Wind Power and Solar Power Aren’t Cheaper Than Coal or Natural Gas
Climate Change Weekly #390
For more than two decades, renewable-power profiteers have colluded with climate alarmists and politicians who support big government energy and environment programs to push wind and solar power, supposedly to fight catastrophic climate change. Government has provided subsidies, tax breaks, tax credits, grants, and government-backed loans to get utilities to adopt wind and solar energy. In addition, 29 states and Washington, D.C. require utilities to use wind and solar power, through renewable energy mandates (REM). They have done this even though electricity generated by wind and solar power has consistently been more expensive than traditional sources used to generate electric power, including fossil fuels, hydropower, and nuclear. They did this even though, as I detailed in last week’s Climate Change Weekly, wind and solar power are poor choices to generate large-scale power on interconnected electric power systems because they introduce variability and intermittency into a system that demands constancy and reliability.
Wind and solar still undermine the reliability of power grids, but after decades of government support and mandates, the costs of wind and solar have fallen dramatically. As a result, one can hardly swing the proverbial (electronic) dead cat on the Worldwide Web without hitting a report generated by renewable energy supporters and uncritically parroted by gullible mainstream media sources saying the cost of electricity generated by wind or solar power has fallen so far so fast that it is now cheaper than electricity generated by coal and even natural gas. Data show this isn’t true. Costs have fallen, but not by enough to beat traditional energy sources.
The National Conference of State Legislatures admits wind and solar power are largely a creation of state governments’ efforts to fight climate change and diversify the grid: “Roughly half of the growth in U.S. renewable energy generation since the beginning of the 2000s can be attributed to state renewable energy requirements.” The other half has been driven not by any price advantage of wind and solar power but by federal, state, and local subsidies.
Proving the criticality of federal support to wind and solar energies’ fortunes is the fact that at the end of every year when the previous year’s “temporary” extension of the tax credits and subsidies for wind and solar facilities lapse, new construction and new requests to build new solar and wind facilities come to a screeching halt—only to rise again like a government-propped Phoenix once the tax credits are resurrected in the newest pork-laden omnibus bill Congress cobbles together each year to fund the government. Such support would not be necessary if wind and solar were truly competitive or, better yet, cheaper than coal and natural gas. Without federal and state support, new large-scale wind and solar would have limited appeal.
Data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) offers further proof wind and solar power don’t benefit consumers and business by producing cheaper electricity than traditional electric power generating sources.
As noted above, 29 states and the District of Columbia have imposed renewable energy mandates forcing investor-owned (and in some states municipal- and co-op-owned) electricity providers to incorporate some politically (not scientifically) determined amount of wind or solar power into the electricity they provide. The amount required varies by state, but it has been growing in recent years. Eight other states have established voluntary green energy goals for utilities to meet. (In the past year, a couple of states turned their voluntary goals into mandates, though the requirements have not taken hold yet.) Thirteen other states have neither required, nor encouraged by setting a goal, their utilities to incorporate wind or solar power into their electric power grid.
The effect on prices in instructive. In 2020, the average retail price of electricity for the United States as a whole was 10.54 cents per kilowatt hour (cKWh). Hawaii (with an REM) and Alaska (without an REM) are the two states with the highest electric power prices, because of their relative isolation and unique circumstances.
Including Alaska and Hawaii, the average electricity price for the 10 states with the highest prices topped 18.19 cKWh. Excluding Alaska and Hawaii, the average electricity price for the 10 states with the highest prices was 15.9 cKWh. Every state on the top 10 list of states with the highest prices (excluding Alaska) has an REM.
By comparison, the average electricity price for the 10 states with the lowest electric power prices was 8.18 cKWh—less than half the price in the 10 highest-price states. Only two states in the top 10 list of states with lowest prices have a REMs: Washington (which gets more than two-thirds of its electric power from highly subsidized hydropower facilities built by the federal government) and Texas (which has a competitive electric market other than the REM).
The average retail price of electricity in states with REMs (including Hawaii) is 12.41 cKWh, and absent Hawaii it is 11.88 cKWh, whereas the average retail price of electricity in states without REMs (including Alaska) is 9.62 cKWh, and absent Alaska it is 9.09 cKWh.
