Wind energy is now cheaper than coal

Energy experts from the US’s Stanford University have calculated that when health and environmental costs are taken into consideration, wind power is more economically viable than coal.

Last year wind power only contributed 0.1% of the US’s electricity supply, a situation that is partly brought about by the belief that wind farms are more expensive to build and operate than traditional coal-fired power plants, say Professor Mark Z Jacobson and Professor Gilbert M Masters in this weeks edition of the journal Science. However, when factors such as the 2,000 US mineworkers that die annually from coal dust related problems, costing taxpayers approximately US$35 billion since 1973, are taken into consideration, this belief is misplaced, they say.

“Much of the recent US energy debate has focused on increasing coal use,” note Jacobson and Masters. “Since the 1980s, though, the direct cost of energy from large wind turbines has dropped to three to four cents per kilowatt-hour, comparable with that from new pulverised-coal power plants. Given that health and environmental costs of coal are another 2-4.3 cents per kilowatt-hour, wind energy is unequivocally less expensive than is coal energy.”

A typical 1,500 kilowatt turbine costs around US$1.5 million to install and roughly $18,000 to $30,000 a year to maintain, say the researchers. “The US could displace 10% of coal energy at no net federal cost by spending three to four percent of one year’s budget on 36,000 to 40,000 large wind turbines and selling the electricity over 20 years, recouping the costs,” they say.

The authors point out that shifting from coal to wind would address health, environmental and energy problems. “If you want to solve this country’s energy problem, the US needs to consider some type of large-scale programme,” said Jacobson. “The federal government could either go into the energy business for itself, or it could foster wind energy through tax incentives that would catalyse private-sector investment.”

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