David R. Henderson  

Low-Carbon Alternatives: Solar and Wind Suck

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One of the blogs that I check literally every day is Timothy Taylor's "Conversable Economist." In baseball parlance, his posts are virtually always doubles, triples, or home runs. A recent home run is his "Evaluating Low-Carbon Energy Alternatives." In it, he summarizes the work of Charles R. Frank, Jr. Frank's study is "The Net Benefits of Low and No-Carbon Electricity Technologies," Working Paper 73 for Global Economy & Development at the Brookings Institution (May 2014).

Here's Frank's summary that Taylor quotes:

[A]ssuming reductions in carbon emissions are valued at $50 per metric ton and the price of natural gas is $16 per million Btu or less--nuclear, hydro, and natural gas combined cycle have far more net benefits than either wind or solar. This is the case because solar and wind facilities suffer from a very high capacity cost per megawatt, very low capacity factors and low reliability, which result in low avoided emissions and low avoided energy cost per dollar invested.

Check out the table from Frank's study that Taylor reproduces.

Taylor concludes:

Thus, when you adjust for the ability of the power plant to produce the same amount of electricity, the benefits of fewer carbon emissions, less need for fuel, and benefits from replacing capacity look much lower for solar and wind. Notice that this conclusion holds true even though the carbon emissions and costs of new energy from the solar and wind facilities are estimated as zero.

I wish I had known of Frank's study when I taught my Energy Economics class that ended two weeks ago.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Otto Maddox writes:

This has been known for 20+ years

David R. Henderson writes:

@Otto Maddox,
Your statement is a beautiful illustration of the problem with the passive voice. Known by whom?

Todd Kreider writes:

I think economists like Taylor and Henderson (and recently Bryan and Yorum) should get out of
the whole energy econ business.

Not one of them has had any science training at all past high school, yet they pontificate until the cows come home. Taylor's recent post is a perfect example.

Carles Frank Jr. is cited by Taylor, who is cited by Henderson, but who is he?

Another economist! Who happens to be in his 70s.

No forward looking at all with respect to energy sources.

Can you econ dudes please leave this stuff to the professionals? The physicists...


David R. Henderson writes:

@Todd Kreider,
I’m not sure who you think is in his 70s. Nice little bit of ageism there, though. Well played.
BTW, I was a physics minor and yes, that was after high school.

Tim Fitzgerald writes:

Todd Kreider,

Did you know that Aristotle highlighted the ad hominem as a lame argument more than 2000 years ago. No word on whether or not he was old when he wrote that.

TMC writes:

Todd, why would physicists be better at analyzing the economics of energy than actual economists? If we look at climate science in general we see the physicists gather data, but professional modelers complain how bad their models are and statisticians are horrified at their statistical attempts. How about everyone work along with what their specialties are?

Todd Kreider writes:

Nah, not ageism, just that he seems to be from a generation who looks at energy issues in an outdated way. So, maybe a bit of generationalism. My apologies for that, though. Why not economists? Coming...

Todd Kreider writes:

Maybe I've just has an extra high dose of economists commenting on energy and climate "models" in the past few weeks and getting some basics wrong.

With respect to David Henderson writing that "solar and wind suck", based on Tim Taylor summarizing Charles Frank's report which included:

Reductions in the price of solar photovoltaic panels have reduced costs for utility-scale solar plants, but photovoltaic panels account for only a fraction of the cost of a solar plant. Thus such price reductions are unlikely to make solar power competitive with other electricity technologies without government subsidies.

But physicists and chemists are close to significantly changing solar and wind via a new generation of cheap and scalable batteries (one example is a liquid-metal battery out of MIT/Boston) where electricity would be stored at night and on cloudy days. Other new designs will also compete to bring costs down and soon make Frank's report outdated.

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