Just One More Reason Why Fossil Fuels Suck Tailpipe — The Cost of Wind and Solar is Now Lower Than Pretty Much Everything Else

During October, in Australia, something rather strange and hopeful happened. Grid prices for electricity rose. Power customers, fed up with this, en masse decided to purchase 100 megawatts of rooftop solar in a single month.

How and why did this come to pass?

Conservative allies of fossil fuel based utilities are currently in control of the Australian federal government. And they have been working to provide captive grid-tied energy consumers for their political backers — polluting power system owners. Because these systems are more expensive than their renewable energy counterparts, the price of electricity went up.

The Australian public, who generally supports renewables and who likes to pay less for electricity, wouldn’t have any of it. They didn’t like being forced to purchase more expensive, polluting energy. So more than 15,000 of them decided to tell fossil fuel backers to go suck tailpipe and went on ahead and bought solar energy directly.

(Guess what? That green glass you see on the school in this image comes from hundreds of solar panels. Solar is versatile and increasingly inexpensive. You can put it on rooftops, building sides, car roofs, fuel station overheads, build it in traditional utility arrays, construct it on co-generating farms, or float it on reservoir surfaces. Image source: Inhabitat and EPFL.)

This choice, enabled by falling renewable energy prices, is one that people around the world will be more and more able to make as time moves forward. And it’s the case even in instances where national governments of western democracies are heavily influenced by fossil fuel special interests — as is presently the case in Australia. The primary reason is that when conservative governments support fossil fuels and nuclear over renewables, power prices to society rise.

The cost of both wind and solar energy are now less than every traditional power source even in more mature markets like the United States. In this major market, according to Lazard, the levelized price of nuclear is 14.8 cents per kWh, coal is 10.2 cents per kWh, gas is 6 cents per kWh, solar is 5 cents per kWh, and wind is 4.5 cents per kWh. That’s right. Renewables are about 1/3 the price of nuclear, half that of coal, and 10-20 percent less than gas in the U.S.

 

(The levelized cost of wind and solar energy keeps falling. This is making continued fossil fuel development an expensive and untenable prospect. Image source: Lazard.)

But in places like Australia and in the developing world, this price difference is even greater. In the developing world, there are less legacy fossil fuel power systems — which makes it a no-brainer just to go ahead and build less expensive renewables. And islands like Australia traditionally suffer from higher import costs for fossil fuels and clunky or inefficient fossil fuel energy system components.

Levelized cost is a way of measuring total life-cycle costs. It includes such costs as fuel, transmission and construction. Because renewables do not require fuel and because they are based on technologies that benefit from both advancement and economies of scale, they are able to continuously increase efficiency and reduce cost over time. Fossil fuel based power systems are mated to very inefficient combustion and to mining and extraction of fuels that grow more scarce over time. As such, the power systems they are based on tend to have difficulty reducing costsĀ  and are subject to market shocks and scarcity of feedstocks.

These simple economic facts put the political backers of fossil fuels at a disadvantage on the issue of base economics. But these direct cost related factors don’t even begin to count in the terrible external costs of fossil fuels ranging from ramping damages due to climate change and direct health impacts by adding toxic particles to the air and water. As such, fossil fuels are both economically and morally untenable. But such simple and easy to understand facts haven’t stopped republicans like Trump in the U.S. and LNP members like Turnbull in Australia from trying to ram these harmful and expensive energy sources down the throat of an increasingly outraged public.

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