Renewable power cheaper to build and operate than coal power

Not exactly new news, the trends have been clear but for the first time it appears that coal power is more expensive to build and operate than renewable power. In some cases, it is more expensive just to ruin an existing coal plant than build new renewable plants.

This article (from a Wyoming newspaper, in the heart of coal country) lays out the latest report from Lazard.

Michael Skelly Joins Lazard as a Senior Advisor


So you can’t actually point out flaws in the report?

“The report” hasn’t been offered here. We’ve got a newspaper article about it, but it does a fine job pointing out some of the flaws:

From the linked article.

So hiring Skelly has no influence on the past reports.

Unlikely a coincidence since this relative cost flip is part of a long term trend. As the article n the OP notes: “It’s been the case for some time that a wind farm costs less to build and operate than a new coal-fired power plant.” So it is hardly shocking that they would hire someone with expertise in that industry.

If you are implying that their new Senior adviser (hardly a big boss job) cooked the books to help his wind business, that’s rather dubious. Companies like Lazard want hard facts and solid projections to maximize profit. They aren’t going to let their <3month advisor hire fuck with that.

I read the article and it’s not clear to me if the study factored in the cost of maintaining capacity for when the wind’s not blowing or there are other problems. These costs should be charged against the renewable power.

The article notes " traditional power remains necessary for a reliable grid." I don’t immediately see why requiring some coal plants should be charged against renewable power. Energy storage I would agree should be costed against wind costs and I’d assume it is.

Ok. Here is the report.

Levelized Cost of Energy and Levelized Cost of Storage 2018

Which includes links to a pair of detailed reports (PDF):



Which doesn’t tell us if those costs have been considered.

The point is that reliable power supply has to be available 24/7. What’s the difference between keeping storage facilities available and keeping hot standby generators available? Both are alternative methods of assuring 24/7 capacity. Neither is cheap. Why do you “assume” it is? Did something in the article say or imply so?

The report sort of misses the point. Hydroelectric power is much cheaper than solar, but the answer to the question “then why don’t we just build a lot more of it” is the same. Hydroelectric works 24/7; solar and wind do not. Neither hydroelectric nor solar/wind scale up - they can only be used in a fraction of circumstances.


I “assumed” it because some kind of battery-storage would be an intrinsic part of the system, if they weren’t relying on a coal plant to cover slow wind days.

I’m reminded of the Mythbusters where they were trying to determine which uses less gas to cool the car, AC or windows down. The basic answer was at slower speeds, windows won and at higher speeds AC won. You seem to be indicating that the windows should be charged some of the cost of higher speed AC use.

They are determining the cost of different inputs to the power system. They aren’t deciding whether coal should be abandoned in favor of renewable sources. If they were doing that then I would agree the storage system costs would be very important.

That’s a totally different point, not one that they missed. And hydroelectric is certainly scalable. Not as much as a coal plant but they can definitely decide how much water goes through the turbines. Obviously, which alternative source to use is geographically dependent but in Ontario about 40% of electricity generation is hydroelectric.

Geothermal is another useful source where available. Here in New Zealand it produces nearly 20% of our electricity.

Between hydro, wind, geothermal and solar (backed up with some battery storage) NZ electricity generation could be 100 per cent renewable with existing technologies in a decade or so. Such are the benefits of a low population and favourable geology/climate I guess.

By “not scalable” I mean that we can’t just replace coal-fired plants with hydroelectric even though hydroelectric is cheaper, because that only works where there are rivers. Likewise with wind - there aren’t enough places where the wind blows strongly enough to work, most of the time. And solar - not simply that it gets dark at night, but the northern US doesn’t get enough sunshine even during the day, because of clouds and things, and you can’t economically store the energy, etc., etc. Geothermal is great, where there are geysers and volcanoes and whatnot.

The point I am making is that you can’t just replace coal with renewable, because renewable doesn’t work everywhere. It works in a few places, and transmitting the energy to other places is a major problem that can’t just be wished away.

