Myth: Cost of solar and wind power can be directly compared to fossil fuel power
The levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) metric is commonly used to compare the electricity costs from these technologies. Such comparisons are widely used to argue that the electricity generated from solar and wind has lower cost than that from fossil fuels. As discussed below, this is scientifically incorrect.
Solar and wind technologies provide electricity on an intermittent basis, i.e., they lack the functionality to meet 24X7 electricity demand. On the other hand, fossil fuel and nuclear power plants provide 24X7 electricity. The U.S. Energy Information Administration lists solar and wind in a separate category because of this important distinction . Solar and wind are listed as resource-constrained technologies, while nuclear and fossil fuel power plants are listed as dispatchable technologies.
The intermittency challenge of solar and wind causes imbalance between electricity production and demand [2,3]. Electricity is only generated during certain hours of the day in case of solar and wind. But electricity demand exists around-the-clock, which causes an imbalance. The imbalance is addressed by lowering or increasing the output from the dispatchable power plants [4,5].
Essentially, the dispatchable power plants are forced to sacrifice their performance to accommodate solar and wind power. This forced inefficient use of the dispatchable power plants causes an overall sub-optimization of the electrical grid . This increases the overall electricity cost .
The forced curtailing (i.e., restricting) of electricity production from solar or wind is another instance of sub-optimization . For example, California was forced to curtail 1,500,000,000 kWh of electricity production from solar in 2020 because of the imbalance between production and demand . How much is 1,500,000,000 kWh? The global average consumption of electricity per person in 2020 was about 3300 kWh . Thus, in 2020, California was forced to curtail the amount of electricity that would have met the needs of over 400,000 individuals.
The share of electricity generation from solar in California was only about 15% in 2020 . Despite these low levels, California was forced to curtail about 5% of its utility-scale solar electricity production in 2020. These forced curtailments are expected to increase significantly with increasing solar deployment [12,13].
Sub-optimization of the electrical grid has a negative impact on the economics . The extent of sub-optimization increases with increasing deployment of solar and wind power in the grid . Consequently, wide-scale deployment of solar and wind is costly.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently co-published a comprehensive report on this topic . The report provides an example estimate for the cost penalty resulting from the sub-optimization caused by solar and wind. A 10% deployment of solar and wind was found to add a 5% cost penalty to the total electricity cost. Notably, a 50% deployment of solar and wind was found to penalize the total electricity cost by over 40%.
The penalty results from the extra costs related to the deficiencies of solar and wind . These additional costs arise from the variability of power output, uncertainty in power generation and increase in costs for transmission and distribution associated with solar and wind power .
The costs that are routinely reported in media do not include the cost penalties. Thus, the reported costs do not reflect the true costs for solar and wind power. Only partial costs of solar and wind power are widely reported in media. Consequently, the reported costs cannot be directly compared with dispatchable technologies.
Media is flooded with articles advertising that solar and wind power is cost competitive with fossil fuel power. Such cost comparisons are misleading unless the shortcomings and related implications are also highlighted. Unfortunately, valid cost comparisons are not discussed in media. By excluding crucial information, these media reports provide an incorrect perception about the true cost of a low-carbon transition.
Summary: Solar and wind cannot generate 24X7 electricity on a standalone basis. Therefore, their costs cannot be directly compared with technologies that can generate 24X7 electricity. The effect of intermittency must be included in a realistic cost comparison. When the intermittency deficiency is included in the cost estimate, the costs for solar and wind power increase significantly. The cost increase is directly proportional to the extent of deployment. Higher solar and wind power in the electrical grid equals higher cost penalty. Unfortunately, most publications focus only on the partial costs of solar and wind power, i.e., they exclude costs related to the intermittency deficiency of solar and wind power .
Myth: Climate research can be ignored because of past or current exaggerations.
Over the decades, media and certain scientists have greatly exaggerated the speed and magnitude of the impact from climate change. Essentially, they have been catastrophizing. For example, the renowned physicist John Holdren proposed in the 1980s that human-caused climate change could kill a billion people because of famine by the year 2020 . Such proposals have no credibility because they are purely speculative, i.e., they are not based on robust science . The global scientific community does NOT support such proposals.
The global scientific community does support the general conclusions from the climate science community . Why? Because the findings of the climate experts are based on extensive research. Thousands of climate scientists have gathered vast amounts of climate data using a suite of climate monitoring tools [4,5,6]. The scientists have used the climate data and established scientific principles to understand the climate system. These studies have been documented in over a hundred thousand scientific papers .
Many climate impacts are now understood with high to very high confidence because of these studies . For example, there is strong evidence for the rising temperatures and sea levels, receding glaciers, ocean acidification, and the increasing frequency and intensity of hot extremes. Consequently, an overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is a serious problem [9,10,11].
Significant uncertainty yet exists in understanding several other issues about climate change because of inadequate data . However, the climate impacts that are understood with high confidence are by themselves adequate to demonstrate that human-caused climate change is a serious problem.
Wild exaggerations by media or certain scientists do not change the validity of these conclusions. We will consider an analogy. The medical community has concluded that smoking tobacco is dangerous to human health based on extensive research [12,13]. Wild exaggerations by a few doctors–made in the past, present, or future–do not decrease the trustworthiness of the conclusion.
Summary: Wild speculations by certain scientists and media should not be used as an excuse to ignore critical findings from the global climate experts. The findings of the climate experts are based on extensive research. Consequently, major scientific organizations agree that human-caused climate change is a serious problem that requires urgent attention . Wild exaggerations by media or certain scientists do not change the validity of these conclusion.
References & Notes
Subsidies are financial incentives from the government. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), fossil fuels receive about 425 billion dollars per year in global subsidies [1,2].
What is the source of the several trillion-dollar subsidies claim? IMF Reports
According to a series of reports from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the costs associated with external impacts from fossil fuels should also be included as subsidies [3,4]. Consequently, health and other costs related to air pollution and climate impacts are also included as subsidies in the reports. The IMF reports estimate the cost from the external impacts to be several trillion dollars per year.
For example, the recent 2021 IMF report claimed that the global subsidies for fossil fuels were 5.9 trillion dollars in 2020 . The 2021 report is considered as the reference IMF report for this article. The claim in the report has significant credibility problems as discussed below .
Historically, the costs from external impacts such as pollution have been addressed via control policies/technologies. The cost-efficiency for such control technologies is very high. For example, U.S. EPA estimates that the cost of air pollution control technology is 30 times lower than the costs arising from air pollution . Thus, a 35-billion-dollar investment in air pollution control technology can eliminate a trillion-dollar cost. In other words, the external cost figures in the report are highly exaggerated.
The report includes road congestion, road accidents and road damage as an external impact from fossil fuels [7,8]. That is like saying the agriculture industry is responsible for the growing obesity in the global population.
To make matters worse from a credibility viewpoint, road congestion, traffic accidents and road damage represent the costliest impact from gasoline in the IMF report. So, based on the report, the largest component of the gasoline subsidy is related to its contribution to road congestion, traffic accidents and road damage.
Clearly, the costs discussed in the IMF reports are exaggerated and misleading. Most media reports do not discuss these critical facts. They only advertise that fossil fuels receive several trillion dollars of subsidies . This misinformation has been soaked up by the general population and is causing confusion about the societal costs related to the low-carbon energy transition.
References & Notes
Author, Scientist, Innovator