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Wind turbines near Elkton. Photo by Bernie Hunhoff.
Wind turbines near Elkton. Photo by Bernie Hunhoff.

The Real Cost of Renewable Energy

May 7, 2012

I took a few minutes last week to determine what wind and solar energy actually cost. Proceeding on the assumption that the real cost of a turtle is how much cash ends up in the hands of the turtle seller, per shell, I wondered how much consumers pay for a given unit of energy and how much other money producers get for various forms of energy generation.

The average price of residential electricity in the U.S. is about 12 cents per kilowatt hour but varies widely by state, according to the Energy Information Administration. In South Dakota it is nine cents. In Alaska it is almost twice that and in Hawaii, three times that. Doing a quick conversion, Americans pay on average about $120 per megawatt hour for electricity.

That is not quite the price of electricity, for energy producers also receive state and federal subsidies. Add the subsidy to the retail price and you get a reasonable estimate of the real cost. The Institute for Energy Research calculated the cost of federal subsidies from the EIA’s production reports. I cannot find anywhere that the EIA actually tells us what we need to know here: subsidies per unit of energy produced.

The IER finds that in 2007 natural gas and petroleum liquids received about $0.25 in Federal subsidies for every megawatt hour produced. Coal gets $0.44; hydroelectric, $0.67; and nuclear power gets $1.69. About 87% of our electricity is produced from those sources. Given that, the subsidies add up to considerable amounts of money. The total increase is still only a small fraction of the cost of the energy.

In 2007, subsidies for wind and solar power per megawatt hour were $23 and $24 respectively. That obviously dwarfs the subsidies for conventional sources and it means that electricity from these sources costs considerably more. A megawatt hour from coal would cost $120.44. A megawatt hour of wind or solar generated electricity costs $144.

That was back in 2007. As a result of the stimulus bill, subsidies to all sources of energy increased, but the subsidies for renewables ballooned. Here are the numbers for 2010:

For solar power, they were $775.64 per megawatt hour, for wind $56.29, for nuclear $3.14, for hydroelectric power $0.82, for coal $0.64 and for natural gas and petroleum liquids $0.64.

That means that wind energy is now costing over $170 per unit. Solar power is off the charts at almost $900. I admit some astonishment that the solar industry in the U.S. is not booming rather than wobbling. At that level of reimbursement, you’d think they’d be giving away whole house solar instillations for joining Netflix.

Proponents of renewable energy will argue that there are large costs involved in fossil fuel production and consumption (environmental degradation, health, etc.). That may be true, but it gets the cart before the horse. One turtle may be cooler than another and one form of energy generation may be more desirable than another. That doesn’t change how much the turtle or the megawatt hour costs.

It misses something else, equally important. Subsidies shift wealth from one place to another. Wealth shifted to renewables is wealth generated by non-renewables. As long as the subsidies last, they don’t reduce the secondary costs of traditional energy.

What they do accomplish, with mathematical certainty, is to make energy more expensive in the short run. This is not ruinous only because the renewables produce less that 3% of our electricity. Of course, it may be that the subsidies will eventually kick in and wind and solar power will dramatically increase production while prices fall precipitously. Is there any sign that that is happening? How efficient would these machines have to become (10 times as efficient?) and how much turf would we have to cover with pinwheels and panels before these sources constituted 20% of electricity generation?

Wind power and solar power are pretty ideas. They have been the sources of the future for as long as the monorail has been the transportation of the future. Maybe one day they will really pan out. Right now, these industries are neither producing jobs nor economic growth. They are absorbing both. 


Dr. Ken Blanchard is a professor of Political Science at Northern State University and writes for the Aberdeen American News and the blog South Dakota Politics.


05:18 am - Tue, May 8 2012
Ed Goss said:
WOW, Thanks Dr.Blanchard there is nothing like the bottom line. Like they say we have to face reality. Thanks for this article. I hope all SD folks read this and especially or congressional deligation.
08:14 am - Tue, May 8 2012
dave tunge said:
Reminds me of the old story of two brothers in Tennessee. They decided to start selling watermelons for a business. They bought the melons for $1 and sold them to the customers for $1. When they were out of watermelons and figured up the bottom line one of the brothers said to the other "I think we're gonna need a bigger truck."
09:43 am - Tue, May 8 2012
Bernie said:
Our old friend Bob Karolevitz used to joke that the Polish way of doing business was "to lose a little bit here and a little bit there and pretty soon you make a living," but these losses are too big to operate the Polish way.

I'm all for green energy, but have to agree that it has to make some sense. I was disappointed over the big hub-hub to start a South Dakota-owned wind farm, and went to the meeting. But the whole point wasn't to create a locally owned project or to create cleaner energy, but only to milk a federal incentive for 6 or 7 years and then to re-sell it once the incentive was dry.

We've got to separate the profiteers from the serious researchers and developers.
10:40 pm - Fri, May 11 2012
Ken Blanchard said:
Thanks to all. I am not opposed to research in green energy. I just think that a rational energy policy has to be rational.
08:14 am - Thu, May 31 2012
tom wilde said:
our military spends trillions each year on defending and securing mid east oil and transporting it .... this simplistic study left that out.

06:55 am - Sat, June 9 2012
Mick said:
What are these wind farms going to look like in 20-30 years.....think rusting hulks!!
05:59 pm - Fri, November 9 2012
Mathews said:
I like what you guys tend to be up too.
This sort of clever work and coverage! Keep up the terrific works guys I've incorporated you guys to my blogroll.
04:50 am - Tue, November 13 2012
Scott Wieskamp said:
Coal, Nuclear, and Natural Gas are not coming from the Middle East. Amazes me how ignorant people are when it comes to electricity. Oil runs cars, trains, automobiles. Coal, nuclear, and natural gas run the electric grid.
04:53 am - Tue, November 13 2012
Scott said:
And water (hydroelectric plants)...and when wind is not blowing one of these sources picks that load up. So, you need to cover every megawatt that is produced by wind with another source of generation.
11:47 am - Wed, November 21 2012
harry schmidt said:
Those Washington spinmeisters will change the dynamics by renaming green energy the same way they deviously hyped obamacare ... hereafter green energy will be called "the affordable new energy source."
08:00 pm - Mon, May 25 2015
Justin Harris said:
The professor does not provide his data sets so it is not possible to tell his parameters or sample populations. Based on the appearance that this is a biased article I would assume that his results are biased.
08:08 am - Wed, July 29 2015
Jon Kennedy said:
The author did provide the stats via links in the article. Mr. Harris must have missed that.
07:38 am - Wed, July 20 2016
Joe McGuire said:
Mr. Harris, Never assume, it makes an ASS of U & ME. I'm that Dr. Blanchard has plenty of data sets. You might ask him. He is a smart cookie.
07:34 am - Mon, December 18 2017
Kelvin Chalkley said:
Also, wind energy isn't as green as it is hyped up to be once you figure in the carbon emissions from the diesel on the train shipping the parts to a holding yard, the diesel on the crane to unload the parts in the holding yard, then again to load the parts on a truck to ship to the build site. Then the diesel on the truck and gasoline for 2 pilot cars for each truck on the highway to transport the parts from the holding yard to the build site. Then a crane running on diesel to unload the parts off of the truck and to construct the wind turbine on the build site. That is a huge amount of carbon emissions for a "so-called" clean energy!

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