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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Relative costs of new energy

Soaking up the sunI was reading the latest issue of High Country News last night and they had an article about the costs of energy with some numbers I thought I'd share with you, because I found it somewhat interesting.

Here are the wholesale prices per kilowatt-hour (kwh), not including subsidies:

Hydropower: 4 to 8 cents per kwh
New geothermal power: 4.5 to 7.5 cents per kwh
New wind power: 5 to 8 cents per kwh
New coal power: 6 to 8 cents per kwh
New natural gas: 6 to 10 cents per kwh
New solar power: 13 to 18 cents per kwh

As you may notice, the costs are all over the map for "cleaner" sources like wind and solar. I suspect that, as these types of energy sources become more available via the grid, the costs will come down. And you'll see natural gas and coal continue to rise (some argue we are seeing peak coal now as well).

So, how to plan going forward? For example, if you have a choice of which kind of energy you buy or if you are planning on replacing appliances such as furnaces or water heaters, you'll want to look into cheaper, greener supplies. Many municipalities have a "green energy" option where you can purchase green fuels for a higher cost now, but as the costs of those fuels become cheaper with volume we may see an adjustment there.

Some fuels I wouldn't count on having much later are oil and coal. Probably natural gas, too. Although there are still large natural gas deposits, I bet that the amount of energy involved to extract them will exceed the energy acquired from the extraction, particularly since cheap oil won't be around to help out.

As a side note, apparently the U.S. is running out of helium as well. The majority of helium is trapped within deposits of natural gas and as we capture natural gas, the helium is released. We are predicted to run out of helium in the next 8 years. Why is this a problem? Well, because we use it for science and technology, the biggest use is as a coolant.

Anyway, if you are looking into long term energy sources and your personal usage, these are a few things to keep in mind. I'm sure a lot of you out there are more expert in these things than I, so if you have comments or corrections, please add them to this post!

10 comments:

Cindy in FL said...

This comment should really apply to "down in the dumps", but there were so many comments there already and I did not want it to be overlooked. I went to a birthday party for a woman with terminal brain cancer. A wonderful man named David Bailey came to the party to sing. He is a folk singer who is also an 11 year survivor of terminal brain cancer. In the past 11 years he became a folk singer and has compiled/written 16 CD's of songs about hope, survival and life. Maybe his songs can be a help/comfort to your family and anyone elses that is facing very hard life challenging events/situations. DavidMBailey.com

DC said...

Thanks for the information, Crunchy. Those numbers are very telling.

As the article states, the cost stated for a new coal plant doesn't even take into consideration the additional cost of carbon sequestration that would be required to make the plant carbon neutral. Besides releasing carbon dioxide, even the "cleaner" coal plants now in operation also still release large amounts of mercury, particulate matter (causes respiratory problems) and sulfur dioxide (contributes to acid rain). Coal miners risk their lives to extract coal from deep pits, and strip mining is literally wiping mountains in West Virginia off the face of the earth.

Natural gas isn't as bad as coal, but it also releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants when burned and is a nonrenewable resource. Electricity from wind turbines is ALREADY cost competitive with electricity generated from natural gas. At certain times when natural gas prices have risen, electricity generated from wind turbines has actually been cheaper to produce than electricity from natural gas.

There is enough wind power in just three states -- North Dakota, Kansas and Texas -- to meet all the energy needs of the entire country. Not only could wind turbines in these areas supply all the electricity we currently use, but they could also supply enough electricity to power all of our cars (if we switched to electric cars).

Windmills don't produce power all the time, but that isn't as big of a deal as opponents to wind power would have you believe. Wind power can be stored as compressed air underground and can also be converted to hydrogen (though this is less efficient). Moreover, the wind is always blowing somewhere, and there will always be some electricity being generated if wind turbines are spread out over a large geographical area.

Transporting wind generated electricity long distances is also not a barrier. Europe already has direct current transmission lines that can transmit electricity long distances with little energy loss. If the AC lines used currently in the U.S. to transmit electricity were upgraded, power generated in the Midwest could be efficiently sent to any part of the country.

Solar PV cells that convert light directly to electricity are expensive now, but electricity can be generated much cheaper from solar thermal energy that uses the heat from the sun to create steam to spin turbines. This can't be done on your roof, but large scale projects using solar concentrators have been completed, and more are underway. Solar thermal electricity can be generated for as little as 8 cents per kwh -- 20% less than most Americans now pay for electricity.

The bottom line is the technology is here today. It is available and cost effective. There is no need to rely on old, dirty sources of energy. GREED is the only reason we are continuing to chase after technologies like coal and nuclear.

If you want to support green energy but can't buy it from your local utility and can't afford solar panels, there is another option. NativeEnergy offers consumers renewable energy credits that are used to build new wind turbines. The money is not merely an offset -- it actually goes to produce new sources of clean electricity. For about $160 a year, we buy credits to offset all of our household energy use.

Sorry I rambled so long -- I guess you hit a nerve.

Danica said...

I live in Montreal, where I don't have a choice as to where my electricity comes from. Luckily, my provider is Hydro Quebec, which is obviously hydro power. I believe they are 97% hydro, 3% nuclear. I love the fact that everyone here benefits from hydro power. What I don't love is that increased power needs causes Hydro Quebec to dam up more rivers and mess with ecosystems and native folks' land. Even a good thing can be bad when people use more than they need.

Greenpa said...

Oh, dear. There is a huge problem with these numbers- they don't include "lifespan". Among other things. Like "Maintenance Costs."

For example, the lifespan of a new wind tower is about 20 years, before it needs total replacement. It also needs quite a lot of fixing and tending week by week.

