Category Archives: Wind energy

Wind power prices now lower than the cost of natural gas

In the US, it’s cheaper to build and operate wind farms than buy fossil fuels.

Image of wind turbines on a ridge

This week, the US Department of Energy released a report that looks back on the state of wind power in the US by running the numbers on 2018. The analysis shows that wind hardware prices are dropping, even as new turbine designs are increasing the typical power generated by each turbine. As a result, recent wind farms have gotten so cheap that you can build and operate them for less than the expected cost of buying fuel for an equivalent natural gas plant.

Wind is even cheaper at the moment because of a tax credit given to renewable energy generation. But that credit is in the process of fading out, leading to long term uncertainty in a power market where demand is generally stable or dropping.

A lot of GigaWatts

2018 saw about 7.6 GigaWatts of new wind capacity added to the grid, accounting for just over 20 percent of the US’ capacity additions. This puts it in third place behind natural gas and solar power. That’s less impressive than it might sound, however, given that things like coal and nuclear are essentially at a standstill. Because the best winds aren’t evenly distributed in the US, there are areas, like parts of the Great Plains, where wind installations were more than half of the new power capacity installed.

Overall, that brings the US’ installed capacity up to nearly 100GW. That leaves only China ahead of the US, although the gap is substantial with China having more than double the US’ installed capacity. It still leaves wind supplying only 6.5 percent of the US’ total electricity in 2018, though, which places it behind a dozen other countries. Four of them—Denmark, Germany, Ireland, and Portugal—get over 20 percent of their total electric needs supplied by wind, with Denmark at over 40 percent.

That figure is notable, as having over 30 percent of your power supplied by an intermittent source is a challenge for many existing grids. But there are a number of states that have now cleared the 30 percent threshold: Kansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma, with the two Dakotas not far behind. The Southwest Power Pool, which serves two of those states plus wind giant Texas, is currently getting a quarter of its electricity from wind. (Texas leads the US with 25GW of installed wind capacity.)

Despite having a lot of wind installed, the US uses far more power from other sources.
Enlarge / Despite having a lot of wind installed, the US uses far more power from other sources.  US DOE

 

So while wind remains a small factor in the total electricity market in the US, there are parts of the country where it’s a major factor in the generating mix. And, given the prices, those parts are likely to expand.

Plummeting prices

In the US, the prices for wind power had risen up until 2009, when power purchase agreements for wind-generated electricity peaked at about $70 per MegaWatt-hour. Since then, there’s been a very steady decline, and 2018 saw the national average fall below $20/MW-hr for the first time. Again, there’s regional variation with the Great Plains seeing the lowest prices, in some cases reaching the mid-teens.

That puts wind in an incredibly competitive position. The report uses an estimate of future natural gas prices that show an extremely gradual rise of about $10/MW-hr out to 2050. But natural gas—on its own, without considering the cost of a plant to burn it for electricity—is already over $20/MW-hr. That means wind sited in the center of the US is already cheaper than fueling a natural gas plant, and wind sited elsewhere is roughly equal.

Those black bars are the price of gas. Blue circles are wind, while yellow are solar.
Enlarge / Those black bars are the price of gas. Blue circles are wind, while yellow are solar.  US DOE

 

The report notes that photovoltaics have reached prices that are roughly equivalent to wind, but those got there from a starting point of about $150/MW-hr in 2009. Thus, unless natural gas prices reverse the expected trend and get cheaper, wind and solar will remain the cheapest sources of new electricity in the US.

The levelized cost of electricity, which eliminates the impact of incentives and subsidies on the final prices, places wind below $40/MW-hr in 2018. The cheapest form of natural gas generation was roughly $10 more per MegaWatt-hour. Note that, as recently as 2015, the US’ Energy Information Agency was predicting that wind’s levelized cost in 2020 would be $74/MW-hr.

Built on better tech

Why has wind gotten much cheaper than expected? Part of it is in improved technology. The report notes that in 2008, there were no turbines installed in the US with rotors above 100 meters in diameter. In 2018, 99 percent of them were over 100m, and the average size was 116m. In general, the turbine’s generator grew in parallel. The average capacity for 2018 installs was 2.4MW, which is up five percent from the year previous.

