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 Myhrvold: Subsidies Stymie Wind, Solar Innovation

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Join date : 2011-11-14

Myhrvold: Subsidies Stymie Wind, Solar Innovation Empty
PostSubject: Myhrvold: Subsidies Stymie Wind, Solar Innovation   Myhrvold: Subsidies Stymie Wind, Solar Innovation Icon_minitimeMon Nov 28, 2011 12:20 am

This month, the U.S. Department of Commerce launched a formal investigation into complaints, lodged by the U.S. solar-cell manufacturers, that the government of China is funneling loan guarantees, grants and subsidies to its solar-cell companies.

Apparently, the Commerce Department is shocked, shocked to learn that a government would subsidize the solar industry.

A few days later, the New York Times described a “gold rush” under way in the U.S. as builders of wind and solar farms cash in on grants and loan guarantees offered by both the federal government and various states. These incentives effectively allow players at every level of the renewable-energy industry to lock in profits of 10 percent to 30 percent a year for the 20- to 30-year life of their plants -- not bad considering 10-year Treasury bonds are paying only 2 percent.

Both of these developments are symptoms of a larger problem with the world’s current approach to renewable energy. The range of prospects being tried now is dizzying -- from high-tech windmills to biofuels, from corn to algae, from silicon photovoltaic cells to boilers heated by thousands of reflected sunbeams. But they all share one thing that makes them appealing to investors: taxpayer dollars. One of the ugly secrets of the renewable-energy industry is that its products make no economic sense unless they are highly subsidized.
‘Levelized’ Energy Cost

To get a sense of just how deep these subsidies run, I looked up projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration of the “levelized cost” of energy from various power sources. Let’s say you decide to build a new electricity plant that will come online five years from now. Before getting a loan, you’ll want to estimate how much money you will have to lay out for construction, operations and maintenance, fuel, interest payments, insurance and so forth over the 30-year lifetime of your plant. Divide that total investment by the amount of electricity the plant is likely to sell, and you get a break-even price per kilowatt-hour. That’s the levelized energy cost.

In its most recent projections, the EIA gave renewables every benefit of the doubt. Its projections assumed, with remarkable optimism, that regulators will impose what amounts to a carbon tax of $15 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted by power plants. And they ignored the costs imposed on the larger electrical system by the highly variable output from solar and wind farms, which thus require backup energy from gas, coal or nuclear plants. Even so, the EIA numbers show that renewable energy of every kind is still far from being economically viable.

At 6.3 cents a kilowatt-hour, the levelized cost of natural-gas generation comes out the lowest, mostly thanks to the surge in cheap gas recently unlocked by hydraulic fracturing. Coal is the next cheapest source, at 9.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Among renewable-energy sources, wind turbines on land are the most viable, with a levelized cost per kilowatt-hour averaging 9.7 cents, but ranging (under the EIA’s optimistic assumptions) from 8.2 cents at the very windiest sites to 11.5 cents where conditions are less favorable. So wind power should command a 54 percent premium to electricity from natural gas -- and that price difference widens to 73 percent if the putative carbon tax fails to materialize (see table).

Watts from offshore wind turbines are 290 percent higher in price than those made from natural gas; solar photovoltaic is 230 percent more expensive; and the cost premium for solar thermal soars to almost 400 percent. Clearly, outside of exceptional circumstances, only enormous subsidies from taxpayers can keep these technologies competitive.
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