Soaring Hidden Costs Shine Behind Solar, Wind Power

May 2 , 2024
By Bjorn Lomborg

The cost analysis of solar and wind energy often omits a critical factor: reliability. While solar energy might cost less than natural gas, the marginal difference does not factor into the condition of 'when the sun is shining'. Incorporating reliability costs can skyrocket the price of solar energy, suggesting an 11-42 times increase, argued Bjorn Lomborg (PhD), president of the Copenhagen Consensus and a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Despite constantly being told that solar and wind are now the cheapest forms of electricity, governments across the world needed to spend 1.8 trillion dollars on the green transition last year. US President Joe Biden conveniently justified spending hundreds of billions of dollars on green subsidies, claiming "wind and solar are already significantly cheaper than coal and oil." Indeed, arguing that wind and solar are the cheapest is a meme employed by green lobbyists, activists and politicians worldwide.

Unfortunately, the claim is wildly deceptive.

Wind and solar energy only produce power when the sun is shining, or the wind is blowing. Their electricity is infinitely expensive, and a backup system is needed all the rest of the time. This is why global electricity remains almost two-thirds reliant on fossil fuels—and why, on current trends, we are an entire century away from eliminating fossil fuels from electricity generation. The first reason the cheapest electricity claim is wrong would be the intermittency of green energy.

Imagine a solar-driven car launched tomorrow, running cheaper than a gas vehicle. It seems alluring—not until we realise that the car would not run at night or when it is overcast. We still need a gas vehicle as a backup and would have to pay for two cars. That is what happens with renewable energy.

Modern societies need power 24/7. Unreliable and intermittent solar and wind bring enormous, often hidden costs. This is a minor problem for wealthy countries that have already built fossil power plants and can use more of them as backups. However, it will make electricity more expensive, as intermittent renewables make everything else intermittent, too.

But in the poorest, electricity-starved countries, there is little fossil fuel energy infrastructure. Hypocritical wealthy countries refuse to fund sorely needed fossil fuel energy in the developing world. Instead, they insist that people cope with unreliable green energy supplies that cannot power water pumps or agricultural machinery to lift populations out of poverty.

It is often reported that extensive and emerging industrial powers like China, India, Indonesia and Bangladesh are getting more energy from solar and wind. But these countries get much more additional power from coal. Last year, China got more additional power from coal than it did from solar and wind. India got three times as much, Bangladesh got 13 times more coal electricity than it did from green energy sources, and Indonesia an astonishing 90 times more. If solar and wind were cheaper, why would these countries miss out? Because reliability matters.

The typical way to measure the cost of solar ignores its unreliability and tells us the price of solar energy "when the sun is shining." The same is valid for wind energy. That does indeed make their cost slightly lower than any other electricity source. The US Energy Information Administration puts solar at 3.6¢ per kWh, just ahead of natural gas at 3.8¢. But suppose the cost of reliability is included. In that case, the actual costs explode — one peer-reviewed study shows an increase of 11-42 times, making solar the most expensive source of electricity, followed by wind.

The enormous additional cost comes from the need for storage. Electricity is required even when the sun is not shining, and the wind is not blowing, yet our battery capacity is woefully inadequate.

Research shows that every winter, when solar energy contributes very little, Germany has a "wind drought" of five days, during which wind turbines also deliver almost nothing. That suggests batteries will be needed for a minimum of 120 hours—although the actual need will be much longer since droughts sometimes last much longer and recur before storage can be filled.

A new study looking at the United States shows that to achieve 100pc solar or wind electricity with sufficient backup, the US would need to be able to store almost three months' worth of annual electricity. It currently has seven minutes of battery storage. The US would have to pay five times its current GDP to buy the batteries. And it would have to repurchase the batteries when they expire after 15 years.

Globally, the cost of having sufficient batteries would be 10 times the global GDP, with a new bill every 15 years.

There is a second reason why the claim is incorrect. It leaves out the cost of recycling spent on wind turbine blades and exhausted solar panels. A small town in Texas is overflowing with thousands of enormous blades that cannot be recycled. In poor African countries, solar panels and their batteries are already being dumped, leaking toxic chemicals into the soil and water supplies. Because of lifetimes lasting just a few decades and pressure from the climate lobby for an enormous ramp-up in use, this will only get much worse. A study shows that this trash cost alone doubles the actual cost of solar.

If solar and wind were cheaper, they would replace fossil fuels without the need for a grand push from politicians and the industry. The claim is incessantly repeated because it is convenient. We must invest much more in low-CO energy research and development (R&D) to fix climate change. Only a substantial boost in R&D can bring about the necessary technological breakthroughs—reducing trash, improving battery storage and efficiency, and other technologies like modular nuclear—that will make low-CO energy sources cheaper than fossil fuels.

Until then, claims that fossil fuels are already outcompeted are just wishful thinking.

PUBLISHED ON May 02,2024 [ VOL 25 , NO 1253]

Bjorn Lomborg is President of the Copenhagen Consensus and Visiting Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. His new book is "Best Things First", which The Economist named one of the best books of 2023.

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