Coal plants- huge variation, but 20-30 years is a good guess. High temperature combustion and high speed machinery is hard on materials. They wear out, constantly. Huge operating costs.

Solar photovoltaic - 40 years. Virtually zero maintenance (barring lightning strikes.)

Solar thermo electric - back to very high temps, high speed turbines. Engineers love it, it's shiny, and makes whizzing noises.

If we're gonna get to "sustainable", we've GOT to quit looking at "up front" costs only.

Looking at the source- they look like "regional development" folks- big on "growth". hm.

blr said...

Every time I read about greener energy sources I become so frustrated. I own and live in a condo in NYC and have NO power over my energy source. I don't know anyone here who does. We don't even have control over how much is used in terms of heating. Our building is about 97% owner occupied. The other 3% is owned by an outside landlord. Because of that 3%, our temp is set by the city in the name of tenant rights. (Which obviously are created with good intentions.) Here is the real kicker- the temp is set for the ground floor- which means those of us at the top have temps about 10 to even 15 degrees higher. We actually have our windows open on most days during the winter. It is a disgusting waste of energy. I seriously wonder what it will take to make the city shift over to greener sources. Because of the complexity and enormity of the NYC infrastructure it will be an enormous undertaking to create change of any reasonable measure.

It isn't all doom and gloom. There are new buildings going up with solar panels. Hopefully developers will see the long term savings and make it the norm for new structures. For now, the initial investment seems to deter them.

DC said...

It is important, as Greenpa mentions, to consider the ongoing operating and maintenance (O&M) costs when calculating kwh generation costs. As far as wind power goes, the cost per kwh, including the capital and O&M costs over the useful life of the turbines, and not including subsidies, that the Sierra Club quotes is between 4.1 and 6.3 cents, depending on the scale of the project. The Sierra Club is basically relying on the estimates of AWEA (the wind industry mouthpiece in the U.S.), so the numbers may be skewed a little in favor of wind power. Germany is finding that O&M costs of its older turbines are higher than anticipated, and no one really knows how much it costs to maintain a 20 year old 1 MW turbine because there are none. These uncertainties notwithstanding, Denmark is now generating 20% of its electricity with wind power, and it is planning to increase that figure to 50%. In spite of the possibility of higher than projected O&M costs, I think wind will play a prominent role in our green energy future.

Also, I did not mean to short shrift PV solar. The initial capital costs for a PV plant are high now, but I believe they will come down in time. And as Greenpa aptly points out, the ongoing O&M costs for PV solar are negligible.

Ultimately, I think that a combination of green energy sources will be used. I hope this happens sooner rather than later. Maybe things will get better in 362 days, 10 hours and 57 minutes (but who’s counting?).

CM said...

to blr:

I live in NYC, too, in a landlord-owned brownstone. We use ConEd but opted for their wind option. It was really easy to switch, so if you pay for any of your own power, you can elect to pay a little more for greener options.

My landlord also controls the temperature. The heat sometimes gets overwhelming but simply turning down (or off) the release on the radiator helps us manage the temp. I did a similar thing in my old house by closing the heating vents. I'm not sure of the heating setup in your coop but this can help.

I'm also incredibly frustrated because SO MUCH more could be done in this city to reduce energy consumption but can't dwell too much or else I'll go crazy. I'll continue to try to reduce my own impact (by composting, for example - and even folks who have no room for a compost or worm bin can drop their scraps at the Union Square Green Market) and eagerly await the time where solar panels, green roofs and proper recycling are the norm.

blr said...

Thanks CM. I will bring up the ConEd wind option at our next shareholders meeting. I'm not sure about the details- but I think the whole building would have to make the choice. We are all tied into the same electrical system with individual meters. I am def. going to do some more research on it.

We do have the valves off in the bedrooms and kitchen. They are on in the mainroom and bathroom only. They are old and only seem to have on or off options. Even so, they pump out an absurd amount of heat. If I could bag some up, I would send it to all of you freezing your buns off.

On a + NYC note, the plastic bag ban may really happen. Joy!

salmonpoetry said...

thanks for the information to stimulate our thinking on energy sources. i think this is one of the hardest green issues to grapple with- we all need energy, many of us have little control over it b/c it's so centralized (i'm lucky that i do- we have a wind/hydro option with our power company and my neighborhood was one of the first to get >90% of residences choosing that (slightly higher cost) option.
when i moved into my house i had a very old (1972) inefficient gas furnace. i looked into a more sustainable heating option, and every choice had its drawbacks. i chose a pellet stove, since wood pellets are a waste byproduct (granted of an evil industry-timber) and they burn relatively clean (cleaner than wood b/c they're so very dry). it takes electricity to run the fan but not very much at all. once you buy the stove, the pellets themselves are very reasonable, and i find that i can keep much warmer by staying close to the stove- it wasn't much of an option to sit by the furnace in the basement to keep warm.
obviously solar seems the way to go, but it's high investment up front, and the govt is going the wrong way and discontinuing the tax breaks and discounts starting next year. that said, i have a number of friends who have installed solar for hot water and electric here in Portland OR and they are all very happy with it- even in winter they sometimes sell electricity back to the supplier! the ecovillage i am part of is planning to plaster the roofs with solar panels, hopefully that will be helpful.
thanks again for your thought-provoking and informative post on this huge and often unwieldy issue.

emily said...

Sniffle. I live about one hour north of the location they've chosen in Illinois for the new "clean" coal energy plant. WAKE UP, GOVERNMENT PEOPLE! Think long-term!

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