Back on its business pages, The New York Times has provided a sober warning to the starry-eyed environmentalists who are trying to convert the entire U.S. economy to renewable energy sources, mostly solar and wind power technologies.
European countries that have embraced these technologies with abandon reportedly are having second thoughts because of the high costs, often disguised by generous subsidies.
Germany, for instance, is dropping its plan to end coal-fired generation and considering a subsidy to maintain existing coal plants on standby. It is ending unlimited subsidies for wind and solar power and is planning to limit additional renewable capacity.
Renewables are costly because the wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun doesn’t shine half the day. Without a breakthrough in battery technology, utilities still have to maintain conventional power plants to keep the lights on.
The Energy Department has estimated that in 2020, after the expiration of most subsidies, a conventional U.S. coal-fired plant would cost $60 per megawatt-hour over its lifetime, a natural-gas plant $40, a nuclear plant $70 and a solar plant $110 to $192 depending on the technology used. Onshore wind would cost $58, similar to coal, but would be available only 36 percent of the time compared with 85 percent for coal.
And carbon-free nuclear power, even from already paid-for plants, is unprofitable when competing against natural gas.
Electricity in Germany costs 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, about three times the average U.S. cost.
Denmark, where the cost is similar, must limit wind power input into its grid to avoid harmful fluctuations. When the wind is strong, it must export electricity to Norway and Sweden – which represents a Danish subsidy to the receiving countries that can’t be fully offset by return flows.
Could subsidy money produce more emission reduction in other uses? It’s an open question. Remember, be careful what you wish for.
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