The area swept by the blades goes up with the square of their length. Thus, even though blade length and rated generating capacity are going up in parallel, the actual potential energy input from the blades is growing much faster. This has the effect of lowering what’s called the specific power of the wind turbine. These lower specific power turbines work better in areas where the wind isn’t as strong or consistent. On the truly windy days, they’ll saturate the ability of the generator to extract power, while on a more typical day when the winds are lighter or erratic, they’ll get more out of them.

So even though more turbines are being built at sites without the best wind resources, we’re generating more power per turbine. The capacity factor—the amount of power generated relative to the size of the generator—for projects built in the previous four years has now hit 42 percent, a figure that would once have required offshore wind. That’s dragged the capacity factor of the entire US wind industry up to over 35 percent for the first time last year.

Each year, the capacity factor of newly installed projects is typically higher than that of the years prior.
Enlarge / Each year, the capacity factor of newly installed projects is typically higher than that of the years prior.  US DOE

 

The economics of these low-wind designs are so good that 23 existing sites were “repowered,” with new, larger rotors replacing older hardware on existing towers. One thing that may be encouraging this is that older plants (those a decade old or more) seem to see a small dip in capacity factor over time. But the reason for this isn’t clear at this point, so it’s something that will have to be tracked in the future.

Better grid management also helped the economics of wind. At times, strong winds can cause wind farms to produce an excess of power relative to demand, causing a farm’s output to be reduced. This process, called curtailment, remained a small factor, with only two percent of the potential generation lost this way. Put differently, if the curtailed electricity had been used, it would have only raised the average capacity factor by 0.7 percentage points.

Overall, given these economics, it’s clear that the economic case for wind energy will remain solid as the tax credits for the construction of renewable energy fade out over the next few years. But the vanishing credits are causing lots of developers to start projects sooner rather than later, so we may see a bubble in construction for the next couple of years, followed by a dramatic drop off.

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    Local renewables in the US ‘make more financial sense than coal’

    Repost from EnergyLive News

    A new report suggests three-quarters of US coal-fired generation could be replaced with local wind or solar power at cheaper cost to the consumer

    By Jonny Bairstow, 26 March 2019
    Renewables vs fossil fuels
    Renewables vs fossil fuels | Image: Shutterstock

    Local renewables in the US now make more financial sense than coal.

    That’s according to a new report from renewable analysis firm Energy Innovation, which suggests in 2018, three-quarters of existing US coal-fired generation could have been replaced with wind or solar power within a 35-mile radius at an immediate saving to customers.

    It predicts by 2025, this figure will grow to 86% of the coal fleet as fossil fuel generation becomes increasingly uneconomical and the cost of renewable power continues to fall.

    The report suggests this is happening as the ‘all-in’ costs of new wind or solar projects become cheaper than the combined fuel, maintenance and other ongoing costs of coal-fired power.

    In 2018, 94GW of existing US coal capacity was deemed ‘substantially at risk’ from new local wind and solar – by 2025, the study expects ‘substantially at risk’ coal to increase to 140GW, almost half the national fleet.

    It recommends local decision-makers should consider plans for a smooth shut-down of these old plants, replacing them with technologies such as wind, solar, transmission, storage and demand response.

    It notes replacement infrastructure must be reliable and affordable for communities dependent on existing coal plants.

    The report reads: “The purpose of this report is to act as a conversation primer for stakeholders and policymakers where the math points to cheaper options that could replace coal plants at a savings to customers.

    “Regardless, any coal plant failing the cost crossover test should be a wake-up call for policymakers and local stakeholders that an opportunity for productive change exists in the immediate vicinity of that plant.”

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      IN MEMORIAM: Benicia’s Joel Fallon: Is Crude by Rail really do or die?

      Is this really adios?

      [Re-posting today in memory of Joel Fallon, who died on August 11, 2016 (obituary). Joel was Benicia’s first and most beloved Poet Laureate, an inspiration to all who knew him and a thoughtful, visionary activist. Originally reposted from The Benicia Herald and here on the Benicia Independent.]

      April 25, 2014 by Joel Fallon

      WHAT AM I MISSING HERE? Are Benicians just kittens in a burlap sack, down by the riverside, resigned to the inevitable?

      Let’s see if I’ve got this right.

