Wind power: Did you know it was this affordable?

By Barbara Kessler
GRN Reports

Wind power has never been cheaper. And it could lower your electricity costs.

In case that's not what you've heard from the wind naysayers furiously flinging red herrings (or should we say battered bats?) into the discussion, here's why wind power will likely help, not hurt, your household budget: Wind is cheap to operate.

Wind Graphic PROMO IMAGE fnl Brett
Click twice to enlarge.

It's really that simple. To borrow an old phrase, wind happens. There are no fuels to buy and no world markets to play havoc with the price. Once certain adjustments are made, and barring shenanigans by retail providers who try to charge more for “green” things, wind stands to be that long term bargain, like the better-made sofa you bought that never wears out.

Wind can be sold simply and affordably to grid operators for a price that can be held steady for 20 to 30 years. It comes and goes during the day, but long haul, it’s predictable. That makes it an appealing addition to the electricity grid, even for crusty guys in suits that run Public Utility Commissions. There are some caveats, which we'll get to.

Well, OK, this is the first caveat: Wind is not cheap to build. Wind farms require massive capital outlays. It's not hard to see why. If you've ever cruised by a wind farm, you can see that the turbines are gargantuan machines more than 200 feet tall. Inside that nacelle at the top of the tower is an electronic brain composed of hundreds of parts that assure the also-huge blades catch the winds but also shut off if wind speeds soar to 55 mph or more. A standard 1.5 MW tower costs more than $2 million and you need dozens of them to build a commercially viable wind farm. Community-operated wind farms can use fewer and still make economic sense.

Wind Turbine, next to a man, shows size, Photo US DOE Dennis Schroeder
Working on a wind turbine. (PHoto: Dennis Schroeder, USDA)

Even with those millions of capital costs factored in to build and erect these monster construction projects, wind farms are proving to be profitable enterprises. Power companies are signing them up at ever lower prices. And that's good for electricity customers.

Today, about half of Americans can choose to buy wind power directly because they have a choice of electricity providers and many now offer green or clean energy packages that rely on wind and cost no more, or slightly more, than other packages. Other Americans can support wind, solar and geothermal development through electricity plans that buy Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs).  Find green power in your state here.

The US ranks second in the world for wind power, getting overall about 4.5 percent of its power from wind.

Right now, wind farm construction is at a fevered pace, because investors needed to start projects to claim a tax credit that Congress let expire at the end of 2013. But wind farm production is projected to drop off in 2015 if Congress fails to renew the incentive. (Oil and gas subsidies, such as cheap land leases, continue.)

Wind and your wallet

The cutoff for wind subsidies comes, probably not coincidentally, just as energy experts are saying wind is the most affordable type of clean power, even beating advanced natural gas generation.

Wind Costs Declining, DOE graph
Wind costs, shown by the blue bars, have declined dramatically. (Graphic: DOE)

At the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Colorado, they've studied the levelized cost of wind, comparing it coal-fired power plants, natural-gas fired power plants, nuclear power and solar installations. Here's what they found.

  • Wind power costs about $80.30 per Megawatt hour.
  • Conventional, combined-cycle plants natural gas plants produced power at $66 per Megawatt hour.
  • Advanced natural gas turbines produced power for $103 per MW hour.
  • Solar Photovoltaics came in at $130 per MW hour (though that price is falling).

(A note, the study left out hydropower because it's not a viable choice for new power. We're fully dammed, so to speak.)

The cheapest source of power, those old-style natural gas plants, beats wind on price. But these plants really should be replaced by the latest technology in that sector, the advanced natural gas turbines, which are more flexible and better suited to the modern grid – and also more expensive than wind, says Bri-Mathias Hodge, a scientist with the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) who helped produce that 2013 study. 

So if you cross out the outmoded gas plants, wind wins, not just on environmental impact, but on price.

And it wouldn’t be hard to bring it on board.

"What we found was that we could accommodate all this wind and solar power into the system. It would have changes on the system, but we didn't think any of the technical challenges was that large," Dr. Hodge said.

The NREL study didn’t look at how energy sources compared environmentally. But a different study, by the CERES group, did look at both economic costs and environmental costs or risks. The risks were defined as those energy sources that were more polluting, making them also a potential financial risk.

Wind breezed right into the sweet spot on this matrix. Only energy efficiency ranked better (being both non-polluting and cheap).

Energy matrix by Ceres...cost and risk...
This chart by CERES factors cost and risk to place energy sources within a matrix. Click to see larger.

Given its many other virtues, it seems like wind power, if it's developed to the fullest in the US, stands to help make the planet a livable place for your grandchildren.

There are limitations. A big swath of the US, mainly the Southeast, is not that windy. But on the upside, virtually all the US states with coastlines have strong wind resources, because the wind blows briskly offshore.

Offshore wind farms are more costly and trickier to build. The turbines are bigger and must deal with heftier winds. Offshore wind also has had to endure a parade of naysayers, such as the lesser known Koch brother, William, who has fought the first proposed offshore wind project because it’s uncomfortably close to his valuable vacation real estate in Massachussetts. (The other Koch brothers are busy fighting wind  and also solar in the Heartland.)

Offshore wind is completely viable, however, because those three-times stronger winds, and the proximity to urban centers can make these projects economically workable.

Why wind works

World wind leader Denmark, which already gets 30 percent of its power from turbines it has installed on land and in the seas, plans to go to 100 percent wind thanks to abundant marine winds.