I often have the same reaction when people say that solar is getting cheaper all the time, and therefore we can expect it to become a mainstream source. Great - get back to me when it is free. I say this not because I expect anything to be free - but to point out the fallacies involved in assuming that curves extend into the future indefinitely.


Wind farms can tie into gravity storage systems to level out demand - raise a weight when the wind is blowing, let it drop to spin a turbine when it’s not. It’s the same idea as pumping water into the lake behind a dam without the environmental cost of building dams.

In Chicago, there are two buildings in the loop that make ice all night during the summer, and pump out chilled water during the day through the tunnels under the streets. This allows developers to build buildings without floors devoted to chillers.

Plenty of ways to store energy that don’t involve batteries.

Despite that, there hasn’t been a large new coal-fired power plant in the US in 5 years. And old ones are being retired left and right. I started a thread about this not too long ago. Coal plants are often being replaced with natural gas plants, but it’s becoming more common to replace them with a combination of gas and renewables/storage.

I don’t know about the rest of the country, but around here, the one coal plant is further away from the big metro area than the wind turbines. The coal plant is in Boardman OR, 180 miles or so away from Portland. There’s many wind turbines in between Portland and Boardman. Also a couple large hydro dams on the Columbia River. So the wind and hydro power suffers less transmission loss.

A big chunk of the decline in solar prices has been the decline in prices for solar panels. They went from $80 a watt back in the late 70s, to about $5 a watt during the Bush administration to about $0.50 a watt now. They’ve declined in price 90% just in the last decade.

However, there are other costs of a solar system and those are not going down. The panels themselves may only be $0.50, but there is still another $2-3 of costs for other hardware, installation, taxes, etc.

So who knows how much solar will continue to decline, because most of the decline up until now was due to the panels themselves becoming cheaper. Back when it costs $8 per installed watt ($5 for the panel, $3 for everything else) cheaper panels was a great idea. Now that it costs $3.50 an installed watt ($0.50 for the panel, $3 for everything else) cheaper panels won’t make a difference.

Either way, there are efforts at building storage on both an industrial and residential level for renewable energy. However who knows how long until it becomes affordable and mass produced.

In an ideal world, we will be looking at solar that is $1/watt installed or less and also affordable localized energy storage by the 2030s. But who knows if we will get there.

Hydro power is great by pretty much every measure: It’s cheap, it’s large-scale, it’s reliable, it’s responsive, it’s (relatively) environmentally-friendly, and so on. But we can’t just build more because we’ve already built hydro plants nearly everywhere that they can be built. Which we’ve done, of course, because it’s so great. Right now, the only way to increase the share of power generation from hydro is to decrease the total consumption (which is, of course, a good idea to the extent that we practically can).

Realistically, when we’re talking about adding renewable power to the grid in the US, we’re talking about mostly wind, plus a bit of solar. Other technologies like geothermal might be practical in some places, but not everywhere is Iceland.

Electric power production in the US peaked in 2007. Slight decrease since then. (So The Crash may have started it, but other factors kept it going.) The decrease is more noticeable if you factor in per capita.

So there’s no real need to build a bunch of power plants, of any type, to add to the grid for the most part. (Certain growing areas excluded.) So we’re talking about replacement for the most part here. If a utility is thinking about upgrading/replacing something, the coal plants are going to be high on the list.

Note that there’s a small number of businesses and individuals adding their own solar to reduce some power costs, still relying on the grid for the rest. Walmart has been adding solar panels to the roofs of many of their stores, for example. (And if Walmart is doing it, the numbers have got to be good.)

This inroad into the already shrinking demand for power from utilities is not making them happy. So several state legislatures are putting in laws that penalize people for adding solar panels. John Oliver did a nice segment on this.

Yeah, coal is going to go away (and that’s of course an exaggeration). But natural gas is still a good investment so that’s the current winner as far as the utilities are concerned. Renewable beating coal isn’t the big story. It doesn’t take much to beat coal.

Are those coal jobs coming back? No. And the number one reason by far is automation. Reduced demand for coal is a far second. You’d have to be a Luddite to think that coal jobs are coming back.