Cheap renewable energy and low-priced batteries are anticipated to lead to wind and solar producing 50 percent of the world’s electricity generation by 2050.

What is the Cheapest Form of Energy?
What is the Cheapest Form of Energy?

Len Calderone

Not long ago, coal was the cheapest form of energy. Now, solar and wind plants are half the cost of new coal plants. Cheap renewable energy and low-priced batteries are anticipated to lead to wind and solar producing 50 percent of the world’s electricity generation by 2050.

Renewable energy sources are beginning to take over the power sector with low-carbon alternatives producing environmental benefits at a low cost. Advances in technology are driving the price of renewable energy sources down. The dangers of climate change are setting in motion the move to renewable energy. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published a report, which announced that the cost of renewable energy is falling at such a rapid rate that it will be a dependably cheaper energy source than traditional fuels in only a few years’ time.

The IRENA report found that solar and onshore wind are the cheapest energy sources. It states that in 2017 wind turbine prices had an average cost of $0.06 per kWh, and at times dropped to $0.04 per kWh. At the same time, the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) had fallen to $0.10 per kWh. In comparison, electricity produced by fossil fuels typically ran from $0.05 to $0.17 per kWh. This same report predicts that within the next few years, solar and wind will be able to furnish electricity for as little as $0.03 per kWh.

Another possible source of energy is tidal power. Advocates for tidal power assert that construction costs are high right now; but tidal power has one of the lowest operations and maintenance costs. As such, this is an untapped source with potentially great benefits. The high cost of tidal projects is chiefly due to the fact that the industry is still in the early stages of development, compared with wind and solar which have received far more investment and research, initiating lower costs and efficiency.

These lower costs are expected to boost the adoption of renewables even further because of the hard work by governments and businesses that are aiming to achieve

the climate goals of the Paris Agreement. The Agreement’s aim is to support the global effort to keep the global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in this century, and to undertake efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Hydroelectric power is another cheap source of renewable energy, at an average of $0.05 per kilowatt hour, but the average cost of building new power plants is expensive. The construction of reservoirs has slowed significantly in recent years because building a dam and reservoir to maintain hydroelectric power takes a considerable amount of money, time, and construction. On top of that, most of the suitable spots to place hydro-plants have already been taken.

Renewable energy has already gotten to the point where new renewable generation is a good investment compared to new fossil fuel generation. Next, new-build onshore wind and solar will be cheaper than it costs to operate existing coal plants. The United States has already reached the point where renewable energy is crossing over from coal plants. Renewable energy generation can already replace 74 percent of U.S. coal generation with an immediate cost savings to electricity consumers, and this is expected to reach 86 percent by 2025.

The choice of generating technologies is problematic, with cross-generation cost comparisons playing a significant role in public decisions at the international, national, and local levels. But how much does it actually cost is the question. When it comes to competing electric generating technologies, the answer is not that easy.

Advocates for various technologies and businesses with financial interests all claim that they are the least costly generating choice and each technology has a compelling claim. 

The oldest technology, hydro, has a no-cost, renewable fuel, which is water. One of the newest, geothermal, has steam from the earth as a low-cost fuel. Of course, coal is dirt cheap, but natural gas is cheaper, and natural gas is destroying coal in competitive markets. Nuclear power has low fuel costs without carbon dioxide emissions. Solar and wind have no fuel costs and no air emissions. 

The cost of fuel is one element but each technology has cost negatives. Hydro, geothermal and nuclear need high construction capital. Coal and natural gas have high CO2 air emissions. Solar and wind have high capital costs, and they take up a lot of land. Yet, solar and wind have the best claims. They promise 100% carbon dioxide-free energy in the U.S. within the near future with a goal of 10 years. 

Can we convert the entire U.S. power grid to 100 percent renewable energy in the next decade? Yes. It is technologically and logistically attainable, but it would cost an estimated $4.5 trillion, according to the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie. That’s what the United States spent on the war on terror for the last decade. 

To meet this goal over the next 10 years, there would have to be an enormous increase of wind and solar capacity. Then, the U.S. would need to add battery storage. Finally, the U.S. would need to double transmission lines from today’s 200,000 miles to 400,000 miles to cope with the new distributed power system.

Solar power is only available during daylight hours, while wind power is most efficient at night. The United States presently produces 1, 085 gigawatts of energy. To maintain this capacity, the United States would need to have 1,085 gigawatts of both solar and wind. But solar power only produces the capacity roughly 25.7 percent of the day, while wind power only provides power for 34.6 percent of the day. Almost 40 percent of the time neither would be accessible.  Therefore, the United States would require an alternative renewable resource to fill the gap, such as storage or hydroelectricity.

Over the next decade, more than 75% of the onshore wind and 80% of the solar PV capacity due to be commissioned will produce energy at lower prices than the cheapest new coal, oil or natural gas options. More importantly, they will do so without financial assistance.

Renewable energy is increasingly cost-effective, even when renewables must compete with the heavily subsidized fossil fuel industry. Promising indicators show that more corporations are entering the renewable energy industry. Another benefit of the growth of the renewable energy industry is that more than 10 million people are now employed in the global industry.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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