So an apples-to-apples comparison shows electricity prices in states with REMs are 29 percent higher than in states without them (with Hawaii and Alaska included) and 31 percent higher if we exclude Alaska and Hawaii as outliers.
Wind and solar power look even worse when comparing EIA data to rankings of “Community Power” from the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR). The data show the greater the government intervention into energy markets to promote wind and solar energy to fight climate change, the higher the energy prices.
All the states receiving grades of A through C (passing) from ILSR go beyond just mandates for renewable power, and all have higher prices than the national average. For instance, all the states receiving A or B grades from ILSR, except for California and Illinois, are part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative of New England and mid-Atlantic states. These same states, including California, compose the list of states with the 10 highest electric power prices (excluding Hawaii and Alaska). Only one state receiving an F from the ILSR, Montana, has a renewable mandate, and each of the states on the top 10 list of lowest electricity prices receives a failing grade of either D or F from ILSR. This in not coincidence. When comparing ILSR’s list to EIA data, one finds as a general rule the greater the number of energy policies aimed at fighting climate change a state or locality has imposed, the better it ranks on the ILSR list and the higher its electric power prices.
The inescapable conclusion is that wind and solar power are more expensive than coal and natural gas, despite the constant bombardment of propaganda claiming the opposite. The evidence indicates residents and business in states requiring wind and solar as part of their power supply pay more for electricity than those in states lacking such mandates. No public relations media blitz by bought-and-paid-for politicians or renewable energy profiteers can change this fact.
— H. Sterling Burnett
IN THIS ISSUE …
MASSIVE SOLAR POWER INCREASE WOULD DAMAGE THE CLIMATE, SAYS STUDY … MEXICO, ALBERTA EMBRACE COAL
MASSIVE SOLAR POWER INCREASE WOULD DAMAGE THE CLIMATE, SAYS STUDY
New research published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters indicates a solar farm covering 20 percent or more of the Sahara Desert could (in theory) provide enough electricity to power the world. However, the same research indicates it would probably result in profound global environmental harm, including a redistribution of precipitation that would cause droughts in various regions, an increase in global surface temperatures, and ice loss. If this research is correct, large-scale development of solar power, often proposed as a way to reduce fossil fuel use (and thus reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus supposedly reduce climate change), would actually exacerbate environmental problems, including global warming.
Many researchers consider the world’s deserts to be prime locations for huge solar arrays. As Zhengyao Lu of Lund University in Sweden and Benjamin Smith of Western Sydney University in Australia write in The Conversation,
The world’s most forbidding deserts could be the best places on Earth for harvesting solar power—the most abundant and clean source of energy we have. Deserts are spacious, relatively flat, rich in silicon—the raw material for the semiconductors from which solar cells are made—and never short of sunlight. In fact, the ten largest solar plants around the world are all located in deserts or dry regions.
Researchers imagine it might be possible to transform the world’s largest desert, the Sahara, into a giant solar farm, capable of meeting four times the world’s current energy demand.
When Lu et al. ran computer model simulations of the local and global effects of covering 20 percent of the Sahara Desert with solar panels, they found it would be counterproductive at best and possibly disastrous:
Large‐scale photovoltaic solar farms envisioned over the Sahara desert can meet the world's energy demand while increasing regional rainfall and vegetation cover. However, adverse remote effects resulting from atmospheric teleconnections could offset such regional benefits. … Our results indicate a redistribution of precipitation causing Amazon droughts and forest degradation, and global surface temperature rise and sea‐ice loss, particularly over the Arctic due to increased polarward heat transport, and northward expansion of deciduous forests in the Northern Hemisphere. We also identify reduced El Niño‐Southern Oscillation and Atlantic Niño variability and enhanced tropical cyclone activity. Comparison to proxy inferences for a wetter and greener Sahara ∼6,000 years ago appears to substantiate these results.