      (a) We’re in earthquake country (see evidence of the Green Valley fault in terrain on the way to Cordelia);

      (b) We’re next to fragile wetlands (for spectacular views, click Google Maps/Benicia, hybrid setting, find rail line and follow to Sacramento);

      (c) We’re contiguous with an important commercial waterway;

      (d) We host an outfit whose headquarters has fought attempts to safeguard our environment (see Valero Energy Corporation’s position and funding regarding Proposition 23);

      (e) A local outfit, under direction from its far-off headquarters, plans to process a dangerous, toxic product;

      (f) The outfit is served by a rail system with a recent history of tank car derailment;

      (g) Parts of this railroad system (built by Central Pacific RR in 1877), running through marshland to the Carquinez Strait, repeatedly sank into unstable marshy terrain, requiring hundreds of thousands of tons of rock, gravel and other materials to stabilize it;

      (h) Other parts of the antique rail infrastructure seem poorly maintained and may be unsafe, e.g., the Benicia-Martinez rail bridge, built between 1928 and 1930 for Southern Pacific RR to replace the train ferry to Port Costa;

      (i) Old tank cars are a problem — an area newspaper reports that BNSF railway officials told federal regulators in March of concerns that older, less robust tank cars will end up transporting crude oil because of Canadian rail pricing policies;

      (j) Emergency responders are unprepared to handle spills or fires in the event of derailment of cars headed to any of five Bay Area refineries. State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, after listening to testimony from emergency responders, said, “There is a potential for very serious problems and very disastrous problems.” Chief of the Contra Costa Fire District is quoted saying, “… with the sheer volume that will be coming in, we are going to see more accidents.” The 2007-08 Solano County Grand Jury, after investigating the county’s fire districts, reports a general need for more funding, heavy dependence on dedicated volunteers and the preponderance of old fire trucks, while noting the high cost of HAZMAT suits and problems with communications caused by incompatible equipment and radio frequencies.     

      And yet, despite this unbelievably horrific backdrop, certain elements in town warn us to hush lest Valero be forced out of the competitive (i.e., tar sands crude) market, destroying its “desire to remain in Benicia.”

      Clearly, Valero Benicia Refinery cannot be faulted for all of the foregoing. Good workers deserve good jobs; they should be able to tell their grandkids they helped, rather than harmed, the environment. Valero Benicia is just one of many links in a chain of factors that could lead to the disaster so many in this community fear.

      Am I “agenda driven” as charged? Bet your raggedy backside I am. My agenda involves doing homework to find threats to my home, my town, my state and my nation, and advising others of my findings (just in case they might care). If you detect it, yell “GAS” to alert the rest of the platoon; then put on your mask, while you can still breathe.

      For a glimmer of the scope of Big Oil’s operations from sea to shining sea and beyond, see the astounding number of outfits similar to Valero Energy Corp. in the U.S and Canada. Find ’em in Wikipedia (“independent oil companies — Americas”). Select a company to see its history of oil spills. Wonder why the Keystone XL pipeline is planned to extend to Texas? Check out which corporations own the pipeline and the benefits associated with Foreign Trade Zones (32 FTZ in Texas compared to 17 in California, and 15 in New York).

      If folks look around a bit they may discover that Big Oil, like Big Coal and other corporate behemoths, extends powerful influence throughout the land of the free and the home of the brave. Many were hoodwinked by Operation Iraqi Liberation, in which Big Oil colluded with Big Government to achieve absolute power of life and death over us and our enemy — the one with phantom WMDs and a vast, very real amount of oil.

      Is this really adios, Pilgrim? — or just “I double-dog dare you”? I don’t believe it’s Valero’s style to leave town. It’s not in the corporation’s best interests and shouldn’t be its preferred option.

      What are those options? They include:

      Option 1. Stay put, but back away from risky tar sands crude and focus on products involving minimum environmental risk. Backing away for good business reasons is not the same as “backing down.” CVS decided to stop selling cigarettes. The firm considered it “the right thing to do for the good of our customers and our company. The sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose — helping people on their path to better health.” Barrons online says, “We think that CVS — like anyone who quits smoking — is making a good long-term decision, even if it makes things rough short-term.” Others consider it a PR coup! CVS gained the respect of millions of customers for what is perceived as a moral and ethical decision. I shop CVS more often since they made that brilliant call; so do my friends.

      Backing away from tar sands crude would take similar corporate guts; but the public would be pleased with the image of a moral, ethical, highly principled corporation — a Valero that gives a damn. Sales at Valero service stations might even increase.

