Wind Power Costs Could See Another 50% Reduction by 2030
By John Hensley
Fresh off the first-ever American Wind Week, the Department of Energy (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) released a new report finding wind energy cost reductions of 50 percent are possible by 2030. That's on top of the 66 percent cost reduction since 2009.
Envisioning the wind plant of the near-future—a "collection of intelligent and innovative machines operating in a highly coordinated way"—NREL expects advancements in wind turbine design, materials and controls to unlock major performance improvements and cost reductions.
Advanced turbines will produce significantly more electricity, allowing wind to provide the lowest-cost form of electricity in many states and regions, without any policy incentives. NREL's findings demonstrate how the federal wind Production Tax Credit (PTC) is successfully driving economies of scale and efficiency improvements, and address concerns that wind power deployment will drop as the PTC phases down.
Wind Cost Projections
Prior to NREL's report, the most recent evidence foreshadowing further wind power cost reduction came from a 2016 study funded by the DOE. Surveying experts around the world, that study found anticipated cost reductions ranged from 24 to 30 percent by 2030. Under more aggressive circumstances, experts predicted cost reductions as high as 40 percent as research and development programs and technology learning lead to additional efficiencies, as shown below.
Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory
Building on these projections, NREL predicts a "SMART" wind plant of the future will be able to achieve even further cost reductions—up to 50 percent by 2030. The wind turbine of the future will be much larger, sit atop a taller tower, use next generation blades, and incorporate intelligent controls and remote monitors. Towers reaching 135 meters will access more consistent wind resources, while next-generation blades stretching more than 70 meters will help the wind turbine capture more of that resource as efficiently as possible. This will enable capacity factors more than 50 percent, all while the installed cost per kilowatt falls and plant life expectancy grows.
On an unsubsidized basis, these improvements and cost reductions will drive the levelized cost of wind energy from roughly $55/megawatt hour (MWh) in 2015 to $31/MWh in 2030.
Capital Stack Shifts to Enable Further Cost Reductions
Improvements in wind project financing structures will enable further cost reductions. Shifting away from equity to debt and using innovative financing mechanisms like yieldcos will reduce financing costs and the bottom-line cost of wind energy.
Recognizing this eventual shift to higher debt-to-equity rations, NREL estimates that the cheaper capital stack will unlock a further $8/MWh reduction in wind energy costs (falling from $31/MWh to $23/MWh on an unsubsidized basis) by 2030, as indicated below.
Comparison to Other Findings
A number of presentations and market analyses this year confirm that the cost reductions NREL projects are achievable—and, in a few cases, too conservative.
Let's begin with the Goldman Sachs Group Inc. In a recent report, the investment bank concludes that "the U.S. power sector already appears in the early stages of a technological mix revolution given a combination of political, technological and now social tailwinds driving improved economics and demand for renewables." Goldman predicts new wind and solar capacity of more than 200 gigawatts (GW) by 2030, primarily driven by economics.
Confirming the economic tailwinds for wind energy, Pattern Energy CEO Mike Garland forecasts wind energy prices will settle between $30-$40/MWh as the PTC phases out and into the long term. The company is already seeing significant improvements in energy production and cost for wind projects the company is bidding for delivery post-2020.
Most tellingly, NextEra Energy Resources anticipates even more aggressive wind cost reductions. The largest owner of wind power capacity in the U.S. expects wind power to be the lowest cost energy resource in the post-2020 period on an unsubsidized basis, ranging from $20-$30/MWh.
This aggressive cost trajectory is consistent with the industry's history of beating even the most aggressive cost projections. In 2008, DOE predicted (page 148, converted to 2016 dollars) that the U.S. wind industry could reduce wind costs to $1,850/kW by 2030. By 2016, the industry had already beaten that projection and driven costs down to $1,587/kW. That 2008 DOE study also estimated that the best wind sites could reach capacity factors of 36 percent by 2015 and 38 percent by 2030. Wind projects installed in 2014 and 2015 have an average capacity factor of 42.6 percent, beating DOE's 2030 target by a wide margin 15 years early.
Progress towards the wind power plant of the future is predicted to unlock substantial additional cost reductions. In 2030, NREL expects unsubsidized LCOEs to range from $19/MWh to $32/MWh, with the central expectation at $23/MWh. At these cost levels, wind energy will be competitive with all other energy sources across much of the U.S., providing a win-win for consumers and public health.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.