Get that! Although a large solar array in the Sahara Desert could, theoretically, supply the world’s energy needs and the Sahara region would get greener, computer models indicate it would cause drought and forest decline in the Amazon, increase global warming and ice melting, shift large-scale ocean currents, and cause an increase in global hurricane activity. The bad news doesn’t stop there: “the vegetation recovery over the desert zone can cause a drop in dust loadings (also reducing albedo) which … can further affect the fertilization of the Amazon forest (Yu et al., 2015) and the Atlantic Ocean phytoplankton (Conway & John, 2014) through long‐range transport, triggering amplified ecosystem shifts.” That means dead zones in the oceans would expand because mineral-laden dust and sand would no longer blow into the seas to feed the phytoplankton essential to ocean food chains.
Even if these problems are solved, it is unclear to me, from reviewing the paper, whether the researchers took into account or modeled the micro or macro environmental and climate impact of the vast array of new power lines, transformers, and support equipment that would have to be manufactured, transported, erected, and maintained to transmit across the globe the electric power generated from solar arrays in the Sahara, or accounted for the additional electric power generation needed to compensate for the loss of power along the lines. The further the power demand is from the source, the greater the amount of power lost during transmission.
If these are the potential downsides of building a vast solar array in an ideal, centralized location, how much greater might be the negative impacts of vast solar arrays placed in less ideal but still ecologically complex and critical locations.
MEXICO, CANADA EMBRACE COAL
While the Biden administration is rolling back policies implemented by former President Donald Trump to ensure American energy independence, with the new president working to reduce the production and use of fossil fuels, Mexico and Canada are following Trump’s example, expanding their domestic production and use of coal despite international climate commitments requiring the opposite.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas halted out-of-state shipments of natural gas during the recent widespread power outages, including natural gas to Mexico, which resulted in limited power shortfalls there. This angered Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and strengthened his argument for moves he had made, even before Abbott’s decision, to expand the country’s use of domestic coal resources for energy.
Faced with a widespread power failure in December 2020, which left more than 10.3 million Mexicans without electricity, López Obrador blamed policies of the former government that increased the nation’s reliance on unreliable, intermittent renewable energy resources for electric power.
As The Guardian reports, López Obrador is simultaneously reopening coal mines, expanding oil and gas production, and reopening coal-fueled power plants while imposing limits on wind and solar power:
“López Obrador … has unveiled plans to buy nearly 2 m[illion] tons of thermal coal from small producers …. He also plans to reactivate a pair of coal-fired plants on the Texas border, which were being wound down as natural gas and renewables took a more prominent role in Mexico’s energy mix. …The populist president has promoted a vision of energy sovereignty, in which state-run bodies—the oil company Pemex and the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE)—pump petroleum and generate electricity. Private players, which have heavily invested in clean energy, are relegated to a secondary role in López Obrador’s vision—while emissions and climate commitments are an afterthought.”
Meanwhile, Canada is moving to expand coal production in the aftermath of President Joe Biden’s decision to rescind permits for the Keystone XL pipeline, in which Canada had invested heavily after the United States approved the project. Biden’s move resulted in immediate unemployment for thousands of workers in the United States and Canada.
In Alberta, where the oil to be shipped through the pipeline was being produced, the provincial government “… rescinded [a restrictive] 1976 coal mining policy without public consultation, after spending months wooing Australian coal companies. It also reduced the corporate tax rate from 10 to 8 percent, axed provincial parks in coal-rich areas, offered 1 percent royalties (Australia’s is a minimum of seven), and passed legislation to fast-track project approvals,” reports The Guardian. The provincial government approved the construction or expansion of six new coal mines in Alberta.
Media outlets have explicitly tied the province’s newfound embrace of coal to the decline in the fortunes of Alberta’s oil, with prices having been hit especially hard by the Keystone XL cancellation.
“It is all about the timing, particularly with the downturn with the oil sands sector,” said Steve Mallyon, former CEO of Riversdale, one of the affected mines, at a recent public speech. “The long-term strategy for us is to really become a multi-mine producer in [Alberta].”
The Guardian notes, “Most indigenous groups in southern Alberta and politicians from nearby communities have backed the mine proposal for its potential economic benefits. ‘Piikani Nation proudly supports the Grassy Mountain Coal Project,’ wrote Chief Kiaayo Tamisoowo in a January 2019 letter. ‘We need economic development to bring further leadership, opportunities and prosperity to our people.’”
In Mexico and in parts of Canada, it appears concern about climate change and keeping climate commitments is taking a back seat to energy independence and providing well-paying jobs.