Hodge explained that this is a reasonable goal because Denmark’s grid is connected to other countries. It can draw on hydroelectric power from Norway when the wind lulls, and on high wind days, when the Danes are collecting an excess of wind power, they can turn to Germany, where they sell the overage.

Sharing grid connections and maintaining a mix of power sources will be key to the modernized grid in the US, Hodge says.  It’s also a major stumbling block.

Wind (and solar) will work best in the US states when they connect to each other, creating a more resilient electricity system with multiple energy sources stabilizing input and enabling power providers to cope with "peak demand" times. Some windy states, like Texas and Iowa, could become wind exporters like Denmark, earning back those costs of building up renewables.

Here’s the stumbling block part: Wind cannot jump borders easily even within the US because multiple permitting entitites — states, counties, cities — can gum up the system. That makes it a huge headache to get power from the remote windy plains, for instance, to the nation’s megalopolises.

Pilot efforts are underway. In Texas, where a single grid serves the vast majority of the state (who knew Texas was like Denmark?), they’re building massive power lines to bring the wind from Abilene into Dallas and Austin.

Hodge said a plan to take a little corner of furious wind activity in Wyoming wind to Los Angeles is proceeding, despite the miles of earth and red tape involved.

But with every county and municipality having a say in the power lines needed to hop wind in from the South Dakota cornfields to Chicago or St. Louis, even the windy Midwest may have a hard time of connecting all the dots. Time will tell whether federal and state authorities can pass laws to facilitate wind or whether it will remain locked in.

The public would like them to, polls, including this recent one, consistently show that 80 percent or more of Americans want more clean, renewable power on the grid.

Wind turbines near Amarillo
Wind turbines near Amarillo, Texas, the state with the most wind power online, thanks to strong winds and a unified state grid.

How much wind is even possible on the grid? Will adding significant renewables, like wind and solar,  risking more brownouts and shut down my dishwasher at the critical high peak dinner hour?

No, says Dr. Hodge, relying on wind power isn’t likely to deflate anyone’s dinner cleanup anytime soon or maybe ever. A study he previously did found that the Western half of the grid could easily accept 30 percent wind power, maybe even 40 percent, and still be a stable energy provider. And this is all before and until we reach the holy grail of finding a way to affordably store wind power, something that a lot of people are wishing for and will require a major technological breakthrough. Many brainiacs at NREL are working on this issues, he says.

Now and for the foreseeable future, the mixed grid will be getting energy from many sources, keeping the juice flowing when the winds go slack. The problem of the wind’s intermittency also will be  smoothed out by new methods of managing and forecasting power ebbs and flows. Operators, in other words, will know ahead of time when the winds might slow, and will be able to head off trouble. This is the smart grid you’ve heard about. it will operate better with more information flowing both ways, rather like how cars now warn us when object in the rear or to the side are too close.

Meanwhile, engineers are working to make turbines safer for wildlife by situating them outside of bird migration patterns. Bats have become an issue because they do not detect the moving blades and are killed by low pressure when they fly too close. A promising new deterrent appears to be high frequency sonic booms (not heard by us) that would stop bats from flying too near the turbines.

Wind proponents like to point out that for all the risk to birds and bats from wind, oil and gas production also kills wildlife, and an even wider array.

The big payoff: Planet Earth survives

But back to the powerful promise of wind. Quickly transitioning the grid to a higher percentage of wind – the Department of Energy projects that the US could have 20 percent wind by 2030  — would help clear the air.

Wind would displace the greenhouse gas-belching coal-fired power plants that are responsible for the lion's share of carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation around the world.

Here's one scenario: Hodge and his NREL colleagues looked at how much carbon emissions could be saved if 33 percent of the power provided to the Western half of the United States – where wind and solar resources are abundant – came from wind and solar power.

They figured 16.5 percent of the power would come from solar and 16.5 percent from wind installations. Why that amount? Because it's a realistic target and could work on the grid without any major technical adjustments, according to their calculations.

The NREL experts found that this amount of wind/solar power would save 90.718 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Yeah, that's a lot. It's a mountain of invisible, earth-killing toxic CO2 that wouldn’t be pumped into the blue sky. According to the EPA, this would be the equivalent of:

  • Taking 19 million passenger cars off the road in the US
  • Forgoing the burning of 10.2 billion gallons of gasoline
  • Not burning 97 billion pounds of coal

But what about the coal and gas jobs?

Anatoli Skurikhin Stakhanovets Kuzbassa, Egor Borisov Worker at Kuzbass, 1933

There's no question that shifting to green power will reduce the need for fossil fuels. But that's the point, to shift away from fossil fuels. Green power is better for the air, for our asthma, for the climate and for national security. And when it comes to wind, it's totally local. We own it. We control it. Send back the requisition for desert-camo tanks.

That blows for coal, yes. Coal jobs, like those of telephone operators, will go away as these new technologies take over. They already are in deep decline.

The good news is that wind provides jobs too; in the US about 50,000 of them, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

WIND WORKER, NREL, Dennis Schroeder
A wind worker stands perilously close to the edge. (Photo: Dennis Shroeder, NREL)

When it comes to saving jobs and saving the atmosphere, let’s put it this way, some experts have calculated that we've only got about 11 years left before we expend the "carbon budget" that would keep us within two degrees warming across the planet. That’s the level of global warming that’s survivable, that might save the Arctic from melting totally, that could save our major cities, like New York City and Singapore, from drowning, according to those 10,000 or so scientists that believe we’re perched on the edge of a climate change abyss.

That means that putting up wind power – and complimentary solar power — as fast as we can isn't just a "business decision," it’s a life plan.

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