      Option 2. Continue to pursue tar sands crude; seeking high profitability despite increased environmental risk. The downside: prices at the pump are too high. Californians are already angry; they may avoid Valero service stations and products. I’ll urge my friends to do so. Word of mouth is powerful and spreads quickly. Contempt for an outfit that doesn’t respect its customers or our environment could lead to loss of sales in the country’s most populous state. Cesar Chavez showed us boycotts work. Most folks I know didn’t buy grapes.

      Option 3. “Re-purpose” Valero’s operations in Benicia (and elsewhere) to enhance instead of degrade the environment while remaining profitable. Valero is an energy outfit. Turning to alternate sources of energy is ultimately inevitable. Valero should expand its vision and not limit itself to fossil fuels. Farmers in Ireland who grew only potatoes learned about diversification too late.

      (a) Pursue wind farming if feasible and profitable. A recent Mother Earth News article about mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia cites a 2007 study that determined placing wind turbines on Coal River Mountain would provide power to 70,000 West Virginia homes while generating $1.7 million in local taxes each year. Better than ripping off the tops of mountains and dumping enormous amounts of debris into streams and rivers.

      (b) Pursue solar energy if feasible and profitable. Produce solar products for sale and/or operate a solar power facility to resell power. See an article by Don Hofmann, president of RegenEn Solar LLC, looking at mountaintop removal mining and suggesting solar power instead. He recognizes there are challenges but is optimistic about lower-cost solar cells and technology in the future. He notes that the U.S. fossil fuel industry received $72 billion in subsidies from 2002 to 2006 and asks us to imagine that kind of money put into solar development.

      (c) Pursue other approaches (geothermal, tidal, et al.) if appropriate and profitable.

      Option 4. Determine feasibility of combining 3a, 3b and/or 3c. If appropriate and profitable, pursue the combination.

      Option 1 would be the easiest and would be enthusiastically supported by most folks in Benicia, applauded by most Californians and recognized as a principled business decision.

      Option 2 is the least desirable from an environmental standpoint. While profitability is high, it may incur the contempt and wrath of the public, possibly leading to damaging boycotts and a decline in profitability.

      Option 3a thru 3c may seem starry-eyed, wild and outside the box. They would require imagination, foresight and courage. It can be done. CVS is showing the way and TESLA is succeeding with electrically powered cars. Examine pluses and minuses — Valero could take a quantum leap and be regarded as an industry trailblazer. Its reputation would be enhanced. Envious competitors might scoff and want Valero to take a pratfall but ultimately they would have to follow suit.

      In conclusion the priority order of Valero’s options should be:

      Option 1 — Most desirable (preferred)
      Option 3/4 — Most “outside the box” (defer initially, but plan for the future)
      Option 2 — Least desirable (avoid).

      If Valero is really in the long-term energy game, it should choose Option 1 and start thinking seriously about Option 3. If, instead, its focus is on short term — high profits while risking irreparable harm to the environment — then Option 2 is their ticket.

      If Valero wants to be recognized as rich, principled, brave and famous instead of rich, unscrupulous and infamous, then it should open door No. 3 as soon as possible.

      Finally: I don’t believe it is “adios” for Valero Benicia Refinery. Unfortunately, I think Valero will not choose a clean path. They will probably press on with dirty tar sands crude. After that, “¿Quien sabe?”

      I don’t intend to “go gentle into that good night.” Instead I prefer to “rage against the dying of the light.”

      This whole thing could be like a colonoscopy, but a lot less fun.

      Joel Fallon is a Benicia resident.


      The Benicia Herald’s Poetry Corner was recently dedicated to Joel Fallon…

      “For Joel Fallon” by Ronna Leon

      Reposted from the Benicia Herald, Poetry Corner, August 19, 2016

      You called them “dead Mother poems”
      and scorned their cloying sentiment, easy forgiveness.
      Your poem about your Mother named her Kali.
      You hungered for life – anger, difficulty, competition, sex.
      You insisted that wringing a tear from a stone
      was superior to opening well oiled floodgates.

