20% of U.S. electricity (roughly what nuclear supplies today) by 2030. To do that, wind would have to generate as much electricity as 75 nuclear plants.
Second, wind's costs have dropped in recent years. Here is what the DOE report had to say on costs:
“Incremental Cost of the 20% Wind Scenario
“Costs incurred by the 20% Wind Scenario exceed those of the no-new-wind scenario by about 2%. … The estimated incremental investment would be $43 billion (net-present-value basis; 2006$). This corresponds to about 0.06 cents/kWh of total generation, or about 50 cents per household per month. These monetary costs do not reflect other potential offsetting benefits.”
The Department of Energy reports that in 2009, the price of electricity from new wind power plants ranged from 4 to 9 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is competitive with other new power plants. In addition, wind offers the certainty of a long-term stable price– it is not subject to fuel price spikes, or environmental regulations on pollutants, water use, etc.
It's also important to remember that expanding wind energy's use will reduce the hidden costs we currently pay, primarily in the realm of public health, for fossil fuels. According to a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report, the current tab amounts to $120 billion per year. This hidden subsidy for fossil fuels makes them seem a good deal cheaper than they really are.
During the past three years, the U.S. has installed enough new wind power to generate as much electricity as five nuclear power plants. Clearly, the time has come to throw off the blinders of conventional wisdom and seriously consider a major expansion of this clean, affordable, homegrown energy source.