Wind Power Isn’t Cheap, and It Won’t Ward Off Climate Change

Commentaries on economics and technology.
March 21 2012 5:18 PM

Wind Falls

Wind power is too costly, inefficient, and won't stop climate change.

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The cheapest backup power by far is provided by open-cycle gas plants, which imply more CO2 emissions. Thus, wind power will ultimately be both costlier and reduce emissions less than officially estimated. (This is also why simple calculations based on costs per kilowatt-hour are often grossly misleading, helping to make wind and other intermittent renewables appear to be cheaper than they are.)

This has been shown in recent reports by KPMG/Mercados and Civitas, an independent think tank. A new report by University of Edinburgh professor Gordon Hughes for the Global Warming Policy Foundation estimates that 36 GW of new wind power would cost $190 billion for just 23 megatons of CO2 reduction per year. In other words, temperature rises would be postponed by a mere 66 hours by the end of the century.

Contrary to what many think, the cost of both onshore and offshore wind power has not been coming down. On the contrary, it has been going up over the past decade. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged this in its most recent renewable-energy report. Likewise, the U.K. Energy Research Center laments that wind-power costs have “risen significantly since the mid-2000’s.”

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Like the EU, the United Kingdom has become enamored with the idea of reducing CO2 through wind technology. But most academic models show that the cheapest way to reduce CO2 by 20 percent in 2020 would be to switch from coal to cleaner natural gas. The average of the major energy models indicates that, downscaled for the United Kingdom, achieving the 20 percent target would imply a total cost of roughly $150 billion over the coming decade, and $28 billion every year after that. Of course, these figures include reductions in areas other than electricity, as well as higher energy prices’ total cost to the economy.

Nonetheless, the lesson is clear: If the goal is not just to cut CO2 emissions, but also to use renewables to do it, the models show that the cost balloons to $297 billion for this decade and $57 billion every year after 2020. In effect, insisting on wind power means using energy that is far from competitive, does not help to avert climate change, and costs an extra $145 billion for the U.K. alone.

For any country, this seems like a very poor choice.

Bjørn Lomborg is an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School and directs the Copenhagen Consensus Center. He is the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, Cool It, and most recently How Much Have Global Problems Cost the World?