       

      Now you are dead and my tears come unbidden
      looking at the bookshelf, pulling a stubborn weed,
      eating a pastry.
      “Keep smiling” you’d instruct,
      but I don’t want to brush these tears away,
      each glistens with memory, swells with loss.
      You are in them, like it or not.Ronna Leon was Benicia’s third poet laureate from 2010 to 2012


      “Hope is the Thing with Feathers (Dedicated to Joel Fallon)” by Johanna Ely

      Reposted from the Benicia Herald, Poetry Corner, August 19, 2016

      “Hope is the thing with feathers
      that perches in the soul
      and sings the tune without the words
      and never stops-at all”
      -Emily Dickinson

       

      If such a tiny bird,
      perhaps left for dead,
      or suffering from an injured wing,
      its feathers matted and torn,
      finds refuge in your broken heart,
      then reach inside yourself
      and touch this living thing called Hope,
      gently bind its limp and useless wing
      with Love’s tattered cloth,
      and press it to your shattered heart
      until it heals,
      until this lovely creature sings again,
      then let it fly,
      and nest in someone else’s heart,
      the stranger,
      the neighbor,
      the old friend,
      the one who just like you,
      needs to hear its song.
      Johanna Ely is Benicia’s current poet laureate

      “Joel’s Passing” by Mary Susan Gast

      Reposted from the Benicia Herald, Poetry Corner, August 19, 2016

      “So, I may have been wrong after all – this damn cancer may indeed be the death of me.”
      -Joel Fallon, in an email of June 30, 2016

      He died on the morning of August 11.
      That night, meteor showers dazzled the skies:
      The Perseids, at their peak.
      No reason to doubt that Joel hitched a ride
      On that celestial glory train,
      Meeting up with all the other streaming luminaries,
      Fireball to fireball.

      Mary Susan Gast served as Conference Minister of the Northern California Conference United Church of Christ, now retired, and is a member of Benicia’s First Tuesday Poetry Group
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        Federal spending deal falls short on environment

        Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

        Spending deal falls short on environment

        By Annie Notthoff, December 17, 2015  |  Annie Notthoff is director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s California advocacy program.
        Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
        Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

        The spending and tax policy agreement Congress and the White House have reached to keep the government funded and running includes important wins for health and the environment.

        But there’s good news to report, only because of the Herculean efforts of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the White House, who worked tirelessly to block nearly all of the dozens and dozens of proposals Republican leaders were pushing.

        Those proposals would have blocked action on climate, clean air, clean water, land preservation and wildlife protection and stripped key programs of needed resources. The Republican leaders’ proposals were the clearest expression yet of their “just say no” approach to environmental policy. They literally have no plan, except to block every movement forward on problems that threaten our health and our planet.

        The worst aspect of the budget agreement is another clear indication of Republican leaders’ misplaced priorities — they exacted an end to the decades-long ban on sending U.S. crude oil overseas in this bill, in return for giving up on key elements of their antienvironment agenda.

        Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made that give-away to the oil industry one of his top priorities. It will mean increased oil drilling in the U.S., with all the attendant dangers, with the benefits going to oil companies and overseas purchasers. That won’t help the American public, or the climate. It’s simply an undeserved gift to Big Oil.

        In good news, the agreement extends tax credits for wind and solar energy for five years, which will give those industries long-sought certainty about their financing.

        Wind and solar will continue to grow by leaps and bounds, helping domestic industry, reducing carbon pollution and making the U.S. less vulnerable to the ups and downs of fossil fuel prices.

        Democratic leaders deserve all our thanks for what they were able to keep out of the budget deal. Gone are the vast majority of obstacles Republican leaders tried to throw in the way of environmental protection. Recall for a moment the 100 or more antienvironmental provisions Republican leaders tried to attach to these spending bills. Those included efforts to:

        • Block the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which sets the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants — our best available tool to combat dangerous climate change.

        • Roll back the Obama Administration’s Clean Water Rule, which would restore protections for the potential drinking water supplies of 1 in 3 Americans.

        • Repeal the EPA’s newly issued health standards to protect us from smog.

        • Bar the Interior Department from protecting our streams from the pollution generated by mountaintop removal during coal mining.

        • Strip Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves, the greater sage grouse, elephants, the Sonoran Desert tortoise, and other threatened animals.

        • Force approval of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, which President Obama already has rejected.

        There’s more work ahead to protect the environment, starting with eliminating the threat of oil drilling in the Arctic and off the Atlantic Coast.

        But despite the efforts of Republican congressional leaders to hold the public hostage and bring us to the brink of another government shutdown, a budget deal has emerged that protects environmental progress.

         

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